Our Voices > Reform Debate

President Biden: Don’t Take Us For Granted

Jun 22, 2024

By Robert Barton

Wrong…tone death…stupid…demeaning…just plain disrespectful and insulting to Black Americans as a community. This is how President Biden’s commencement speech at Morehouse College came across to me.

Morehouse, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr., is perhaps the most venerated educational institutions in America for Black men. Yet instead of an inspirational message that envisioned a successful future in which the students follow in MLK’s footsteps, he gave a campaign speech that invoked the sacred memory of George Floyd to bolster his standing as a redeemer and ally of Black people in their struggle for justice and equality. If this wasn’t bad enough, he then doubled down on his use of the race card when he asked the crowd, “What do you think [Donald Trump] would have done if on Jan. 6, Black Americans had stormed the capital?” Does he really expect us to believe that such a scenario would have turned out any differently if Biden had been president? This is America, after all. And Biden has done nothing as president to meaningfully stand against the over policing and over incarceration of Blacks.

We need more than words

These young adults didn’t need Biden to tell them about the challenges they will face as Black men in America. I’m quite sure their parents had already given them the “talk” Biden acted so familiar with, warning them of the reality of being Black in the United States. I’m also quite sure that despite Biden’s claim that his administration is “breaking down doors so that you have 100 times more opportunities,” those challenges won’t change – like they haven’t in the last four years under his watch.

The young men who graduated from Morehouse that day needed and deserved to be the center of attention. It was their day, not his!

I guess Biden thought that by identifying with us it would help him win the votes of Black Americans. But as he was speaking, what immediately jumped to mind was, “So, you say all of this, but what are you going to do about it?” And I bet those new graduates were thinking the same thing. Yes, Biden chose a Black woman as his vice president and, yes, he nominated the first African American woman to the Supreme Court. But from where we sit, nothing in this country has fundamentally changed: The number of people in federal prison has grown. Black Americans are still more than twice as likely to be killed by law enforcement officers as white Americans. Blacks account for 40% of the people on death row, although we are just 13% of the overall population.

Many Black people in prison support former President Trump, despite his multitude of crimes and character flaws, because he enacted the only national reform that released people from draconian sentences in a very long time: the First Step Act of 2018. Although it has many shortcomings (like excluding anyone convicted of crimes involving violence), it has resulted in the early release of nearly 30,000 people as of January 2023. What can Biden claim? Beyond commuting 155 sentences and issuing 13 pardons (all easy choices that didn’t require much political capital), not much.

We need to show politicians our views matter

It’s true that outside prison walls, Black voters remain largely aligned with the Democratic Party, and Biden. But it’s also true that about half of Black voters (49%) say they would replace both Biden and Trump with different candidates if they had the ability to decide.  In a media interview, Morehouse graduate Jared Butler expressed his “unhappiness” with the choices in the upcoming election: “It’s a continuous pattern that Democrats do when they need the Black vote, and then they disappear. It’s kind of upsetting, but it is what it is.” This is the feeling of lots of Black people. They feel used and alienated. And that’s why a large segment of Black people don’t vote (particularly those who live in low-income communities). And this primary season was no different.

I’ve heard this refrain all my life: “Them people don’t care about us…It doesn’t matter who I vote for; they are all the same…So, why vote?” I’m hearing it again from my fellow incarcerated DC residents. Even though we are among the residents of only three states who are allowed to vote while in prison, the feeling that it’s pointless is even more ingrained among my peers. I understand these sentiments acutely; I too sometimes ask myself, “What’s the point?” — especially this year, at least regarding the presidential race. It’s a choice between the lesser of two evils. Opposing Biden is Trump, who seems to think that we’re so stupid that we’ll vote for him just because he got convicted and he now “knows/understands” what it’s like to be treated unfairly by the justice system. Yet he would/will never receive the draconian sentence so many Blacks get, despite the massive harms he has committed and is likely to commit. (In addition to fomenting insurrection, Trump authorized the killing of 13 people on death row in the final six months of his administration — more federal executions than in the previous 10 administrations combined.)

However, one thing I also know is that I can’t change anything by sitting on the sidelines. If I don’t vote, I help assure that nothing will change. And if Black DC residents behind bars don’t vote, we show we won’t even try to use the power that the 2020 District law restored to us. And it is power. Case in point: In DC’s ward 7, where so many District Blacks in prison came from, the winning candidate won the Democratic primary by only 300-some votes. If the incarcerated contingent (and their family members) had united behind one of the seven candidates, we could have determined the outcome of that race – so critical to any local criminal justice reforms we push in the next two years. (Think “universal second look,” for example.)

DC is not unusual. Often, it’s these smaller local and state races that have the most impact on our everyday lives, and where we can have the most impact with our vote. But to make our voices heard, we need to be informed, we need to organize, we need to align behind the candidates who commit to making the changes we want…and we need to vote.

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