Keith Johnstone: Joe ain’t Black, but he needs us and we need him

Wednesday, June 3, 2020 - 4:30pm

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“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

In my columns, I attempt to stay facially neutral about my personal background when it comes to political issues, trying my hardest to give the untouched facts about an issue or political figure to lead readers to my conclusion, usually with a sarcastic comment or two along the way. However, with this column, I think my personal story is important because, when I watched former Vice President Joe Biden make his comments on The Breakfast Club, no matter how hard I tried, I did not see them through a journalistic, impartial lens. I did not see them as a liberal voter who wants to see progressive changes made in government. I did not see them as an American citizen who loves this country despite this dark era that we are all experiencing together.

I saw the comment as a Black man who has been made fun of for wearing my naturally curly hair inside of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. I saw these comments as a Black man who never felt at home in the rich white suburbs where I grew up. For my entire life, people have told me that I do not belong, no matter where I am, that I am somehow less than human because of the color of my skin, and hearing a white man say that some people “ain’t Black” because of their voting patterns sickened me. Biden has no place telling anyone how Black they are for countless reasons, chief among them is that he ain’t Black and could never be. Until he has walked in the shoes of a Black man or woman, he cannot pass judgment on a single one of my brothers or sisters. Blackness is a much deeper issue than your vote for the presidency or the language you use or the music you listen to. In my opinion, the true measure of Blackness is how the world interprets you and how you interpret the world, and no vote can take this life experience away.

Your vote for the presidency may not define your Blackness, but it does define something much more central to your character. As my granny said, “it don’t matter whether you’re Black, white or Puerto Rican, as long as you’ve got heart,” and I believe that, at its core, heart is really what’s on the ballot this November. Sure, Biden has professed that his cabinet would “look like the country,” meaning having more diversity than the people in Trump’s cabinet like clammy-handed, lying, unqualified Ben Carson and Elaine Chao, the woman who gets to be Mitch McConnell’s wife. However, as a middle-class person myself, I understand the selfish argument that Trump lowered our taxes and brought unemployment, especially Black unemployment, to an all-time low. 

However, these were results of the Obama Administration — of which Biden was a critical part — and its economic recovery plan after the financial crisis. Also, a little thing called the COVID-19 pandemic — which has disproportionately burdened minority communities in part due to the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines making it more difficult for people to receive health insurance — wiped out that record. Additionally, Trump’s administration has made it more difficult for both documented and undocumented immigrants, who have been proven to boost economic productivity, to enter this country. The administration has widened the latitude of prosecutorial sentencing discretion, and they have nonsensically tightened the already ineffective work requirements on food assistance while encouraging work requirements for Medicaid. 

These discriminatory policies are all targeted specifically at communities of color and, while I get the allure of a tax cut, I believe having heart means looking out for people beyond yourself, beyond even your immediate community, to look at the greater good. 

So, yes, if you vote for Donald Trump, you are still Black, but you show a fundamental disregard for your brothers and sisters, and you ought to consider the thousands you are robbing of opportunities before condemning them to the very life that our ancestors fought to prevent.

In the end, while extremely insensitive, #YouAintBlack is not a symbol of Biden or anyone in the Democratic Party taking our community’s vote for granted. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite. The mere fact that Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have all been on the same radio show whose previous content includes Soulja Boy roasting Drake — which is by far the most savage thing I’ve ever seen — is a remarkable testament to how much Democrats value the opinions of Black voters in 2020. See, when voter turnout in the Black community fell in 2016, propelling us into the era of the pornstar president with perfectly normal-sized hands (wink wink), I believe the Democratic Party woke up to the fact that Black voters make this party what it is today and we could destroy it if we stopped participating. Maybe the Democratic Party learning that lesson is the one good thing to come out of the Trump era.

Look, at the end of the day, I got lucky. I was born into a family with two parents, two sisters and two dogs who have all loved and cared for me my entire life. Because of my ancestors' sacrifices, I was born free and, because of my own actions, I have lived free. However, not a second goes by where I am unaware that with one bad judgment call or one bad financial decision, that freedom can be taken from me and I could be left at the mercy of our government. Though I have not fallen victim to these circumstances, many of my brothers and sisters have and, for them, it is my duty to vote for a president who cares. This is why I am Black, and I am voting for Joe Biden. If you have a heart, you should too.

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu