Jacinda Townsend on Why Democrats Are Skeptical of President Biden—and How He Can Win Them Back
Jacinda Townsend in Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist Jacinda Townsend joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss Joe Biden’s stubbornly low poll numbers among Democrats, which persist despite his legislative accomplishments. Townsend talks about the administration’s struggles to communicate its goals and achievements and explains why Biden’s policy decisions—past and present—have often disappointed Black and younger voters. Townsend reads from her novel Mother Country and reflects on the aftermath of the Biden administration’s plan to forgive student debt.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf, and edited Hannah Karau.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: When he took office, Biden had an 82 percent approval rate from Black voters. It’s down to 52 percent. He can’t win without this constituency. Why has Biden failed to maintain the support he used to receive from the Black community? And what does he have to do to get it back?
Jacinda Townsend: Well, I mean, I have no idea why he ever got so much support from the Black community to begin with, except that we seem to have poor memory as an ethnicity. I always joke that I’m Black. I’m not BIPOC. Because maybe that’s one of the characteristics that separates us from the rest of BIPOC. We just seem to forget everything.
So I guess when I think about the harm that this man has done over the course of the last 40 years, I think whatever small drops of mitigation he’s put in the water haven’t been enough. I would argue that there are three main things that he actively did that harmed the Black community in perhaps, the three main ways in which the Black community has been historically harmed.
The main thing is he was the main sponsor of the anti-busing amendment in 1975. We have this quote saying he didn’t want his kids growing up in a “racial jungle.” He was in bed with Jesse Helms on that. He also was the primary supporter of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and we saw how that affected mass incarceration; the increase in Black and Latino prisoners was astronomical.
And then also, this is a guy who, during the campaign is saying, “Black lives matter,” but he’s also the guy who helped put hundreds of thousands of extra police officers on the street. So until I see some pretty concrete mitigation for that kind of harm, I’m just not here to offer him the Black vote. I mean, Black people notoriously are pretty content to go along with a party that doesn’t, frankly, do much for them. I think that’s too bad, honestly. I was Bernie till the end. My family shed actual tears that the nominee was Joe Biden.
WT: So, I mean, the points that you make about Biden’s past history are irrefutable, and obviously true. That crime bill that he was involved in was terrible. But he’s here, and you’re mentioning that unless you could see some efforts toward mitigation that would be realistic and meaningful other than… I understand, like appointing a Supreme Court justice, who’s a Black woman is good, but that’s also a figurehead kind of thing to do. It’s easy, right? So what would be real kinds of mitigation that an administration like his could take?
JT: Well, let’s look at one thing that I think is near and dear to our hearts here in Michigan and probably Minnesota. Are you in Minnesota as well, Whitney?
WT: I’m in Kansas City.
JT: Okay, not so near and dear to your heart, but it’s the decriminalization of marijuana, and the legalization of dispensaries in cities. So I’ll give you an example. Here in Michigan, a good percentage of people in prison are there because of marijuana offenses. A good percentage of those people, as we know, are Black and Latino. There is exactly one Black-owned, Black-woman owned dispensary in this entire state. There was a Black-woman owned dispensary in our city who was harassed by city officials. She was harassed by what I call “the corporate weed dealers,” these people, like JARS, who are on every corner. The city of Detroit set up its legislation around dispensaries to make it incredibly hard for people to get into the business unless they have corporate money. It costs $300,000 in the state of Michigan to get your dispensary license.
So there was this promise to federally decriminalize, and we haven’t seen it, but we need some real movement around things that are not just symbolic and not even just decriminalizing, but also restoring wealth in the Black community. I mean, this is somebody who’s policies hurt Black wealth. I could go on and on. Even just school desegregation drives residential desegregation. So this was something he did to Black wealth, you know what I mean? Creating a bill that mass incarcerated so many Black men in this country, that destroyed Black wealth. So the kind of things that the Black community needs right now are things that address economic development. And so, until I see more of that, I’m not going to be that impressed with him.
