They are not leaders, they are servants who work for us’: Black voters in Philadelphia reflect on the promise of the new Democratic administration

Written by on November 20, 2020

By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat

Earlier this week, WURD and Votebeat spoke to a dozen Black voters across the city of Philadelphia and asked them to reflect on the 2020 Presidential Election. Now, we’ve asked these same voters to talk about the promise of the new political administration and how they believe these commitments will be met.

The 2020 Presidential Election reached historic numbers this year, and in Philadelphia it was the highest voter turnout in 25 years. According to reporting by Billy Penn, the city also saw the highest voter registration rates since 1984. Philadelphia’s Black residents, who make up 44% of the city-wide population, certainly contributed to these surges in voting. During his victory speech last week, President-elect Joe Biden acknowledged the critical  role the Black vote played in his win.

“Especially those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African American community stood up again for me,” Biden said over a roaring crowd of people.  “You always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”

With Election Day more than two weeks behind us, there’s new attention being given to how Democrats on the federal, state, and local level will make good on their promise to the many Black Americans who showed up to vote this year.

‘I didn’t vote for Biden because I have some resounding faith’

The Biden campaign ran on a host of key issues, including coronavirus relief, criminal justice reform, climate change and thorough expansion of Obamacare. And in response to growing social unrest that sprung from a summer inundated with gross acts of police brutality, he used his campaign platform to acknowledge the need for widespread economic and social programs meant to invest in communities of color. According to the BBC, one such program is a $20 billion grant initiative that pushes states to “reduce incarceration, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, decriminalize marijuana and expunge prior cannabis convictions, and end the death penalty.”

Despite the public promises from Democrats and the Biden campaign to substantially address the issues that disproportionately impact one of their central voting bases — Black Americans — some Black Philadelphians are not sure they are up to the job.

Carmela Dow, 24, is a design activist from Mount Airy.  

“I didn’t vote for Biden because I have some resounding faith that he’s going to continue to uplift the platform that he stole from Bernie and Warren,” said Dow, referring to other Democrats who ran presidential campaigns this time. “I don’t necessarily trust that the Democrats are gonna run on an anti ICE, Black Lives Matter, pro-woman platform that they’ve been claiming. I would love to see it but I just don’t.”

Mount Airy native and design activist, Carmela Dow, 24, is the founder of, an inclusive and fun fashion brand with a political edge. Photograph courtesy of Carmela Dow.

 During the primaries, issues like reparations for Black American slave-descendants were actively discussed and debated by Democratic presidential candidates. In June last year Senator Cory Booker proposed a reparations bill, — the only one of its kind — meant to

establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and continuing discrimination against African-Americans and make recommendations on reparation proposals for the descendants of slaves. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as well as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris were all co-sponsors of this bill. 

But Biden has largely remained silent on the issue, telling The Washington Post in July 2019, “I have developed education, climate change and health-care policies, among others, that will root out this systemic racism and ensure that all Americans have a fair shot at living the American dream.” 

“While my administration takes major actions to address systemic racism, it will also study how reparations may be part of those efforts.” 

Courtney Gambrell, resident of North East Philadelphia, said she isn’t surprised.

“So did [the Biden campaign] really speak about reparations? No,” Gambrell said. “But I don’t think that’s something they ever want to speak about. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marc Lamont Hill, and the people that have been talking about it and people at the grassroots in Philadelphia and other major cities that have continued to fight for Black lives —  those are the people that are going to keep demanding it.”

‘This administration will be more centered on the people’

Marquis Wright-Lee of North Philadelphia says his feelings are mixed. He was not ecstatic about a Biden-Harris ticket but he does want a more “people-centered” administration and believes the Democrats will deliver.

North Philadelphia native, Marquis Wright-Lee, 30, says he’s looking forward to a “people-centered” administration.

“Specifically this year with Covid going on and people being out of work and the small business loans for businesses, one of the mishaps for that was organizations such as the Los Angeles Lakers were qualified as small businesses and they took up millions of the [Paycheck Protection] Program,” said Wright-Lee. (The Lakers returned that money.)

“And that’s not what this country needed especially at a time like that. So what I anticipate for this [new] administration is to be more centered on the people. Biden has already laid the ground for his student loan forgiveness program and things like that.”

‘You have to hold these people accountable’

The police killings of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd made police reform a hot button issue for many voters this year. And just days before Philadelphians were to vote on a ballot question that would allow greater oversight of city police, West Philadelphia resident Walter Wallace Jr was brutally killed by an officer from the Philadelphia Police Department outside his family home in Cobbs Creek. In the general election, 499,653 Philadelphians — over two thirds of those who voted in the city — said yes to the ballot measure which will make the new Citizens Police Oversight Committee a frontline investigator, with the potential to subpoena testimony records from the PPD and give the City Council the ability to determine the composition, powers and duties of the Committee itself.

But some critics have said this new initiative doesn’t substantially address the roots of anti-Black policing in the city and the country.

Walter Palmer, 86, is an acclaimed civil rights activist and community organizer from West Philadelphia’s Black Bottom. Palmer, who just launched a national campaign to get racism designated as a public health crisis in America, says police brutality isn’t the problem — it’s the symptom of a white supremacist structure.

“You have to stop looking at incidents like police abuse and police killings like they aren’t symptomatic of a larger problem,” said Palmer. “We need to have the entire society worked on. [If it’s designated] a health crisis, that forces the whole nation to take a look and put money behind finding solutions for overcoming [these] issues that have plagued the Black community for 400 years.”

Photograph courtesy of Walter Palmer.

State Representative-elect Rick Krajewski of the 188th district says the jobs of local elected officials is to continue to be in touch with the people they serve, and the people who worked hard to elect them.

“One of the ways to stay accountable is to continue being in [relation], to continue being in dialogue with the community whether that’s through town hall, whether that’s through legislative meetings and issue meetings,” said Krajewski. “[I will] continuously be in conversation with the coalitions of partners that worked to get me elected and to make sure when it’s time for me to craft policy and to vote on a bill in Harrisburg, they’re on speed dial.”

And Palmer says real change happens in a continuum, between public servants and the people they are supposed to represent. 

How do you barter, how do you get the most out of these people? You have to hold these people accountable,” said Palmer.

“You have to stop thinking of them as the second coming. They are not leaders, they are people who are servants, they are people who are supposed to work for us. And we’re supposed to help guide them and support them.”


Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.


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