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Biden Describes White Supremacy as 'Poison' in Pitch to Black Voters

President Joe Biden waits to speak next to South Carolina Democratic Representative Jim Clyburn at a campaign event at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 8, 2024.
President Joe Biden waits to speak next to South Carolina Democratic Representative Jim Clyburn at a campaign event at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 8, 2024.

President Joe Biden made a heartfelt appeal to Black voters on Monday, speaking passionately at a storied South Carolina church scarred by racially motivated tragedy and seeking support as members of the state’s large Black community head to the nation’s first Democratic primary next month.

Before a packed congregation at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Biden spoke of “a poison that’s for too long haunted this nation,” echoing words from former President Donald Trump, who has made waves on the campaign trail by accusing immigrants of “poisoning the blood” of the nation.

“What is that poison?” Biden continued. “White supremacy. ... Throughout our history, it’s ripped this nation apart. This has no place in America. Not today, tomorrow or ever.”

With those words, Biden became the first sitting American president to speak from the pulpit of one of the nation’s oldest and most respected Black spiritual institutions. The stately church, founded more than two centuries ago, was the scene of a gruesome mass shooting in 2015 in which nine people, including the church’s pastor, were killed by a white supremacist.

President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy at the Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in 2015, which was held in TD Arena at the College of Charleston.

The tragedy prompted South Carolina’s governor at the time, Nikki Haley — who is now running for the Republican presidential nomination — to remove the Confederate flag that flew over the state Capitol.

Biden also capitalized on the venue by indirectly mentioning Haley’s reluctance in a recent public forum to acknowledge that disagreements over slavery caused the Civil War.

“Let me be clear for those who don't seem to know: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War,” he said, to applause. “There is no negotiation about that.”

Racism an election issue

Groups that work to mobilize overlooked voters say racism is a top issue that emerges time and again in polls and focus groups.

Cynthia Wallace co-founded the New Rural Project after her unsuccessful congressional run in 2020 showed that 60,000 registered voters of color in her North Carolina district didn’t turn up at the polls.

“When we look at the top issues that concern folks, and we look at it by demographics, African American infrequent voters — these are part of those 60,000 folks who didn't show up, who we are actually specifically targeted to speak to — one of their top issues, whether it's from the polling or the focus groups, is racism,” she told VOA.

But, she added, “We continue to hear most of the rural folks that we speak to focus on the kitchen-table issues.”

South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn hit some of those points in introducing Biden, listing what he saw as Biden’s achievements and contrasting him with Trump.

Clyburn outlined Biden’s attempts at student loan forgiveness, his appointment of an unprecedented number of Black female judges, his support of abortion rights, his work to reduce health care costs and his efforts to help veterans.

“We know Joe,” he said. “But most importantly, Joe knows us well.”

“I rest my case,” Biden quipped after Clyburn’s speech, as attendees chanted “Four more years!” in support of Biden’s reelection.

But Clyburn’s rousing words contrasted with his weekend comments on CNN, where he said he was “very concerned” about the Biden campaign’s ability to “break through that MAGA wall” — a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again motto — and communicate his message to voters.

Polls show that Biden faces challenges with Black voters, who propelled him to victory over Trump in 2020. A poll conducted late last year by the GenForward Survey project found that 17% of Black voters said they would vote for Trump, and 20% would vote for “someone else.” Sixty-three percent said they would vote for Biden.

'Cease-fire now' or 'four more years'?

Some of the disagreements appeared in real-time on Monday, when a heckler, referring to the ongoing conflict in Gaza, led a chant of “cease-fire now” — which was then drowned out by louder chants of “four more years.”

Biden acknowledged the hecklers, saying, “I understand their passion.”

He added, “I’ve been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza. I’ve been using all that I can to do that.”

Democratic strategist Douglas Wilson, speaking to VOA from North Carolina, said the Black community is divided on perceptions of the war in Gaza, with younger voters viewing “Palestinians as being people of color and look at the end of the Israelis as occupiers or as colonizers.”

“That's a course that's up for debate,” he added. “I don't agree with that personally. But there is a segment of the community that feels that way.”

Misinformation and the economy

Wallace, of the New Rural Project, noted the role of misinformation in skewing attitudes. She said that only one Black voter she spoke to raised the issue of Gaza and falsely claimed that Biden supports Hamas, the militant group that launched the stunning attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Biden has repeatedly called Hamas “terrorists,” described their acts as “evil” and has given material and moral support to Israel. Hamas is a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

“I think in this information-heavy world, I think it's hard for information to cut through,” Wallace said. “You’ve got to make sure that people actually know what things you've done and what things you plan to do more of and what things you're fighting for.”

Wilson added that more details on Black economic empowerment could also shift voter support.

“I would have liked to hear him give a brief outline of what his economic agenda will be in a second term for Black America,” he said. “And I think that if he can begin to articulate that, then it will give Black voters a reason to come out and vote for him in high numbers.”

South Carolina voters participate in the Democratic presidential primary on Feb. 3, in which Representative Dean Phillips and author and self-professed spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson are also on the ballot.