WT: That’s interesting, because that relates to some of the things that I’m talking about, like the CHIPS Act. I’d have to see where those factories are going to be, but I don’t imagine them being in Black majority cities, so that’s an issue. Like that’s nice that rural Indiana is going to get a factory, but that’s not really helping the constituency that we’re talking about here.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So Biden isn’t just failing to generate enthusiasm from Black voters, but he’s also having problems with another purportedly core democratic constituency: young people. In your novel Mother Country, one of the main characters, Shannon, has significant student debt, which is, of course, a major issue for young voters. Could you read a passage from the book about that?
JT: Sure. So this is a passage from early on in the book when we find out just how much student loan and medical debt my character has in her late 20s. It’s a letter.
The University of Kentucky’s Financial Aid Office has been notified that the current status of your student loan(s) is DEFAULT. Who sends the default notification? Notification comes from any of the agencies that track student loan history—
Shannon found herself unable to breathe. When excised from its envelope and unfolded, the letter wouldn’t let her. They were adding a 25 percent collection fee to her student loan balance, the letter said; she now owed $112,520.37, due immediately. She tried to reread—the individual letters blurred, danced within their words. She looked at the blank wall and saw the projected film of her future, now dashed against rocks. She looked back down at the letter, smoothed it on the table, then picked it up again to tear it to bits, tiny bits of confetti she might throw at a parade.
….Now, she took the tiny bits of Sallie Mae’s letter, put them into her mouth, and swallowed them in one fierce, mulchy gulp. She tried to breathe while thoughts of her future exploded in her head. What remained were days of penury. She’d cart her cheap groceries onto public transportation in a metal basket. She’d shuffle into court in a tunic from Wal-Mart, listen to the judge sentence her to debtor’s prison.
• Affordable Care Act • “Did William Henry Harrison Really Die From Pneumonia?” by Christopher Klein • Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign • “SOTU: Joe Biden’s Economy By the Numbers” by Tim Smart • “Biden-Harris Administration Announces New Clean Energy Projects” • “President Biden Announces Student Loan Relief for Borrowers Who Need It Most” • “President Biden to Sign Executive Order Protecting Access to Reproductive Health Care Services” • “Biden picks Ketanji Brown Jackson as historic U.S. Supreme Court nominee” by Jeff Mason, Jarrett Renshaw, and Lawrence Hurley • Harvard CAPS Harris Poll • “Former President Donald Trump’s second indictment, annotated” by Zachary B. Wolf and Curt Merrill • Biden’s Numbers, January 2023 Update • Biden-Harris Administration Launches First CHIPS for America Funding Opportunity • Inflation Reduction Act Guidebook • Biden signs bipartisan bill that suspends debt limit until 2025, cuts spending” by Chris Megerian • Biden-Harris Administration Announces $502 Million for High-Speed Internet in Rural Communities • “Network Free K.C.” by Whitney Terrell • “Biden Administration Announces Savings on 43 Prescription Drugs as Part of Cost-Saving Measures Under President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act” • “Biden Supported A Constitutional Amendment To End Mandated Busing In 1975” by Domenico Montanaro • “Did Joe Biden Say He Didn’t Want His Kids Growing Up in a ‘Racial Jungle’?” by Bethania Palma • Jesse Helms • “Did the 1994 crime bill cause mass incarceration?” by Rashawn Ray and William A. Galston • “New Process to Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy” by John Rao • “Student Loan Debt by Gender” by Melanie Hanson • Reaganomics • Jimmy Carter • “Biden Job Approval, Direction Of Country: IBD/TIPP Poll” • “Joe Biden’s 1975 comments slamming slavery reparations, school busing resurfaced by Washington Post” by Jessica Chasmar • “Young Voters Not Excited About Joe Biden” by Lauren Camera • Chris Christie • Ron DeSantis • Mike Pence • “It took 15 rounds of voting, but Ann Arbor School Board finally picks president” by Martin Slagter • Moms of Liberty