Sen. Elizabeth Warren is running close with Joe Biden among white voters, according to national polls. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, (and sometimes Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders) leads the former vice president in recent surveys of overwhelmingly white Iowa. But Biden still leads in national polls, largely because he has a substantial lead among African Americans.That support is keeping him at the top of the polls and is crucial to his path to the Democratic presidential nomination.
However, an important portion of the black community is very much not behind Biden: the black left. The question is how much that will matter electorally. There are important characteristics of the black left — the way it is structured and the way it exercises political power — that could make it difficult for its members to stop Biden from winning the nomination. And the black left may not try that hard to stop him anyway.
There is no official “black left.” What I’m describing here is a bloc of people who have gained power and prominence since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that turned Black Lives Matter into one of the most important civil rights movements of the past decade. This bloc is distinct from what I would describe as the black establishment, which includes powerful black institutions and people: longtime civil rights activists and ministers like Jesse Jackson Sr. and Al Sharpton; veteran members of the Congressional Black Caucus; groups like the National Urban League and the NAACP; and President Obama and his close allies.1
The black left includes:
- The activists and groups who either were involved in protesting the 2012 killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, went to Ferguson two years later or subsequently organized in opposition to police practices that they felt were discriminatory against black people.
- Black leaders of prominent liberal groups, such as Maurice Mitchell of the Working Families Party.
- Left-leaning black academics and intellectuals who have big followings, such as authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay and regular MSNBC contributor and Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude.
- New generation civil rights organizations such as Color of Change and Dream Defenders.
- More liberal black elected officials, such as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
Not everyone in the black left actively opposes Biden. (Nor does all of the black establishment support him.) But opposition is fairly widespread. For instance, Leslie Mac, the digital organizer for a group of progressive black women and gender non-conforming individuals called Black Womxn For, told me that in an informal survey the group conducted of about 500 people in their activists’ circles, not a single person favored Biden. (Black Womxn For has endorsed Warren.)
The beef the black left has with Biden isn’t much different from the concerns that white liberal activists have about the former vice president: Namely, that he’s too centrist and establishment.
“Joe Biden shouldn’t be president,” Coates said in an interview on “Democracy Now!” back in July, noting that Biden “wanted more people sentenced to the death penalty, wanted more jails,” in earlier stages of his career.
What’s different for the black left — as opposed to the white left — is that its views are very deeply in tension with the broader black Democratic electorate, at least so far. Forty-three percent of black voters favor Biden, according to polling from The Economist/YouGov. That’s roughly 30 points more than anyone else. We don’t have a lot of polls breaking down black voters into smaller subgroups, but Morning Consult polling suggests Biden is leading even among blacks with college degrees.
Another candidate, like Warren, might catch up among black voters — or Biden might fall back. But no matter what happens, it’s worth asking why opposition to Biden on the black left hasn’t had more of an effect among rank-and-file black voters. And there are a couple of reasonable answers.
First, the black left has an unorthodox structure that might limit its electoral influence. The national office of Black Lives Matter can’t throw its weight behind Warren, Sanders or anyone else — there is no Black Lives Matter, at least in the sense of a formal organization with a board, a president and a physical headquarters. Instead, there is an informal Black Lives Matter Global Network, which has at least 15 U.S. Black Lives Matter chapters in cities around the country, plus one in Toronto. Key figures associated with the creation of the phrase Black Lives Matter and the Ferguson protests work at an array of different progressive organizations that focus on racial issues, rather than one single place. There is also a coalition of dozens of civil rights organizations, such as Dream Defenders, called The Movement for Black Lives.
More than five years after the protests in Ferguson, there is an active debate about whether this decentralized structure is the best approach to challenging policing practices and broader racial inequality in America. (It’s not totally clear if this structure was the intention of the activists, if it happened organically or if it’s something in between.)
This loose organizational structure is also largely untested in electoral politics. In 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement was in its infancy. During the Democratic primary, the activists criticized both Hillary Clinton and Sanders. The two candidates and their campaigns tried to appease the activists while also seeming a bit confused about what exactly Black Lives Matter was and who was leading it. Clinton overwhelmingly won the black vote, but she wasn’t as strongly opposed by the black left as Biden is now.
The black left has played a big role in helping to elect reform-minded local prosecutors in the years since the Ferguson protests, so I don’t want to suggest that it has no electoral power. And in theory, the black left is well-represented in spaces where some black voters are (social media, for example). Being the candidate backed by black figures with large Twitter followings should be helpful to a candidate.
“The church doesn’t have the power and influence it used to,” Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a San Francisco-based group created in 2018 that is focused on motivating liberal women of color, told me. (Allison’s group has not endorsed a candidate but Allison herself expressed wariness about Biden during my interview with her). “There are new and powerful people and networks that are being activated,” she added.
