WASHINGTON – The Biden administration appears to be paying close attention to criticism that Democrats only engage with Black voters during election cycles without delivering on the issues they care about.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who is playing a crucial role in the administration’s outreach, quietly met last week with students and civil rights organizers to solicit ideas on how the Biden administration can lift up young Black men.
In the private meeting, attendees detailed ways the White House can help young men of color improve their livelihoods. Harris also wanted to know how the White House can assist young Black men with overcoming stigmas.
Attendees of the hour-long discussion with Harris said the conversation continued with senior aides to the vice president after she departed. They left with the impression that the White House is looking to expand on its policies, they said, and improve its engagement with young men of color.
“The purpose of the meeting really was for them to listen – for her to listen, her team to listen – and really figure out how to dig deep and think through an intentional plan around engaging Black men, particularly young Black men in this country who don’t see themselves in the process, but most importantly, to address their concerns and issues, ” NAACP national vice president of campaigns Dominik Whitehead said.
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Whitehead said the vice president told attendees that she would listen and “take back everything that you listed and figure out what is our game plan” as the administration builds out a strategy attendees can be involved in.
Harris and her team were “adamant” about keeping the more than 30 participants apprised of “what they do and what they plan on doing,” said Tylik McMillan, the current manager of state outreach Credit Union National Association and a civil rights organizer.
“The vice president shared multiple times how it was a priority for them and they will continue to engage us, moving forward, as they are in the planning process of whatever they come up with or announce,” McMillan said.
The office of the vice president declined to comment for USA TODAY’s story.
Biden’s recent outreach to Black men
The meeting comes as President Joe Biden prepares to give his State of the Union address and possibly announce a reelection bid and in the wake of a midterm cycle in which many Black male voters said they felt abandoned by the Democratic Party.
Black women vote at higher rates for the Democratic Party compared to Black men. During the 2020 presidential election 95% of Black women voted for Biden while 87% of Black men voted for him, according to the Pew Research Center.
Harris has been holding listening sessions with civil rights leaders, abortion rights activists, students and others.
Two days before Harris’ meeting with young Black men, Biden emphasized his administration’s efforts to pass federal voting rights reforms during a Sunday sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
The following day, at a Washington, D.C. breakfast hosted by the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Biden spoke at length about policies his administration put in place that are intended to improve the lives of Black Americans.
“On this one and so much I have your back,” Biden told breakfast attendees.
Black men and the economy
Systemic racism and inequities in the criminal justice system have long hindered Black men’s employment and financial security.
Black men were one of the hardest-hit groups economically, during the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, the Black male unemployment rate hit 16% while the overall unemployment rate was 11.1%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Whitehead said the vice president’s office approached the NAACP, which ultimately sent more than a dozen of its members to meet with Harris, and said it wanted to speak with Black men ages 18 to 35.
Students from Harvard University, UCLA and Morehouse College and organizers affiliated with the National Urban League and National Action Network also attended the meeting. So did climate activists, union workers and individuals affected by hurricanes in Puerto Rico, individuals who participated in the meeting said.
The vice president’s chief economic adviser Deanne Millison was among the Harris aides who sat in on the closed door meeting. Harris’ office declined to make Millison available for an interview.
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Attendees said that the conversation focused on economic empowerment and opportunity for communities of color, and touched on Black entrepreneurship, the racial wealth gap, disproportionately high interest rates for Black borrowers, barriers to home ownership, inflated rental prices, mental health programs, criminal justice reform and equitable access to good-paying jobs.
“The vice president, she was very attentive in the conversation,” said McMillan, a former national youth director for and senior policy adviser to Sharpton’s group. “It was an authentic conversation. She kept it real.”
McMillan said he told the group about the need to ensure that financial institutions such as credit unions have the resources to invest in low-income communities. He said a conversation also took place about how the White House can engage young people on these issues through social media.
Some of Biden and Harris’ promises to “empower Black men” have had more success than others.
Minimum wage increase legislation that would close the racial wealth gap, for instance, is stalled in Congress. Legislation reinstating and expanding the first-time homebuyer credit is under discussion but has not been passed into law. Biden’s student debt forgiveness actions have been blocked by the courts.
A law Congress passed last summer that addresses gun violence did include additional money for mental health and addiction treatment, and infrastructure legislation provided some of the funds Biden promised to direct to minority-owned businesses.
Joshua Harris, vice president of the Baltimore NAACP, said he hopes the meeting with the vice president will lead to the administration pursing tangible economic policies that will improve Black men’s lives.
One example the NAACP’s Harris gave is how implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act affects Black men throughout the U.S.
“Where are the tangible jobs for someone who may only have a high school diploma?,” Harris said. “How do we get them into those blue-collar working jobs? What does that look like?”
Biden administration faces pushback
Polling of Black men after the 2022 midterm elections showed they still overwhelmingly approve of the Biden administration, but more work can be done.
A December poll from Hit Strategies, a public research company, found that 81% of Black men approve of the job Biden is doing. But only 59% of Black men said they were satisfied with the direction in which the country is headed, with 41% saying they were dissatisfied.
A June poll Hit Strategies conducted on behalf of the NAACP found that a majority of Black men trusted Democrats on issues such as voting rights, healthcare and racial equality. But when it came to the economy and inflation only 48% and 42% of Black men trusted Democrats to do a better job than Republicans.
Although Black men are the second-most loyal voting bloc for Democrats, political experts have cautioned that they are swing voters and cannot be taken for granted.
“One of the criticisms people have of general outreach to Black voters, is that it doesn’t start until months before the election,” said Jermaine House, senior director of Communications at HIT Strategies.
W. Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project and mayor of Enfield, North Carolina, was not invited to the meeting Harris held with civil rights organizers. But he said that if he were, he wouldn’t have attended.
Robinson stressed that Black men are not apolitical, as some experts have described them, but are exhausted with the transactional nature of election cycles.
“People come to our communities two, three months before an election, talking about proverbial fried chicken and church fans with nothing else to offer us, nothing to address the issue that’s really plaguing our lives,” he said.
Like other organizers, Robinson stressed that Black men need to see the Biden administration pass legislative policies that positively benefit their lives.
“If the Biden administration wanted to engage Black men in a way that’s effective, they would have started two years ago, when they had the opportunity, when they controlled all three houses in Washington D.C.,” Robinson said. “They had an opportunity to do something about qualified immunity—one of the leading issues for Black men.”
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields government officials from civil liability for constitutional violations. Lawmakers dropped qualified immunity from police reform negotiations in 2021; Congress ultimately walked away from talks on police reform, a setback for the Biden administration.
Although participants said the issue did come up, Harris, of the Baltimore NAACP, said he would have liked the meeting to have included more conversation on solutions to addressing the harmful impact the criminal justice system has had on Black men.
“When I say the criminal justice system, I’m not talking about just those who are in jail,” Harris said. “But the residual impact of the criminal justice system on those who are looking for jobs, on those who need housing.”
Still, advocates said they view the meeting as a positive sign from the Biden administration.
“To hear that the highest levels of government—the White House— are paying attention to Black men in a more intentional way and understanding and doing this a year before or two years before the 2024 election … I think that’s a really good thing for the White House to be doing,” said House.