Democrats need Black voters to show up this fall. Will they?

To mark the second anniversary of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, President Biden last week signed an executive order reforming federal policing practices while Floyd’s relatives, reform advocates and civil rights activists looked on.

A string orchestra’s slow rendition of “Hail to the Chief” lent a mournful atmosphere to the White House ceremony and served as a dirge for hopes for broader police reform called for by campaigners who failed to implement Biden and Congress.

“The work of our time — healing the soul of this nation — is ongoing and unfinished,” Biden told the crowd, noting the frustratingly slow nature of progress. “That is a beginning.”

But slow, incremental progress may not be enough to convince black voters that Biden has delivered on his campaign promises to reform the police force, pass voting rights laws and reduce racial inequalities.

If anything, the executive order and other recent actions have highlighted the limitations Biden faces when it comes to pushing ahead with more ambitious reforms. And his centrist positioning on the issue — added to the failure of a nominally Democrat-controlled Congress to push legislation to reform police practices or protect voting rights — risks alienating the crucial voting bloc his party needs to end the election disaster ward off in November.

For example, its executive order does not apply to the thousands of local police departments that interact most with the public. As Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged during the signing ceremony, the order “was not a substitute for legislation, nor does it fulfill all that we know needs to be done.”

The president was flanked at the ceremony not only by civil rights activists, but also by law enforcement officials who had helped draft the order and watered down its standards for the use of force. The signing also comes just two months after Biden’s overwhelming call to “fund the police” during his State of the Union address in March, a rebuke to calls by liberal activists to “defund the police,” a mantra party strategists say that it cost the Democrats during the 2020 election speech.

Black leaders are not hiding their frustration at Biden’s messages on the issue, nor at his administration’s failure to get a police reform bill through Congress.

“You have to be careful with this criminal stuff,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a progressive organization working in six swing states this year to activate black voters. “Black voters are very concerned about crime, about gun violence. But no one we speak to says the answer is we need to increase police budgets.”

Ben Jealous, the former NAACP leader, called Biden’s police order “too coy” and argued that he will “minimise the limits on the use of force… [and] to address systemic racism” and accuse him of “bowing to the wishes of an established police union body”.

The lack of progress on police reform is just one element of a broader political agenda Biden has promised to advance on behalf of African Americans, his party’s core constituency. White House officials say he has kept many of those promises.

He has taken historic steps to diversify government. Harris is the country’s first black woman to serve as vice president, and Biden recently tapped a black woman as White House press secretary. The president managed to secure Senate confirmation in April for the first black woman, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, to serve on the Supreme Court for life.

He has delivered impassioned speeches about the importance of voting rights and America’s often-overlooked history of racial violence. He signed a federal ban on lynching and issued numerous executive orders — granting low-level clemency to dozens of drug offenders, directing more funds to historically black colleges and universities, and reducing gun-related crimes. After the massacre of 10 black people in Buffalo earlier this month, he gave a speech in that city denouncing the dangers of white supremacy, saying it’s “a poison running through our body politics.”

The president is also considering canceling student loans, a move that would be hailed by civil rights activists who argue such loans disproportionately affect black women and black families. Student loan forgiveness is seen as “an issue of racial justice, gender justice and economic justice,” particularly by younger generations of black voters, said Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit that aims to promote civic engagement and focuses to increase black voter turnout.

White House officials pointed to a new government report that showed the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan passed in March 2021 “has spurred the fairest recovery in living memory.” They found that after the law passed, black unemployment declined at its fastest rate since 1983, and annual incomes of black households have increased by about 7.5% over the past two years. A child tax credit included in the Act, known as the American Rescue Plan, resulted in the lowest child poverty rate on record.

Cedric Richmond, a former senior Biden adviser who recently moved to the Democratic National Committee, said the administration “deliberately kept equity in mind” when distributing the relief plan’s funds and made sure money went to underserved communities.

However, Richmond acknowledged that the administration has suffered major setbacks in Congress, where Republicans have monolithically opposed the President’s agenda and Democrats control an evenly divided Senate only thanks to Harris’ landmark vote. That means Democrats can’t afford to lose a single senator if they hope to get legislation passed.

Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks at a lectern flanked by President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

President Biden announced Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his choice for the Supreme Court in February. It was confirmed by the Senate in April.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The child tax credit, for example, expired in January after Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) torpedoed Biden’s larger social spending bill, which included an extension. The reluctance of Manchin and another Democrat, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, have denied their party leaders the 50 votes needed to pass legislation as part of the budget voting process or by changing filibuster rules that require 60 votes to pass to end the ground debate and move forward with a bill.

While House Democrats passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last year, it stalled in the Senate. After Biden delivered a fiery speech about voting rights, Senate Democrats held a quixotic vote in January to change the filibuster to push a voting rights protection package they knew would fail without Manchin’s support, with intent on at least signaling their determination to fight hard on the issue for voters most likely frustrated by the lack of progress.

“Voting rights are a top 2 or 3 issue for black voters,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on President Obama’s campaigns.

Belcher said Democrats would be smart to change the narrative, stressing, “House Democrats heard you and passed the legislation you wanted. It was the Republicans who refused to give him a voice.”

“The key to this election is putting Republicans on the defensive for sabotaging a popular agenda,” Belcher continued. “We’re going to talk about what we did, but this election has to be about the Republicans for the Democrats to have a chance. If this is all about Joe Biden, the Democrats will get their asses.”

Richmond, the former White House aide, said Democrats are working hard to “let people know that we could do this by 50 [Senate] Voices. And if we had 52 votes in the Senate, we could do a lot more.”

Faced with strong headwinds and historical precedent — the incumbent’s party typically loses seats in a government’s first midterm elections — Democrats have increased investment in key states, with a strong focus on black voters.

In Georgia, for example, the DNC plans to spend three times as much this year as the party did in 2018, investing in full-time staff across the state, paid media, and voter organizing and outreach. Black voters, who make up a growing and sizable portion of Georgia’s electorate, played a key role in ensuring Democrats took the state’s two Senate seats in the 2020 election.

With the passage of a law by the GOP-controlled state legislature last year that made voting by mail difficult to access, and limited mailboxes and mobile voting centers, grassroots organizations are working hard to register and educate voters in hopes of guiding them to the polls bring.

“Georgians know the power of their voice,” said Ufot of the New Georgia Project. “People are getting ready to fight.”

Black voters aren’t just concerned with suffrage and police reform. According to BlackPAC’s Shropshire, they also share the frustration of the broader constituency at the ongoing pandemic, rising consumer costs and the general chaos and fear permeating American life.

“People are aware that just because Trump lost, the country doesn’t get back on track,” she said. “It will be difficult to keep people involved. We fight our way through waves of challenges. People are still burying their loved ones from COVID.

“Did we have people say to our organizers, ‘I didn’t pay that much for gas before Joe Biden was president’? Yes,” she said. “But when we talk to people, they also really understand why they have to continue to participate. And every day something seems to happen to remind them of the missions.” Democrats need Black voters to show up this fall. Will they?

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