Election workers wear protective face masks as they check in voters during the primary election at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, Michigan, on March 10, 2020. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images
Joe Biden ran for president in 1988. He ran again in 2008. During those two campaigns, he failed to win a single Democratic caucus or primary. The losing streak continued for the first three events of the 2020 presidential primaries. Yet, since the South Carolina primary on February 29, Biden has taken 15 state contests, opening a sizable delegate lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Something changed. And that something was a someone. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn from South Carolina, to be exact.
Days before his state’s primary, Clyburn announced he would be endorsing the onetime vice president — but even more, he urged residents to do the same. “South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden,” he said. “I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us,” The result wasn’t just a win for Biden, but a 25-point margin of victory in a state where Black voters constitute up to 60% of the Democratic electorate.
The power of the Black male endorsement may be the most underreported narrative in American politics. Yet we are seeing how the validation of the Black male voice is not only changing the course of the election but changing narratives and headlines as well.
This is powerful. This is important. It’s neither naive nor idealistic to think that Black men’s validation in politics can bring about self-validation for all Black men, especially in a society where our mere existence is often challenged.
As Americans, we have been taught that our vote is our voice, that the ballot box is where we shape democracy, and this is true. But this time around, Black men’s voices are driving the vote — and that is a norm-shattering, culture-shifting, game-changer of a fact.
According to exit polls conducted by Edison Research, 61% of Democratic voters in South Carolina said Clyburn’s endorsement was an important factor in their decision. More than a quarter of voters said the endorsement was “the most important factor” in their candidate choice. Add in the fact that 15% of likely primary voters were undecided the day before Clyburn’s endorsement, and you’re looking at something as close to proof as you can get in politics.
No Democrat can win the presidency without the overwhelming support of the Black community. The South Carolina results sent a signal to the Super Tuesday primaries — to Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Maine, and other states where Biden pulled off surprise victories — that residents had heard the voice of the Black community, the voice of one Black man, and had voted accordingly. That, friends, is influence.
The Clyburn effect didn’t stop there. According to exit polls from the Washington Post, a huge majority of Black voters in Michigan, Missouri, and Mississippi broke for Biden: 66%, 72%, and 87% respectively. Those margins correlate directly with the margin of victory in each state, the sum of which gave Biden an all-but-insurmountable lead over Sanders in the delegate count.
But it’s not simply one elected official shaping the 2020 narrative. Other Black men are generating the priceless “earned media” that every candidate seeks. News coverage is one of the few things that can offset paid advertising and become part of the national conversation (trending topic) organically, serving only to amplify the candidates’ brand positons and media impressions. Sanders has been the leader on this count, most notably and recently with a Los Angeles rally featuring Public Enemy frontman — sorry, Public Enemy Radio frontman — Chuck D.
For eight years, Biden played his vice president position perfectly — observing the order, deference, and respect ingrained in true brotherhood. And in return, the brotherhood is willing to have Biden’s back.
The controversy over the group’s name rights, not to mention the ensuing social-media beef between Chuck D and partner Flavor Flav, drew some much-needed attention to the Sanders campaign, still hurting from a crushing defeat in South Carolina. But Chuck D taking the stage represented something much more important than just a musical performance (even if “Fight the Power” paired perfectly with Sanders’ incendiary grassroots campaign). Hip-hop has always been the voice of the people, but at its most aware, it speaks to the marginalized by speaking out against discriminatory policies and systematic oppression. Chuck D has been doing that for more than 30 years — and to see him now, showing young Black men that leadership doesn’t have to come from the halls of Congress, is to see (and hear) a voice at the peak of its powers.
The voice doesn’t always lead to victorious outcomes, of course. This past Sunday, Rev. Jesse Jackson endorsed Sanders for president, his support promising a boost in the delegate-rich state of Michigan. “With the exception of Native Americans, African Americans are the people who are most behind socially and economically in the United States, and our needs are not moderate,” said Jackson, who also ran for president in 1984 and 1988. “A people far behind cannot catch up choosing the most moderate path.” The endorsement wasn’t enough to put Sanders over the top in Michigan, where Biden won every single county, but it served as an apt reminder that Jackson’s own presidential campaigns crucially foregrounded the voice of Black men on the political stage during the Reagan-Bush era.
The voice that speaks the loudest in 2020, however, hasn’t said a word — and it hasn’t needed to. That voice is Barack Obama’s.
As vice president, Biden stood at President Obama’s side for eight years. A brotherhood developed right before us — and I use that word intentionally. In a family structure, siblings are ordered and dynamics are understood. “Brotherhood” evokes bonds of fraternity, where deference is learned and put into practice daily. “Brotherhood” invokes the Black church, where honor and respect begin inside the pulpit and extend outward.
For eight years, Biden played his vice president position perfectly — observing the order, deference, and respect ingrained in true brotherhood. And in return, the brotherhood is willing to have Biden’s back, just as he had Brother Obama’s. Jay-Z said it perfectly in a 2008 speech at Virginia Union College: “For too long, we were excluded from the American dream, and now we have a chance to be part of the American dream.” This is what the voice of Obama did for the Black man’s voice in our democracy, and it still speaks silently today.
Four distinct voices: all belonging to Black men, all shaping in some real way the 2020 Democratic primaries, each a unique piece of the kaleidoscopic tapestry of Black male identity. Yet, as the primary season begins to transition into the general election, it’s important that we don’t allow ourselves and our voices to be used as pawns — not to pander to our own on someone else’s behalf and not to become a prop in the grand performance that is a presidential election.
“Do not be silent,” civil rights leader and theologian Howard Thurman once wrote. “There is no limit to the power that may be released through you.” This is the Clyburn effect. This is the fact that one Black man has the power to shift our democracy. This is why it’s so crucial to acknowledge that, to celebrate seeing ourselves reflected in the national political discourse.
So, my Black brothers: Keep speaking up. They are listening.