In her big chance to share Charlotte with the world, Cozzie Watkins chose to stand in front of the sign for the Hidden Valley neighborhood.
The 69-year-old activist was representing North Carolina in the virtual Democratic National Convention, and standing at the entrance to that historically Black neighborhood, she was about to burst with energy that would shake the internet.
“Black people, especially Black women, are the backbone of this party, and if we don’t show up Democrats don’t get elected.” Watkins, who works for the planning commission, kept going, asking viewers to “(show) up for Joe Biden, because he will show up for us.”
Black voters like Watkins are responsible for Joe Biden’s nomination. That’s a lot of credit for a demographic that makes up around 13 percent of the country’s total population, but it’s true.
Democratic primary candidates were made and broken by support from Black people. Biden was well behind his opponents after the first three states, but came roaring back with a decisive victory in South Carolina.
Elizabeth Warren dropped out less than a week later, after winning only five percent of the Black vote in South Carolina. Pete Buttigieg dropped out days before Warren after winning just three percent of the Black vote there.
For Democratic candidates, there is no path to victory without support from Black voters, just like Watkins said.
What that means in Charlotte: People in Watkins’ demographic — she was 69 when she recorded the video — have long been the weather vanes for how elections will go in Mecklenburg County. The more they turn out, the more comfortable, typically, a Democratic candidate.
The county has 778,641 total registered voters as of October 2020. Of those, 242,026 are Black voters. So they make up about 31 percent of the voting population here, compared to about 21 percent statewide.
Black voters in Mecklenburg County account for about 16 percent of all registered Black voters in North Carolina. And they mostly lean Democratic. Charlotte is now 9-2 in favor of Democrats on city council, and 9-0 in favor of Democrats on the county commissioners board.
In other words, it’s not a question of whether Joe Biden will win Mecklenburg County. It’s by how much. He needs to do exceedingly well in Charlotte to win North Carolina, and to do exceedingly well in Charlotte he needs to do exceedingly well among Black voters.
And in order for that to happen, Khalif Rhodes, lawyer and chairman of Charlotte Mecklenburg’s Black Political Caucus, says inconsistent voters have to show up.
“The African American community can shift an entire election. So goes Mecklenburg County, so goes the state,” Rhodes says. “So if Joe Biden and the whole Democratic ticket can successfully win Mecklenburg County, then I feel extremely confident about the outlook for this election and the outlook for our future as a country.”
“Racially polarized voting”: UNC Charlotte political science professor Eric Heberlig says the Democratic Party relies heavily on Southern Black voters primarily because the majority of white Southern voters are Republicans.
“In the South to this day we have racially polarized voting where the votes for Republican candidates come almost entirely from white voters so the Democrats need a coalition and most prominently a cross racial coalition to win office,” he says.
This polarization applies to Charlotte, too. If voters in predominantly Black precincts turn out to vote in favor of something, it usually means it will pass. This goes back decades. In the early 2000s, for instance, when funding for a new arena was on the ballot, strategists knew early in the evening on election night that the measure would fail because Black voters in west and northwest Charlotte weren’t turning out for it.
So on a map of Charlotte, what areas should we look for? The congressional district map is probably the best picture. Mecklenburg County falls into two congressional districts — District 12, which is represented by Alma Adams, a 74-year-old Black woman closely aligned with Biden and Obama; and District 9, which is represented by Dan Bishop, a 54-year-old white man closely aligned with Trump.
Bishop represents “the wedge,” or southeast Charlotte. Adams represents the crescent, which is everything else. More than 227,000 Black voters live in Adams’ district, compared to 279,961 white voters. But only 14,558 Black voters live in Bishop’s district, compared to 118,729 white voters.
It stands to reason, then, that the more people Biden can turn out in Adams’ district and the more people Trump can turn out in Bishop’s, the better for each.
Historical support for Biden: Biden’s connection with Black Democrats started decades before he served as President Obama’s vice president. Biden has long been known for his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement and integration. Older Black voters were solid in their support for Biden even over more progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Older Black voters, especially in the South, are often deeply engaged with a local church. The Black Political Caucus, founded in Black churches, endorsed Biden. And that endorsement carries a lot of weight.
“The Black church was a hub, a think tank, a place where you can say ‘Where can we get the best and the brightest? Folks that surge in their churches as community leaders, where can we get folks that we can help become elected officials,'” Rhodes says. “I really appreciate the way they took that approach because they said collectively we can take our Black vote and get whoever we want elected anytime, and I think that’s still true to this day.”
For decades, Black churches in Charlotte like First United Presbyterian and others all around the country have sent Souls to the Polls by chartering buses to polling places during the early voting period, and holding voter registration drives. Ahead of Election Day candidates may come speak to a congregation before the Sunday morning message.
Back in 2015, I heard then Vice President Biden speak at Mother Emanuel AME Church following the Charleston Nine shooting, which happened there just over a week earlier.
Support for the former VP among Black voters only grew when he announced Kamala Harris as his running mate.
“I think that Joe Biden is opening up to some ways of doing things a little differently,” says Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP. “Clearly there’s a level of privilege that he’s had that we don’t have so he doesn’t understand our story. But having a woman of color, a Black woman of Jamaican descent, makes all the difference in the world.”
Rhodes says the caucus is supporting Joe Biden not just for what it would mean on a national level, but because it might have a direct impact, especially as it relates to racial equality, on a state and citywide level.
“Do I think that Joe Biden or anyone that thinks differently than our current occupant of the White House in terms of race relations will make a significant change immediately in my life and Charlotte? Yes,” he says.
Biden was less popular, though, among younger Black voters.
His moderate views, work on the 1994 Crime Bill, and connection to segregationists were big deterrents. Mack says some of his past needs to be put into context.
“People want to be harshly critical of Joe Biden because of his stance on crime. What people need to realize is it was those older Black women … who came to him and asked him to do something,” she says. “I think that they were wrong in their position, when I say them I mean Joe Biden and others that were decision makers, but there were Black people who were begging for that kind of help at that time because there was a high level of crime in our areas.”
In 1993, the year before the Crime Bill was passed, Charlotte had 129 homicides, which is still more than any other year on record.
Black women vote: The need for significant change can also drive people to the polls. During Cozzie Watkins’ DNC speech she specifically called out Black women for their value to the Democratic Party.
“Black women are the most harmed, we’re the most disfranchised, we’re the most excluded, so it’s important that we have an opportunity to lift our voices, and that’s exactly why we lift our voices,” Mack says.
Heberlig says Black women have historically played an important role in the American economy and social structure, and that importance translates to politics as well.
“We talk often about the gender gap, that women are much more likely than men to vote for Democrats,” he says. “But much of that gender gap is driven by the solid support of African American women for Democratic candidates.”