Black voters, particularly those in South Carolina and a handful of other southern states on Super Tuesday, led — and the Democratic establishment followed. That’s why former Vice President Joe Biden is on the verge of becoming the Democratic front-runner. And while there are numerous reasons why voters do what they do, what was true at the beginning of the primary process remains true today — that the top priority is defeating President Donald Trump in November, and Biden is still considered the best positioned to make that happen.
As exit polling data from South Carolina and beyond have shown, black voters want some form of improved health care, too. Many black voters are intrigued by the calls of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to level the economic playing field, which is why he saw traction among black voters in recent national polls. Many would give Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren high marks for what she has done on that score, including the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that became a key part of President Barack Obama’s efforts to reform Wall Street. (Full disclosure: I voted for Warren in my home state South Carolina.) Even Andrew Yang’s $1,000 a month gambit and Marianne Williamson’s eloquent talk of the need for racial justice and reparations were attractive to black voters in the South.
What’s happening now isn’t evidence that southern black voters oppose any particular candidate in the Democratic field — except maybe Michael Bloomberg with his history of stop-and-frisk and pathetic quasi-apology for the egregious practice. This is why not even $60 billion in wealth will likely be enough to get him a major party nomination.
It is true that we are among the most moderate and conservative voters in the party. And we are more closely aligned with moderate Republicans than hard left liberals on issues such as abortion. But not even Sanders’ progressivism would be a turnoff if he still manages to become the nominee. The top priority remains removing Trump from office — full stop.
That might not feel encouraging to those who want a revolution right now, who believe all the institutions need to be knocked down — not caressed and politely cajoled to change. It might not seem wise to those who believe Biden is not the right person to go up against Trump, given that Biden will have to explain away his vote for the 1994 crime bill, which helped turbocharge an already growing prison industrial complex that disproportionately hurt black people, while Trump can brag about signing the First Step Act, the first major criminal justice reform bill in a generation.
But black voters in the South are pragmatic above all else. We wish we could choose a candidate who had no racial baggage. We wish we could count on our white counterparts to prioritize racial equality and vote against Trump in the fall no matter who Democrats chose in July. But we know the threat of another four years of Trump is too great of a risk to leave it to chance.
Because of that, black voters here knew they needed to lead the Democratic Party to a state of clarity. That’s what’s happening now — black voters dragging a fractured party kicking and screaming into November. For those questioning our judgment, wondering why we seem okay with prioritizing pragmatism over purity, we sometimes question that as well.
We’d love to live in an era in which we could throw caution to the wind and join the kind of revolution Sanders is selling. If we truly believed white America was ready to place establishing true racial equality at the top of their list of voting concerns, the results Saturday and on Super Tuesday might have been different. But we know we don’t live in a time like that. Given that reality, we decided to do the practical thing and first focus on beating Trump and his open bigotry — then settle the rest later.
Editor’s note: Issac Bailey is a long-time journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His next book, “A Black Man in Trumpland: Why We Didn’t Riot — But Should Have,” will be released by Other Press in 2020.