Amid a fierce fight over voting rights, Black leaders are watching to see how President Biden wields the power they say Black voters gave him. Some worry that a familiar pattern may be playing out again.
"There's always this air that in some way, that Black Americans are supposed to wait," said LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter. "Oftentimes when we're engaged in this process, it's a sense of urgency, of what we need when there's an election. But then once there's a result, it seems that our issues are always put to the back burner."
Black voters overwhelmingly and reliably support Democratic candidates. But year after year, Black leaders say that Democratic politicians court their vote, promise systemic change and then fail to follow through.
As a candidate, Biden named systemic racism as one of the major crises facing the nation. Biden told Black voters things would be different.
"You've always had my back, and I'll have yours," Biden promised.
With that vow in mind, leaders of the voting rights movement have been pushing the White House to fight more forcefully to protect voting rights in particular. Republicans have passed a wave of laws at the state level that are putting new restrictions on voting that activists fear will disproportionately affect Black people and Latinos.
What changing the rules could do
Biden has warned that the Republican-led effort is "the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War." But activists say there's a contrast between the urgency of Biden's words and his opposition to changing procedural rules so that a voting rights bill could pass with a simple majority.
Under the current rules, 60 votes are needed in the Senate to prevent a filibuster from opponents — that means Democrats need their entire caucus, plus at least 10 Republicans to pass their priorities.
Cliff Albright, a Black Voter Matter co-founder, said that Biden lied when he said he would have the backs of Black Americans.
"You can't say all of that and then say, 'Oh, but by the way, that filibuster was more important,' " Albright said. "That's not having our backs. By no stretch of the imagination is that how one would define having our backs."
"What have we got?"
What it means to have the back of Black America, and what policy issues are key to Black voters changes depending on whom you ask.
"I personally feel that we are doing what can be done to fulfill the promise made to the African American community," said Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black lawmaker in the House of Representatives.
In interviews, Black leaders and activists pointed to Biden's investments in historically black colleges, the increase in the child tax credit intended to reduce childhood poverty dramatically as well as the racial diversity of Biden's administration as among the administration's achievements.
"All of these things are demonstrating that the president is running an inclusive administration," Clyburn said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton was among civil rights leaders who met last month with the president and Vice President Harris at the White House. Sharpton said he raised potential electoral consequences of inaction on voting and other issues with Biden.
"The question of police reform, the George Floyd bill, the fact that there is no movement there. And the absolute threat to our voting rights, means that, yes, I know you've only been there six months, but you're going to get to eight, nine months and go to the midterm election. And Black voters are going to say, we came out in historic numbers, what have we got?" Sharpton said.
The president's pace has activists calling for urgency
Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of Public Engagement, said that Biden has been "pretty intentional about making sure that everything we do has a racial equity component to it."
"I think we have a great track record to run on, to answer that Janet Jackson test for the Black community: What have you done for me lately?" Richmond said.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said it was too early to evaluate the president's actions on voting rights.
"I think this battle is just beginning," Morial said in an interview. "You cannot line up a circular firing squad in the first six months of a new administration and act as though if the president would just be louder, that these things would automatically happen."
Biden and his advisers have repeatedly pointed out that the president does not have the power to roll back or change the filibuster unilaterally, even if he supported doing so.
"We feel very strongly that if the Senate cannot pass the national voting rights protections with 60 votes, then we think there should be reform to the filibuster and that those laws should be passed," said Lisa Cylar Barrett, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's policy director. "We're in a state of emergency."
Biden and Harris met Friday with top congressional Democrats to discuss a scaled-back bill after Republicans successfully stalled the sweeping elections and voting bill known as the For the People Act in June. Congressional Democrats are also preparing legislation to reinforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"The president has been in the Senate. He has renewed a Voting Rights Act before," Richmond said. "He knows what to do, how to do it, when to do it."
But voting rights activists said the moment to act is now. On Capitol Hill, activists have held nearly daily rallies and protests to put pressure on Biden and congressional Democrats to act.
At one July rally, Rashad Robinson, head of the civil rights group Color of Change, issued a challenge to Democrats in Washington:
"Don't come to us and ask us for our vote by day and stay silent while they take away our power by night," he said.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
During the 2020 election, Joe Biden promised Black voters that he would prioritize their communities if they propelled him and Democrats to power in Washington. Now, as Black leaders and activists are pushing for federal action to protect voting rights, some worry about the electoral consequences if Black voters don't feel that President Biden and Democrats have delivered for them. NPR's Juana Summers reports.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: When Joe Biden delivered his victory speech, he singled out one group of voters as key to his success.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And especially those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African American community stood up again for me.
SUMMERS: Black voters overwhelmingly and reliably support Democratic candidates. But year after year, Black leaders say that Democratic politicians court their vote, promise systemic change and then fail to follow through. As a candidate, Biden named systemic racism as one of the major crises facing the nation. He promised Black voters things would be different.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BIDEN: You've always had my back. And I'll have yours.
SUMMERS: But six months after Biden was sworn into office, some Black leaders say they worry that a familiar pattern could play out again.
LATOSHA BROWN: Oftentimes when we're engaged in this process, it's a sense of urgency of what we need when there's an election. But then once there's a result, it seems that our issues are always put to the back burner.
SUMMERS: That's LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter. Groups like hers have been pushing the White House to fight more forcefully to protect voting rights as Republicans have passed a wave of laws at the state level that will make it more difficult to vote, especially for Black people and Latinos. Biden has warned that these Republican efforts are the most significant test of American democracy. But activists say there is a contrast between the urgency of Biden's language and his opposition to changing procedural rules so the bills could pass with a simple majority.
CLIFF ALBRIGHT: You can't say all of that and then say, oh, but by the way, that filibuster is more important. You know, I mean, that's not having our back.
SUMMERS: That's Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter. But what it means to have the back of Black America and what political issues are key to Black voters changes depending on who you talk to. Black leaders and activists pointed to Biden's investments in historically Black colleges, the increase in the child tax credit intended to dramatically reduce childhood poverty, as well as the racial diversity of Biden's administration. Marc Morial is the president of the National Urban League.
MARC MORIAL: We want a more diverse judiciary. We want economic policies that close the wealth gap. We have a range of priorities. These are top-level priorities, no doubt, particularly voting. But, you know, it's not about, OK, if we get voting, then we'll just pack up our bags and go to sleep. The reason we want voting is because it empowers all of the other issues.
SUMMERS: Morial was among the civil rights leaders who met with the president at the White House last month, and so was the Reverend Al Sharpton. He raised potential electoral consequences with the president.
AL SHARPTON: The question of police reform, the George Floyd bill, the fact that there is no movement there and the absolute threat to our voting rights means that, yes, I know you've only been there six months, but you're going to get to eight, nine months and go to the midterm election. And Black voters are going to say, we came out in historic numbers. What have we got?
SUMMERS: Cedric Richmond is a senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House. He says he believes the administration has a strong track record to run on.
CEDRIC RICHMOND: He's been pretty intentional about making sure that everything we do has a racial equity component to it.
SUMMERS: That's something Biden promised would be a focus of the whole federal government, starting with his first day in office. Richmond said the administration believes there is a path to passing a federal voting bill, but he didn't detail what that might look like. Biden and Vice President Harris met with Democratic congressional leaders on Friday to discuss trying to pass narrower voting rights legislation.
RICHMOND: The president has been in the Senate. He has renewed a Voting Rights Act before. He knows what to do, how to do it, when to do it.
SUMMERS: But Black activists say that for voting rights, the moment to act is now. Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.