Former US vice-president Joe Biden is facing mounting pressure to pick a black running mate as he seeks to solidify his ties to the African-American community following the death of George Floyd.
In his first public appearance since his state lifted its coronavirus-related “stay at home” order, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee marked the one-week anniversary of Floyd’s death on Monday by visiting a black church in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
Mr Biden, who has vowed to name a woman as his running mate, listened and later spoke with local officials and church leaders who called on him to be bolder in his commitment to supporting African-Americans.
“Let me go on record and say we want a black woman [on the ticket],” said Shanika Perry, youth pastor at Bethel AME Church. “We have qualified black women who are able, who are capable of helping you lead this country.”
Mr Biden, who was Barack Obama’s vice-president, enjoyed the overwhelming support of black voters during the primary process, with a near 30-point win in South Carolina vaulting him to sweeping victories on Super Tuesday. But he was accused last month of taking the support of African-Americans for granted, after telling radio host Charlamagne tha God: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or [Donald] Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Jim Clyburn, the longtime African-American congressman from South Carolina whose endorsement supercharged Mr Biden’s candidacy, said he “cringed” when he heard his radio interview, but added: “I understood what he meant, and most black people knew what he meant.”
“Joe Biden is no stranger to the black community. He has always campaigned in the black community, he has always had significant black support simply because he relates to the black community, and he knows how to,” Mr Clyburn told the Financial Times.
“It doesn’t always come through to people because . . . he is prone to gaffes,” he added. “People seem to rather hang out with those things rather than where his heart really is. I would wish that people would spend a little more time with the heart of Joe Biden, rather than Joe Biden’s gaffes.”
Mr Biden has considered naming one of his white former primary rivals, such as Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator, or Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator, as his number two. But activists and political strategists say it is increasing likely Mr Biden will pick a woman of colour following the protests sparked by Floyd’s death in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck.
“African-Americans, particularly African-American women, are the backbone, or the base of the base, of the Democratic party,” said Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University and an expert on African-American politics.
“What you are hearing activists say is, ‘Look, we are tired of saying thank you for our votes, we are tired of being thanked for saving elections for people. If blacks are that important, then blacks need to have positions of leadership’,” she said.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said the former vice-president “needs” an African-American woman on the ticket.
“There is a growing sense of frustration and mistrust of government in general and there is obviously the racial tension and the structural racism that is the prevailing undercurrent of this whole movement,” she said. “It is not like he is doing us a favour. It is going to bring value to him, someone that actually . . . has a depth of understanding and connectivity to those who are saying racism is literally killing us.”
Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race in 2018, has actively campaigned to be Mr Biden’s running mate, while Kamala Harris, the California senator and former presidential candidate, has regularly helped the former vice-president with campaigning and fundraising.
Other high-profile African-American women mooted include Val Demings — a congresswoman from Florida and former Orlando police chief who wrote a Washington Post op-ed last week under the headline “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?” — and Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta who attracted praise for her handling of violent clashes in her city between protesters and police officers on Friday night.
After visiting AME Bethel Church, Mr Biden live-streamed a roundtable with Ms Lance Bottoms, Lori Lightfoot, Chicago mayor, and Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina, said Mr Biden was demonstrating he was “willing to ask before he acts”. He added that Mr Biden’s response “pulls back on this narrative” that he is “trying to campaign from his basement” amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Instead of turning the lights off at his house in Delaware, he is going to the place where the people are,” Mr Seawright said. “It’s a big contrast for him and the current leader of the free world.”
Emory University’s Ms Gillespie agreed, saying: “He might not do everything to the satisfaction of Black Lives Matter activists, but it is at least showing effort and a certain level of sensitivity that should be acknowledged, and in contrast to Donald Trump.”
With just five months to go until election day, there are signs Mr Biden is gaining ground in the presidential race. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed him with a 10-point lead over Mr Trump, who has seen his approval ratings plummet over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Americans, including a disproportionate number of African-Americans.
The poll found Mr Biden had the support of 53 per cent of registered voters nationwide, and 89 per cent of registered black voters.
“At the very least, I see an effort from the [Biden] campaign to really try to connect in a different kind of way, distinctively different, from this fool we have in the White House,” said Ms Brown of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “This is a particular moment, and if the country ever needed leadership, his moment is now.”