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Black voters helped Biden get elected. His presidency will be defined by how he acts on racial equity.

Biden has diversified his Cabinet. His policies to address structural inequalities will matter even more.

- February 8, 2021

The 2020 presidential election had the most votes cast in American history. Joe Biden not only received the most votes at more than 81 million (topping Barack Obama’s total in the 2008 election), but Trump ranks No. 2 of all-time vote receivers, at over 74 million. In a year of a global pandemic with the United States continuing to rank first in coronavirus cases and deaths, civilian unrest related to police brutality, anti-lockdown protests, and an economic downturn, it is clear that Americans across the political spectrum wanted their voices heard.

Despite pursuits to disrupt mail-in ballots, Americans responded by casting votes under more equal conditions to circumvent voter suppression. So how might the opportunity to participate lead to elections, political appointments and policy changes that better reflect America’s racially diverse democracy?

New voting blocs are emerging, thanks in part to Black Migration

Growing and influential voting blocs are reshaping electoral politics. The most dramatic example is Georgia. For the first time since 1992, Georgia went blue, electing Biden by roughly 12,000 votes and new Democratic Sens. Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff in highly contested runoffs.

Contrary to popular narratives about Never Trumpers and predominantly White suburbs carrying Biden over the finish line, my analysis reveals that Black voters played a significant role. Black Americans represented over 50 percent of all Democratic voters in Georgia. A similar picture emerged in the Senate runoff elections, where increased participation by Black voters played a crucial role in securing the two Democrats’ victories.

These outcomes not only reflect the fact that Black Americans have overwhelmingly voted Democratic since the 1960s, or the extraordinary efforts of Stacey Abrams and other Black organizers on the ground. They also reflect the consequences of large-scale demographic changes. A new great migration is commencing, and it is coming back South with the Atlanta metro as a hub. The Black population in Georgia has increased from roughly 1.8 million to 3.5 million since 1990, so that Black people now represent nearly 35 percent of the state’s total population. This is the highest Black population in the state since 1950. In nearly every county surrounding Fulton County (where Atlanta is located), the Black population increased and the White population decreased. A similar migration pattern can be seen in Charlotte, Nashville and Birmingham, Ala., among other Southern cities.

Racially diverse voting blocs are changing the politics of presidential appointments

Blacks’ contribution to Democratic votes in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan has put immense pressure on Biden to diversify his Cabinet picks and downstream political appointees (beyond his selection of Kamala D. Harris as his vice president). Civil rights leaders urged that Biden’s top selections should reflect the racially diverse coalition that got him to the White House.

Biden has delivered. To date, the president has assembled the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history. Top picks for the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Defense, Interior and Education as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Science Technology Policy suggest that legislation to actually address racial inequity are accomplishable goals. In fact, Biden has signed executive orders on racial equity and reinstituted diversity and bias training for federal employees and contractors, which removes Trump’s executive order that banned these trainings.

In addition to Biden addressing the coronavirus pandemic and racial disparities in the number of deaths and vaccinations, many will pay close attention to how the administration handles criminal justice reform. The Department of Justice has racial, religious and gender diversity at the top levels of the organization. This diversity reflects the fact that a majority of Americans, including progressive, moderates and even some conservatives think racial equality is important. Biden and Harris have work to do on criminal justice reform, and the assembled group may just deliver on high expectations. Not only does reform draw bipartisan support, but police consent decrees can create massive changes within police departments and the cities they serve. Despite disagreements about defunding the police, Biden and Harris have a genuine political opportunity to reimagine policing, incarceration and reentry.

Appointments matter to politics, but policy matters more

Scholars who study race and racism say representation is only one element of equity. Biden’s Lift Every Voice plan for Black Americans is one action, but the racial wealth gap cannot be properly addressed without transformative policies to confront the past, manifest the present and create the future. Only such policies would allow Biden to truly repair the fundamental racial inequality that divides America.

In 2019, the average White family had 10 times as much wealth as the average Black family. This gap has widened further during the pandemic. Not only do Black families and communities face structural conditions that make it more likely that they will contract covid-19 and die of it, but Black small businesses were systematically shut out of stimulus relief under the Trump administration. Over 40 percent of Black small businesses have closed during the coronavirus pandemic, mostly related to being denied Paycheck Protection Program funding.

This is why many Black leaders and civil rights groups are pressing for policies that would address the enduring structural inequalities that shape Black lives and sometimes destroy them. A growing number of House and Senate members have signed on to bills focused on reparations and truth and reconciliation. While many wonder about the costs associated with reparations, there are possible sources of revenue, such as selling federal land, that might finance it and that may have higher chances of getting passed in an economic era when the country is prepared to spend trillions of dollars for other purposes, such as pandemic stimulus relief.

Rashawn Ray is a David M. Rubenstein fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. He is on Twitter @SociologistRay.

This article is part of a seminar on the 2020 election and its aftereffects organized by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. See below for the complete list of contributions to the seminar.

Introduction: The 2020 election has had important aftereffects.

Rashawn Ray: Black voters helped Biden get elected. His presidency will be defined by how he acts on racial equity.

Hahrie Han and Liz McKenna: To learn about the Democratic Party’s future, look at what Latino organizers did in Arizona.

Lee Drutman: The high turnout in 2020 wasn’t good for American democracy

Frances Lee: Democrats underperformed their expectations in 2020. That’s not surprising, considering where the country is.

David Brady and Brett Parker: This is how Biden eked out his 2020 victory