Maybe. But if I were a candidate running for president in 2020, I might prefer the tried-and-true networks that Biden is relying on, which are similar to those that helped Clinton win the black vote by more than 50 percentage points in 2016. If you are a Democratic presidential candidate aiming to win older black voters, in particular, there are clear, long-standing institutions to tap into (black churches) and political figures to court (Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina). Why is Biden currently leading with black voters? That’s a complicated question with a complicated answer (here are 2,000 words on the topic), but I think one factor is that he has spent decades in these black establishment spaces.
Beyond its structure, the black left might also struggle to wield electoral influence for a second reason: It’s not unified behind a single Democratic candidate, in part because it is somewhat wary of politicians in general.
Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris and former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro have all courted organizations on the black left, including making personal appeals (such as by appearing on their podcasts and at events they sponsor) but also by adopting some of their language and positions (for example, embracing the idea that reparations for black Americans should be studied). Biden hasn’t done as much of this — and it’s unlikely that his positions and rhetoric would have appealed to the black left anyway.
But the approach to Biden’s candidacy has varied widely among various individuals and organizations within the black left. Some have endorsed other candidates (Gay, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and the Working Families Party are with Warren; Ellison and Omar with Sanders; the progressive black women’s group Higher Heights for America with Harris).
The decision by Working Families, a major force in liberal politics that backed Sanders in 2016, to endorse Warren angered Sanders’s supporters. But in explaining that move, Mitchell emphasized that taking a more cautious posture in this primary wasn’t smart.
“You don’t defeat the moderate wing of Democrats through thought pieces or pithy tweets, you defeat their politics through organizing,” Mitchell told The New York Times.
But others in the black left haven’t gone that far. Some influential black liberal voices, such as Coates, are more commentators and writers than political figures — they give their opinions but aren’t in roles that would necessarily put them in position to organize people for or against a candidate. Another bloc of black left figures told me that they and others in the movement like several of the candidates (usually some combination of Castro, Harris, Sanders and Warren) and are now waiting for the field to narrow.
On criminal justice and policing issues, “Julián Castro has been the most outspoken of any of the candidates,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a co-founder of Campaign Zero, a policy-focused group that seeks to reduce the number of civilians killed by police. When I pressed him to choose among the candidates at the top of the polls, Sinyangwe praised Warren, but emphasized, “It’s early.”
Still another bloc says the field overall is flawed, and it’s not worth singling out Biden as worse than the more liberal candidates. For example, at a recent conference, the leaders of the group ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) said they will not endorse a Democratic candidate, arguing that none of the party’s leading contenders are sufficiently committed to pushing for reparations. That posture echoes early statements from some Black Lives Matter activists, many of whom were wary of the more cautious racial stands of basically all politicians, including Democrats and then-President Barack Obama. That’s both because the black left thinks the party is too centrist but also because it is in some ways an anti-establishment, anti-party movement. In its endorsement of Warren, Black Womxn For basically criticized the entire Democratic Party, writing, “the two-party system, elites within the Democratic establishment, and even the primary process itself continue to fall short of what is required to fully engage and honor the power” of black female voters.
“People were like, ‘you’ve sold out,’” said Chanelle Helm, a leader of the Black Lives Matter group in Louisville, Kentucky, describing the reaction after Helm and other black female activists attended a private meeting with Warren earlier this year. Helm is supporting the Massachusetts senator, who she said “speaks for the mamas in the margins.”
A kind of anti-politicians posture has the potential to result in a divided or disengaged black left, which could help Biden. In fact, in some ways that posture has probably already helped him. The surveys of the Democratic race are essentially an early contest of their own, as this year’s polls determine who makes the debate stage and who receives the accompanying money and attention. Candidates with low poll numbers drop out (Kirsten Gillibrand) or struggle to raise money (Booker, Castro). Biden has held a huge lead among older black voters throughout 2019, while a bunch of candidates, including Biden, are splitting the younger vote. The Democratic race would look worse for Biden if the younger black vote was more consolidated.
I don’t know where black voters will land overall, nor do I know what role the black left will ultimately play in 2020 primary. But what’s clear is that many in the black left don’t want Biden to be the Democratic nominee, and yet may not mobilize to stop him or may not be organized enough to stop him, even if they wanted to.
At the same time, a Biden primary win would not be catastrophic for their movement, these activists say. They note that the former Delaware senator has embraced many of the black left’s ideas for changing the criminal justice system, such as abolishing the death penalty.
“In many cases, he is fighting the policies he enacted,” said Sinyangwe. “I don’t think it’s an indictment of the movement if Biden wins. It isn’t dependent on a single candidate winning.”