When Black lives matter to Democrats, and when they don't

Do Black lives matter to Democrats? As Tim Alberta recently reported, a lot of Black voters think the answer is no. That may explain why the Democrats are blocking the GOP justice reform bill in the Senate: With Black voters already discouraged, Democrats don’t want them to get the idea that Republicans may have something to offer.

Alberta’s reporting, in Politico, is striking. At the invitation of a local African-American politico, he spent an afternoon with a bunch of middle-class Black voters outside Detroit. He found they were disappointed in the Democrats, thought nothing much had changed for them during the Obama presidency, and expected Trump to win even though they planned to vote for Biden themselves.

Democrats haven't actually helped Black communities

As a woman named Ursura Moore observed: “Some people thought just because we had a Black president, he was going to make things better for Black people — he was going to free Black prisoners, wipe out Black debt. That was just ignorance. But the disappointment some of us felt with Obama — more so with the Democratic Party —that was real. And it hasn’t gone away. So, people start to wonder whether the outcome even matters. They wonder whether they should bother voting at all.”

Eric Benjamin commented: “Biden’s a politician, same as the rest of them, same as Trump. But at least with Trump you know where he stands,” he said. “If we were sitting here, me and you, and you’re pretending we’re friends, but then behind my back, you act like you don’t even know me, that’s the worst. I’d much rather you just tell me to my face that we’re not friends. That’s Trump. I respect that. The Democrats always be acting like we’re friends.”

And, most damningly, Sherry Gay-Dagnogo said: “We’re always the f------ help! And I’m tired of being the help!” she cried. “Don’t wait until it’s an election year, until you’re in trouble, to come to us and ask for help saving your a--. They always say it will be different after the next election. But it never is. And we’re sick of it.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott on June 23, 2020, in Washington, DC.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott on June 23, 2020, in Washington, DC.

Even activists like Shaun King are noticing that “systemic racism” seems to happen mostly in Democratic-controlled cities and states: “Democrats, from top to bottom, are running the cities with the worst police brutality in America right now. We voted for them.”

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So now comes President Donald Trump — who’s already successfully pushed a criminal-justice reform package, the First Step Act, with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and already issued an executive order limiting police chokeholds and other abusive behavior that won praise even from Van Jones — and the Democrats are terrified that he might deliver a major reform bill in Congress before the election, and they can’t have that. Better that nothing should happen than that Black voters might see Trump as performing where the Democrats — even when they controlled the White House and had a supermajority in Congress — never did.

Lack of support for Tim Scott's bill

In the words of Black Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina: "They cannot allow this party to be seen as a party that reaches out to all communities in this nation.”

So Scott’s bill can’t pass. The bill would make lynching a federal crime. It would also place stringent reporting requirements on so-called “no-knock” raids, and tie federal grants to the elimination of police chokeholds like the one that killed George Floyd. It would also use grants to encourage the use of police bodycams.

As Washington Post columnist Mark Thiessen put it, If Democrats cared about police reform, they would have advanced Tim Scott’s bill. He called the Democrats’ move “shameful,” and observed: “If Democrats cared about getting something done, they would have allowed the Senate to move forward and sought to amend Scott’s bill on the floor. There was plenty of basis for compromise. Scott’s legislation had already incorporated a number of Democratic proposals.” Yeah, it could do more — I’d favor an end to “qualified immunity” from lawsuits for police officers and other government officials, but I very much doubt that would command a majority, even among Democrats. And the Democrats’ motives are not pure. As Scott notes, they're ”pure race politics at its worst.”

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And there’s more. Not only did the Democrats block debate on the bill, but Scott has been subjected to racial slurs — Sen. Dick Durbin used the word ”token” to describe Scott’s bill, a racial code word that Scott called out. And Democrat-supporting callers to Scott's office are subjecting him to racial slurs and threats and calling him a “sellout.” That for pushing a revolutionary piece of reform legislation.

So do Black lives matter to Democrats? Not if there are votes at stake, apparently. Bear that in mind between now and November.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of "The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself," is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black lives matter but, to Democrats, only sometimes