Black Michiganders say Democratic President-elect Joe Biden owes African Americans a debt of gratitude for his victory over President Trump this week. 

“Joe Biden could have not won the presidency without the Black vote in Michigan,” said Keith Williams, Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus chair. “Black folks matter.” 

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Biden’s running mate, will become the first woman, African American and Asian American to serve as vice president. Her father is Black and was born in Jamaica; her mother was born in India. Both immigrated to the United States.

“I will be honored to be serving with a fantastic vice president — Kamala Harris — who will make history as the first woman, first Black woman, first woman of South Asian descent, and first daughter of immigrants ever elected to national office in this country,” Biden said in his victory speech in Wilmington, Del., Saturday night.

“It’s long overdue, and we’re reminded tonight of all those who fought so hard for so many years to make this happen,” Biden continued. “But once again, America has bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”

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Williams said that choosing Harris as a running mate made Biden more of an attractive candidate to Blacks. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, the first African American to hold the Michigan post, congratulated Biden and Harris, tweeting, “It will be an honor to work alongside you for the people of Michigan and our nation.”

Paulette Compass, a Detroit janitor who’s African American, organized and rallied for Biden this fall through SEIU, her union. She said that Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was instrumental in causing people to turn to Biden.

“Trump’s mishandling of coronavirus that has caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives or the economic crisis facing working families,” said Compass. “Clearly, our message resonated across Michigan.”

In Michigan, coronavirus has disproportionately affected the African-American community and hit the majority-Black city of Detroit particularly hard during the spring. Blacks make up 14% of the state’s population but represent 38% of the state deaths associated with the virus.

Both the Biden and Trump campaigns targeted Black voters, particularly men, during the 2020 campaign, as the Advance reported.

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That came after thousands of Michigan residents who cast a ballot in 2012 for Democratic President Barack Obama’s reelection did not vote for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump won Michigan by only 10,704 votes, the first Republican presidential nominee to win the state since 1988. 

Nationally, 13% of Black men voted for Donald Trump in 2016, according to CNN exit polls, as opposed to only 4% of African-American women. 

In her victory speech, Harris gave a shoutout to her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and noted the struggles of women — particularly women of color — who came before her.

“Asian, white, Latina and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight,” Harris said. “Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often Prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.”

In Detroit — Michigan’s largest city, which is 80% Black — voter turnout was 49% on Tuesday, according to the Detroit city clerk’s office. That’s 1 percentage point higher than in 2016. That was only 3 percentage points lower than in 2008 when Obama was first elected and became the nation’s first Black president. 

Rick Blocker, chair of the 14th Congressional District Democratic Party anchored in Detroit, said that Blacks were motivated to vote.

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“I definitely think we made a difference,” Blocker said.

The president made a play for Blacks in Detroit, opening an office down the street from Blocker’s office. Trump unveiled his “Platinum Plan” for Blacks backed by celebrities like Ice Cube that included a pledge to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist organization, make Juneteenth a federal holiday and bolster African-American economic prosperity. Juneteenth is a celebration of when Black slaves in Texas learned that African Americans had been freed.

Trump also touted his criminal justice efforts boosted by celebrities like reality star Kim Kardashian West, whose husband, rapper Kanye West, launched a much-hyped independent presidential bid that failed to materialize as a spoiler. At the same time, Trump also trumpeted a strong “law and order” message to suburban white women, railed against Black Lives Matter and repeatedly failed to condemn white supremacists and extremist groups like the Proud Boys, who he told to “stand back and stand by” at the first presidential debate in October. 

For its part, the Biden campaign launched a digital series, “Shop Talk,” modeled after National Basketball Association star LeBron James’ HBO broadcast “The Shop” to talk about issues impacting African American men, like his platform of a $15 minimum wage, police reform, protecting health care for people with preexisting conditions and cutting child poverty. 

Harris did several campaign stops across the country, including Detroit, for Black men, and several ads, particularly toward the end of the campaign, were targeted to African Americans and featured Harris. She also spent much of Election Day in Detroit and Southfield, both African American strongholds. Obama and Biden also did a joint events in Flint and Detroit the weekend before the election.

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Biden’s 146,000-vote margin, 2.7 percentage points, was powered by gains in big, vote-rich counties such as Oakland near Detroit and Kent, which includes Grand Rapids — amid a record 5.5 million people casting ballots statewide, according to the Associated Press.

The former vice president also won Oakland County by 14 points and Kent County by 6 points — both former GOP bastions. In Oakland County, Biden improved on Clinton’s 8-point win in 2016. Trump won Kent County by 3 points in 2016. 

The Rev. Charles Williams II, National Action Network Michigan chair, said that Blacks were not deterred by Trump’s voter persuasion and suppression efforts. Rather, they were determined to replace him.  

“Democrats owe us. Democrats owe Black America,” Williams said.  

Not all Biden voters in Detroit identified as Democrats, either.

“I’m not a Democrat or a Republican,” said Angelo Austin, a 24-year-old African American from Detroit. “I voted for Joe Biden. He was the best guy to get the job done.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.