Racial inequality in the United States came into sharp focus this year, and became a defining topic of the national debate, after police killings of Black Americans ignited months of widespread protests and galvanised the nation to demand racial justice and police reforms.
The unrest has forced US President Donald Trump, a Republican who is running for re-election on a “law and order” platform, and his main challenger, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, to wrestle with the complicated issue of race in America, and try to appeal to Black voters.
But with less than two months before the election, in the middle of a pandemic and record-high unemployment rates, whether Black Americans will be energised to come out in large numbers to vote remains uncertain – potentially defining the outcome of the 2020 election.
A recent poll shows Biden by far outperforming Trump among Black voters, with 78 percent support.
“Most Black voters are going to support Joe Biden,” said Ravi Perry, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard University, a historically Black university.
“But there are differences in enthusiasm,” Perry tells Al Jazeera, “where Black women, for instance, have far more enthusiasm towards Biden, and many young people, support him but with far less enthusiasm.”
President Donald Trump touring an area damaged during demonstrations after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin [AP Photo/Evan Vucci]
Earlier this month, both candidates visited Kenosha, Wisconsin, a battleground state, and the site of the most recent turmoil following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who remains hospitalised after being shot in the back seven times by a white police officer while authorities were trying to arrest him in late August.
Speaking at a local church in Kenosha after a private meeting with Blake and his family, Biden said the latest events would help Americans confront centuries of systemic racism.
In contrast, Trump did not mention Blake by name, refused to acknowledge systemic racism and instead blasted the protesters and offered his unequivocal support to law enforcement.
‘Leaning into it’
Data shows that Black voters have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s, when the party passed civil rights legislation that outlawed racial segregation and prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
But Black turnout, which rose in the 2008 and 2012 elections when the US elected and then re-elected the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, waned in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic presidential nominee.
More profoundly, there is a growing level of cynicism among Black voters, pollsters have argued, particularly among young and male voters, and point to 2016 – when Clinton lost to Trump amid a six percentage points decline among Black voters – which proved critical in battleground states.
Trump’s campaign this year has been trying to appeal to Black voters, particularly Black male voters and improve on his 2016 results, when 8 percent of Black people voted for him.
US Senator Tim Scott speaking to the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention in a live address from the Mellon Auditorium in Washington, DC, US [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]
According to a recent poll, 13 percent of Black voters said they plan to vote for Trump this election.
Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury said, according to recent data he compiled, about half of Black voters believe the Democratic Party takes Black voters for granted and may choose to stay home or vote for Trump.
“What we saw at the Republican National Convention was a very overt attempt to speak directly to the issues that are most important to Black men: criminal justice reform and unemployment,” Woodbury said.
On the first night of the convention in August, the only Black Republican US senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, relayed his personal success story, “Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” he said. And Trump gave a full pardon to Jon Ponder, a Black convicted felon turned criminal justice activist.
Several other Black speakers took the stage during the four-day event, including NFL players and a civil rights activist, and some touted Biden’s gaffe when he said that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
“The course of this election year will show that Black men are not a marginal part of his (Trump’s) strategy, but a path to victory,” Woodbury told Al Jazeera, “and he’s leaning into it.”
Protesters in New York City holding a ‘defund the police’ sign during a protest [AP Photo/Ragan Clark]
And yet for many, voting Trump out of office, is a motivation on its own.
Trump promoted the “birther movement”, alleging that Obama was not born in the US. He refused to condemn white supremacists and more recently, he allegedly called Black people “too stupid” to vote for him, according to his estranged former lawyer Michael Cohen.
James Lance Taylor, a professor at the University of San Francisco, said many Black people will vote for Biden for no other reason than “to deal with the emergency of removing Donald Trump from office”.
‘Defund the police’
Many of the demonstrators who took to the streets after the police killing of George Floyd in May were making calls to “defund the police,” which would divert funds away from police departments and prisons in favour of investments in social services and re-examine what offences require a militarised response.
Biden has said, “I don’t support defunding the police.” Instead, he has proposed a $300m investment in policing, contingent on officers mirroring the diversity of their communities.
According to a Gallup survey taken in July, 70 percent of Black Americans support or strongly support reducing police department budgets. But despite its popularity among Black Americans, strategists said if Biden backed the idea, he would run the risk of losing the support of moderate older white voters, a key demographic.
“Defund the police may sound pretty good on Twitter, but to an awful lot of voters, including African Americans, it doesn’t make much sense,” Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist told Al Jazeera.
“They want better policing, they want smarter policing, they don’t want the police defunded,” Manley said.
Democratic US vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris delivering a campaign speech in Washington, US [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]
Instead of embracing “defund the police,” Biden nodded to Black voters by choosing Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first Black woman to be nominated on a major party’s ticket.
“Black folks noticed and were excited by it,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund.
“There is a segment of our community that thinks Kamala Harris’ record as district attorney and attorney general is shaky,” he said in reference to her years as a prosecutor when she embraced a “top cop” label. “But the overall feeling is definitely that is a step in the right direction, a sense that he recognises us.”
‘Now we know better’
The coronavirus pandemic, a disease which has killed more than 192,000 Americans and disproportionately affected Black communities, has added an additional layer of uncertainty regarding how many and who will be able to cast their vote in November.
Most states said they will expand their mail-in voting systems amid health concerns about crowds and long lines. It remains unclear how turnout will be affected.
But for most, Albright says, the desire to see Trump out of office, casts an urgency on the importance of voting this year that will outweigh all other considerations.
“Even among people who are not enthusiastic about Biden, people are more clear, now we know better,” he said, “We see what a Trump presidency looks like and how it is impacting our lives and our health.”