Even in isolation, it is impossible to escape the far reaches of race-based police brutality. As I stayed home March through August, my television and phone were filled with videos of Black men and women being killed or hurt and the public outcries that ensued.
In the midst of this international awakening to prevailing racial injustices, I was running to be a delegate for former Vice President Joe Biden. Delegates are elected by the registered voters in their districts to represent the primary presidential election results for their state at the Republican or Democratic National Convention. I thought that by running and possibly attending, I could make a difference, not just by representing my community, but in representing Black women wanting to be heard. Not long after my victory in this endeavor, all the delegates were informed that there would be no in-person convention but that we would instead be completing our duties from home. At first, this news was crushing, and I wondered how much attention the cause for racial equality would get at a convention in which a centrist campaign had full control over the narrative being presented. But in the weeks leading up to the election, I was excited.
After Biden onboarded Kamala Harris to his campaign as his vice presidential pick, Mexican politician Jorge Guajardo and other prominent figures made comments on social media platforms about how Black women would save the Democratic Party and our country. And as we tuned in to watch the convention online, a group of young delegates and I filled out a bingo card with a square that read: “Black women will save us.” I felt seen, and in being recognized in the ranks of Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, and the many other Black women who have served as role models and fought to improve our country, I felt a strong sense of pride. As I emerged from the aftermath of the convention, however, these feelings disappeared, and I was left with the saddening realization that being heard and being listened to are two very different things.
Those four nights of the convention were filled with what I believe to be good intentions. On the first night, Biden had a digital conversation with panelists including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Houston police chief Art Acevedo on police brutality. Sen. Elizabeth Warren positioned the letters “BLM” behind her as she gave her speech. On the fourth night of the convention, there was a segment dedicated to the late Rep. John Lewis, with the musical performance of “Glory” by performers John Legend and Common. As well-meaning as all of these clips were, they left me wondering how far Biden was willing to go to improve U.S. race relations beyond sentimental, staged performances. In his roundtable discussion, the former vice president was adamant that not all cops are bad, and he only committed to “reigning in” qualified immunity rather than ending it. As the DNC gave their beautiful tribute to Lewis, they failed to mention why I had not learned about him in school, but instead had learned that the Civil War was more about states’ rights than slavery. During the whole convention, the speakers avoided conversation about defunding the police, one of the central cries of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite these disappointments, I understand why Biden’s campaign has made these omissions. Biden needed to win in November, and to win, he needed to appeal to the many voters who have helped propel the BLM movement to the center of media attention but do not support more serious measures such as defunding the police. These constituents, who are put off by the idea of a change in their lifestyle as a result of BLM, may have defaulted to Trump if the Biden campaign seemed too revolutionary.
In economics, there is a concept called Pareto efficiency, a situation in which no change that benefits one person can be made without making someone else worse off. For issues like taxes and healthcare, we have accepted Pareto efficiency, the thought of a necessary tradeoff between some individuals and others; for racial injustices, however, we are still looking for a non-existent Pareto improvement — a solution that would make minorities better off without making anyone else worse off. Because of our inability to view racial justice through any other lens than that of people unwilling to part with any bit of their privilege, I am still forced to listen to complaints against affirmative action and scoffs at the mention of reparations. Because of this, the “stain of racism” that Biden has identified refuses to come out. Removing that stain will require some serious scrubbing, and it will not be pleasant for everyone.
While I was not surprised, I was still hurt realizing that many moments of the convention discussing my life and my future as a Black individual in America were not targeted toward me and other Black voters — rather, these moments felt more like a general countrywide morale boost and a reassurance that racial equality will not come at the cost of any police budgets or privilege. The Democratic Party takes for granted that they can count on us. While everyone votes a little differently, Black non-Hispanic women make up one of the most loyal demographics to the Democratic Party. And beyond Black women, Black communities in general are disproportionately loyal to the Democratic Party. Even the highest non-Black democratic leaning demographic only votes with the party 73% of the time, while the lowest Black sub-demographic votes with the party 85% of the time.
The Democrats knew this even before the election. Remember when Biden spoke directly to the camera and said if you do not vote for a Democrat, “then you ain’t Black”? I do, and so do most Black Americans. But much as I resent his words and his reluctance to really get behind the actions demanded by protesters, Biden and his team know I would rather have him in office than the man who tells Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
We also have to understand that there is a difference between rallying behind the wrongful death of Black Americans and creating meaningful reforms for those Black Americans who are still alive and facing injustices. The BLM movement is tied up in the killings of Black bodies — that is what gets the media coverage, the marches, and the pressure for action. A dead Black man is much easier to use for political gains than a live one. Republican and Democratic politicians both claim their narratives for their own political gain rather than listening to and amplifying the voices of Black activists. When politicians say the names of Black victims, they evoke sympathy. They get closer to the family, the friends and the allies who are all looking for someone who will see their struggles. However, this sympathy still does not motivate these politicians to enact policies that reflect the real needs of the communities they are trying to reach. While we shout “Black lives matter” and advocate for equality of life between all communities, elected officials echo back “yes, Black lives matter” but only promise to try their best to make sure our deaths are treated with the same dignity and respect as White deaths. Those who are living remain overlooked.
After my phone broke the news to me that the officers responsible for Breonna Taylor’s death would evade just charges, it made me think back to my days working in and around the virtual convention and the offhand remarks about Black women saving the country. I loved advocating for Biden in the November election, I do not mind phone and text banking for candidates and I find purpose in working to advance a better society for all people. But, if my life means less than a damaged wall, how do you expect me to save you? How do you expect us, Black women, to continue holding you up, if you continue to kill us without reason, let alone without justice?
We have been seen and heard, but when will we be listened to? I hope this is something that Biden and the Democratic Party are thinking about, and I hope it is something that voters think about as well. When the Democratic Party is ready, we will be too.
Image by Chris Henry is licensed under the Unsplash License.