Overcoming 'the appalling silence of the good people'

Overcoming 'the appalling silence of the good people'
© Greg Nash

Somewhere in a rural part of Richland County, South Carolina, a woman in her late 80s may be the real reason why Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE will be our 46th president.

By his own account, Rep. Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnThis week: Democrats kick off chaotic fall with Biden's agenda at stake Democrats brace for battle on Biden's .5 trillion spending plan Changing Joe Biden's mind is no easy task MORE (D-S.C.) arrived early at a funeral a week before the South Carolina primary in late February. As he tells the story, he was walking around chatting with folks when he was beckoned by a woman to come kneel by her side. She told Clyburn to whisper into her ear “Who are you going to vote for next Saturday?” Clyburn, who knew for a long time who he was supporting, had kept his preference to himself until that fateful encounter with his constituent.

Clyburn listened closely as this woman told him: “I’ve been waiting to hear from you. I need to hear from you. This community needs to hear from you.”


Chastened by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. — who warned against the “appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time’” — and Clyburn’s own experiences, he said he knew “then and there that I would not stay silent.”

Clyburn’s pew-side chat is more than a compelling personal anecdote. It previewed how race and gender would help decide this historic presidential election.

Clyburn’s consequential endorsement, fueled by the enthusiasm and steadfast support of African Americans — especially Black women — propelled Biden to victory a week later. According to L2 estimates of primary voters, six in ten South Carolina voters were women, and more Blacks cast ballots than the total estimate of all racial and ethnic subgroups; 64 percent of all African American primary voters were women.

Large pluralities for Biden followed three days later across the Super Tuesday contests, including in North Carolina and Virginia, with two of the largest percentages of African Americans per capita. North Carolina women voted in margins 11 points higher than men, and 63 percent of all African American voters were women. Virginia women outvoted men by 15 points, and similarly, 6 of 10 African American voters were women. The Super Tuesday exit polls also show that 7 in 10 primary voters in Alabama and Virginia were Black, as well as 6 in 10 in North Carolina and Texas.

Why this look back at the primaries in February and March? Because the Biden campaign was literally resuscitated by Clyburn’s endorsement and the ensuing high Black voter turnout across the South. And it foreshadowed the potential influence gender and race would play in the 2020 general election. Last Tuesday’s exit polls indicate that 8 out of 10 Black voters supported Biden.


To study the intersection of gender and race, we surveyed more than 500 women in five battleground states (Fla., Ga., Nev., N.C., and Pa.) in the 10 days leading up to the election. We found an equal proportion of women said Biden’s choice of Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisStefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris MORE for vice president influenced their decision to vote for the Democratic ticket this year compared to those who said it made no difference.

Among those who told us Biden’s choice of Harris did matter, the women we surveyed were twice as likely to vote for the Democratic ticket as compared to those who said Biden’s choice made them less likely to do so. The difference among Black women in North Carolina and Georgia was even more lopsided in favor of the Democratic ticket.

Biden gave credit to the impact Black voters played in his campaign amidst his broad and diverse coalition of supporters. In the president-elect’s acceptance speech delivered on Saturday evening, Biden told the African American community “they always have my back” and he promised he would “have theirs.” This relationship is rooted in Biden’s Delaware’s home, which has the 10th largest percentage of African Americans per capita in the U.S.

The story that is left to be written is the future role women and persons of color will have in a Biden administration.

Yet at the urging of one South Carolina woman, whose mother and grandmother did not have the right to vote when they were born, the momentum in the presidential primary shifted, leading ultimately to Joe Biden’s successful presidential run. In his repeated retelling of the story of his elderly constituent who helped influence his decision to endorse Biden, Clyburn showcases the impact every Black woman can play, and more importantly, the potential impact every citizen has in the American democracy.

But only when we do not stay silent.

Debbie Borie-Holtz is an assistant professor at the Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University where she teaches Methods courses and also conducts survey research at the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling. Follow her on Twitter @borieholtz.