CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Reuters) - Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Wednesday said Black turnout was the linchpin to his hopes of winning the White House in November and reversing economic and social inequities that have held back African-Americans.
Noting that the coronavirus pandemic has hit the minority community especially hard, Biden said Black Americans would only achieve equality once they were in a position to build wealth, and voting was the starting point.
“There’s only one way to do it. We gotta show up and vote,” he told a Black economic summit in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he vowed to boost Black home ownership and push other policies to help African-American workers and businesses.
Biden has targeted North Carolina, which Republican President Donald Trump won by about 4 percentage points in the 2016 election, as a state he might reclaim in the Nov. 3 vote.
Wednesday’s trip was Biden’s first to North Carolina since winning the Democratic nomination. Trump visited the state as recently as last weekend and plans to campaign just across the border in coastal Virginia on Saturday.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll shows Trump and Biden running neck and neck in the state, which also has a crucial U.S. Senate race, as Democrats seek to reclaim control of the Senate.
About one-fifth of the electorate in North Carolina in 2016 was Black, according to exit polls, and turnout among African-Americans could decide the result there. The first dip in Black turnout in 20 years contributed to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss to Trump in 2016.
Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama, the first African-American president, has detailed economic plans tailored to Black voters, including investing more than $70 billion in historically Black colleges and boosting investment and opportunities for Black-owned small businesses.
Some of Biden’s supporters worry he has waited too long to engage Black voters in North Carolina.
“I don’t think they are hollow observations. He could have been more aggressive early on,” said Dan Blue, the Democratic minority leader in North Carolina’s Senate and a Biden supporter. “That being said, things are really ramping up right now and people are feeling the urgency.”
Race relations have re-emerged as a flashpoint in U.S. politics this year in the wake of killings of Black Americans by police, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
A Kentucky grand jury voted on Wednesday to indict one of the three white police officers involved in the shooting death of Taylor for wanton endangerment, an offense that ranks at the lowest level of felony crime in Kentucky and carries a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison.
Shortly after returning to his home base in Delaware, Biden released a statement that did not directly criticize the charging decision and called for protests in Louisville and elsewhere to remain peaceful.
“I know people are frustrated and they have a right to peacefully protest, but violence is never acceptable. And we can express pain, grief, anger, and disappointment at the way things are, but remain focused on rebuilding trust in our communities and delivering change that can be,” Biden said.
Earlier, at a news conference in Washington, Trump praised Kentucky officials for their handling of the Taylor case and for activating the National Guard to be ready for protests.
Democrats have accused Trump of inflaming race relations with divisive rhetoric. The Republican president counters that his policies have helped Black Americans.
Voters in about half a dozen states have begun casting early in-person ballots, and election officials predict a surge of early and mail-in voting this year as people try to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Biden has slammed Trump’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, while Trump has said his actions saved lives.
The pandemic has fueled a slew of lawsuits across dozens of states over efforts to ease mail-in voting restrictions. On Tuesday, North Carolina election officials agreed to count absentee ballots received up to nine days after Election Day, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.
Courts in several other key states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, have also extended absentee ballot deadlines despite Republican opposition.
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by John Whitesides, Jarrett Renshaw and Jeff Mason; Writing by Paul Simao and James Oliphant; Editing by Howard Goller, Sonya Hepinstall and Leslie Adler
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