Black voters in key cities helped deliver the election for Joe Biden

Janell Ross
·13 min read

ATLANTA — In the way that one could on election night 2020, LaTosha Brown was making the rounds.

She was in a suite near the top of a luxury hotel so close to the airport that the balcony view overlooked a Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport airplane parking lot. Also there was Cliff Albright, who, with Brown, co-founded the voter mobilization organization Black Voters Matter.

After a Google Hangout with the field directors they had hired to register, engage and boost voter participation around the country, Brown sequestered herself in a bedroom, resting her body in a hotel chair, her tired feet — by then stripped to the socks — on the bed.

Between bites of food and watching election returns turn bits of the national map red or blue, Brown juggled calls, internet video sessions and texts, in each countering the conventional wisdom with journalists, political operatives and others that the election would come down to Donald Trump's mythical all-white suburbs filled with stay-at-home moms or Joe Biden's ability to convert them. Instead, it was decided in racially diverse urban centers and increasingly diverse suburbs in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia.

The Black people who make up 39 percent or more of the population in those areas chose Biden, with some exceptions. In fact, once the vote counts from Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and Atlanta started to near completion, Trump's lead in their respective states disappeared. Biden — who would not have been the Democratic presidential nominee without Black voters in South Carolina — reached 270 Electoral College votes in large part because of Black voters in these cities.

But within minutes of starting an interview with the CBC/Radio-Canada, Brown ran headlong into the conventional and dismissive wisdom about American politics that conceives of white voters as more important or legitimate than Black and brown ones. It was the logic that perceives Black voters as an eternal problem rather than the solution.

"I would say that we have long participated at extraordinary levels and have to overcome extraordinary hurdles to do so," Brown said in that way a woman speaks when she aims to appear calm on the surface but is seething inside. The interviewer had dismissed the work of Brown, Albright, Georgia politician and organizer Stacey Abrams and many others who have registered and motivated voters for years, literally expanding the electorate and creating new swing states. In the interviewer's framing, Black Americans "have historically low turnout," so was that work really wise?

Image: Philadelphia Biden celebration (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)
Image: Philadelphia Biden celebration (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

Brown said: "The fact that we have caught up with white voters, white women in particular, who have historically reaped all the benefits of voting and even any slight level of political engagement, who can't get pollsters and parties to stop targeting them, to me says that we are extraordinary. The fact that we have matched and topped white voter participation and done that while going through voter suppression in new and old forms every year, we are extraordinary. That's what I know."

When the interview ended, Brown turned to say: "She wasn't ready for that. The truth. Don't ask me why Black voter turnout is consistently low when nothing could be further than the clear and obvious truth."

In the weeks before the election, about 63 percent of Black voters and 73 percent of white voters told Pew Research Center pollsters that they were "extremely motivated to vote in the General Election." About 54 percent of Latino and Asian voters said the same. In Georgia during the primary season, many voters, particularly Black voters, waited eight hours or more to participate. A surge in early and mail voting and other measures taken by Georgia's Republican secretary of state prevented a repeat on Election Day.

Picking presidents

If Brown's was the voice that may have reset the understanding of anyone watching BET or listening to CBC/Radio-Canada on election night, for others the truth about the election and how it was won arrived the next day in the poetic language of the Black church pulpit, when the Rev. Steve Bland Jr., pastor of Liberty Temple Baptist Church, spoke to MSNBC. He stood just outside Detroit's TCF Center, where Wayne County election officials tallied votes.

"As goes Detroit, will be done so ..." said Bland, wearing a black baseball cap with the words "Faith Over Fear." "We will determine the outcome, because we've gone from picking cotton to picking presidents."

The accuracy of his assessment only grew clearer as Election Day stretched into Election Week.

Initial voting data and exit polls point to a few patterns: Record numbers of Americans cast ballots for each of the candidates, with many more Democrats exercising early and mail-in voting options than Republicans.

According to exit polls, Trump claimed about 18 percent of the vote among Black men and 8 percent among Black women, increases over his performance among both groups in 2016. But Biden held 87 percent of the Black vote, performing better among Black voters than any other demographic group.

And, much like almost every other Democrat since the 1960s, Biden won about 42 percent of the white vote.

Many white voters simply fled the Democratic Party after President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, with a bipartisan collective in Congress pushed through landmark equity-building legislation, and President Richard Nixon coalesced white Republican political support with his "Southern strategy."

While some Democrats, like centrist Bill Clinton, have been able to attract a few more white voters, members of the group have remained a sort of elusive, most-sought voter. But Black voters have consistently proven essential in determining election outcomes and, when Democrats fail, these often disregarded voters appear to top many lists of those who are blamed.

"Just as in 2016, the presidential race is being decided in states where the robust or anemic turnout of people of color will determine the outcome of the election," Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University, said in a statement. "In close elections, Democrats can maximize the advantage of strong minority support only when those voters turn out in strong enough numbers."

Election cycle after election cycle, give or take a few points, about 90 percent of Black voters back Democrats, said Gillespie, who studies Black political behavior. About two-thirds of Latino and Asian American voters also vote for Democrats. But that strong Democratic advantage is less important if these groups do not show up to vote in high numbers.

For Cheetara Alexander, 34, the sense that this election, this presidential contest, was deeply consequential grew all year.

As a professional violence interrupter, Alexander works to prevent gun violence and murder in some of the Atlanta region's most dangerous and underserved communities. It is the kind of work often overlooked when questions of police misconduct are met with calls for Black Americans to care about so-called Black-on-Black crime.

