On Feb. 29, Black voters in South Carolina rewrote the terms of the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. In the earlier contests on the schedule, voters had appeared to be excited about the possibility of real change, going back and forth between the promised revolution of Bernie Sanders and the youthful, media-savvy Pete Buttigieg. But South Carolina voted overwhelmingly for the most familiar, establishment-certified figure on the ballot, former Vice President Joe Biden, and soon after, he was in control of the race.
Now, with a healthy popular-vote lead and razor-thin margins in key states, Biden appears to be in a position to win the general election over Donald Trump. The narrowness of the finish—in places including Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Arizona—has laid bare a truth about American politics that is omnipresent to Black voters but often overlooked by the general population: You can’t take the risk of relying on the hearts and minds of white voters.*
This was what South Carolina voters were prepared for. It was imperative to choose a Democratic nominee trusted not only by Black voters, but by enough white voters to have a chance to beat out Donald Trump in some of the states he’d won in 2016. The choice was between four more years of an administration engaged in the calculated dismantling of civil rights or a candidate who, at bare minimum, might not make things worse.
So in the primary they threw their weight behind Biden, and all but insured he won the nomination. It was a key show of power by a bloc that more often than not sets the terms of the Democratic race, but doesn’t have enough sway to prevent the state’s electoral votes from going to the Republicans in November. And the returns suggest that their bet paid off.
Pragmatism is often the ruling factor for South Carolina’s Black voters—as it is for Black voters nationwide, who simply do not have the luxury of taking a chance on the country’s better nature coming through. At times, during this cycle, this maxim of American politics boiled down to Black voters “just want to beat Trump.”
While that’s true, the choice is ultimately about policy. Many Black voters root their political choices in harm reduction and opt for the candidate whose policies will cause the least damage to Black communities—a reality more visceral following the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby v. Holder. In 2016, Black voters feared the havoc that would be wreaked by a Trump presidency and, in turn, threw their weight behind Hillary Clinton due to skepticism about whether the general public would get behind the vision presented by Sen. Bernie Sanders. This cycle, Black voters voiced their support for other candidates but felt as though Biden was the safe choice, the one who could beat Trump.
If this sounds unfair, that a demographic—not a monolith, but joined in self-preservation—must make such decisions, it’s because it is. In a more fully realized democratic system, Black voters, who have long been the vanguard and protectors of the democracy we have, wouldn’t be forced to choose whichever candidate is most likely to win against a party bent on maintaining a white majority. Black voters deserve a political reality where they can cast ballots for the candidates they actually want to see in office.
Correction, Nov. 4, 2020: This post originally misspelled Arizona.