It is also work that made her particularly attuned to the tolls that unchecked police brutality and the pandemic have exacted on Black Americans. Alexander said the political, policy and rhetorical failures of the White House have been so intense this year that she abandoned her usual plan to vote early. She decided to vote on Election Day.

IMAGE: Cheetara Alexander (Janell Ross / NBC)
IMAGE: Cheetara Alexander (Janell Ross / NBC)

"There is just too much, too much going on that need not be, too much not happening that should be, to sit this out or even avoid what I had assumed would be crowds on Election Day," Alexander said.

After a long day of work, Alexander arrived at the door of her polling site in DeKalb County, which includes about 10 percent of the city of Atlanta. It was 7:01 p.m. Poll workers there told her they had to close at 7 sharp. She could drive to another DeKalb polling site at Barack Obama Magnet Elementary School of Technology and cast a provisional ballot until 7:45 p.m.

The polling site at Obama Elementary, already serving two precincts because its multicolor cafeteria and assembly spaces could allow for social distancing, was ordered to remain open until 7:45 p.m. on Election Day because of earlier technical issues that were confirmed to NBC News by two poll workers and an election monitor, a white man in a mask bearing the words "SPEAK LIFE." The extended time meant Alexander got to cast her vote in person, one of the last in metro Atlanta.

When she began to exit at 7:43 p.m., a poll worker offered to snap her picture with Obama's portrait, which hangs, at all times, on the school's front office wall. The former president had done a last swing through Atlanta to motivate Black voters the previous day.

"I didn't plan to be the last vote, but if this Black woman in Georgia winds up being the one that gives that man in the White House his walking papers, that will be just," Alexander said, pantomiming a chef's kiss.

As Alexander spoke, a Black man with a bald head and a gray beard who declined to give his name overheard the conversation and said to no one in particular, "I claim that in the name of the ancestors and the late, great John Lewis."

Lewis, a longtime member of Congress from Georgia and civil rights activist who was nearly killed in the push for Black voting rights, died in July. Trump, unlike many other Republican and Democratic government officials, declined to attend memorial services for Lewis, describing him as "not impressive" and saying, "Nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have."

While many Republicans and Democrats praised Lewis at his death and expressed reverence for his life's work, Republicans in the Senate — including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — have continued to block efforts to restore the intent of elements of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court invalidated in 2013. Now, part of Lewis' district, an Atlanta area that Trump described as "in horrible shape and falling apart," may have delivered key votes to swing Georgia into Biden's column, although NBC News has not called the state for either candidate yet, due to the closeness of the race.

In the days after the election, election officials in the key states of Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina made it clear. The election would, indeed, come down to cities with large Black voter bases and even, possibly, provisional ballots like Alexander's.

But for every Alexander, there are also Black voters disillusioned by American politics.

Brian Keith, 43, a truck driver, is registered to vote in North Carolina. He is in a long-distance relationship with a Black woman who lives and votes in Georgia. That is not the only difference between them.

In the hour before the polls closed at Obama Elementary, he stood in a hallway waiting for his girlfriend to cast her vote. She planned to vote for Biden, Keith said. He skipped the top of the ticket on his own North Carolina ballot and participated in elections for state office on down.

"To me, when people can, one way or another, pump a million dollars into a race, that's just legalized bribery, and so the election becomes a sham," Keith said about congressional and presidential races. "Those folks, whoever wins, are bought and paid for at that level."

Keith described himself as someone who was often offended by things Trump said but who also agrees with some of his ideas and demands. But because of the way national politics has been riddled with donations from wealthy donors and lobbyists, he would not back Trump, either.

"I don't believe either of the parties, either of the candidates," Keith said. "Honestly, if I had my choice, I would coup the federal government, because nobody really helps us, not the average person, not the average Black person, for sure."

The years of organizing led to this moment

Pushing back against narratives like Keith's was the work that organizations like Black Voters Matter took on, years before the 2020 election. Brown and Albright, Abrams and many other grassroots organizers have collectively registered tens of thousands and encouraged many more to vote, while also contending with the reality that Black voters, typically loyal Democratic voters, have a limited list of political and social rewards for their votes, Brown said.

Abrams, who formed the organization, Fair Fight, after narrowly losing her 2018 bid for Georgia governor, declined to comment this week. The organization battled various policies and practices that suppressed the Black vote in Georgia and other states and worked to register about 800,000 new voters since 2018, Abrams told Vogue in an interview published Thursday.

Expanding the electorate to include every eligible person and engaging Black voters is key to creating a more equitable and just country, she has said. Abrams, who lives and votes in Georgia, also insists that she lost her bid to become the country's first Black female governor after her opponent, Brian Kemp, then Georgia's secretary of state, disqualified an unusual number of Black voters. Kemp, a Republican, won the election by 54,723 votes, or 1.3 percent of all the ballots cast. Abrams never conceded the race. Instead, she said at the time, "the law currently allows no further viable remedy."

And Abrams made her feelings about the central role of what she describes as the new American electorate known on Twitter on Friday morning as the work of Georgia vote counters stood on the precipice of deciding the presidential election. The political groundwork she and others did in once-deep-red Georgia was on the verge of turning the state blue.

On election night — before the sweeping and definitive influence of Black voters had seeped into the space of the undeniable for even those uncomfortable with overt discussions of race in politics and those who have made a living decrying "identity politics" since 2016 — Brown had a few moments to reflect. As Brown and her assistant scanned Brown's digital calendar for her remaining election night obligations, Brown described what would come next.

"Having been through the Obama years, I think many of us have learned and are prepared now to demand and keep demanding some policies of significance to the Black community, should there be a Biden administration after tonight," she said. "That, too, is real. That's just where we are."

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