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Do Joe Biden’s “you ain’t black” comments ultimately matter?
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While the 18-minute interview with host Charlamagne Tha God was tense overall, it wasn’t until its final moments that Biden uttered the sentence that would set social media aflame: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” The backlash was swift, with critics claiming that Biden overstepped, a sign that he’s taking the black vote for granted. Others came to the presumptive Democratic nominee’s defense, arguing that the offhand comment was “in jest.” Biden himself later went on to express regret: “I was much too cavalier. […] I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” he said during a virtual meeting with an organization that advocates for black economic empowerment. Biden’s latest comments add to his portfolio of blunders and off-the-cuff remarks that have led people to question his commitment to the black community. Last year, when he invoked tender memories of working with segregationist senators to make a moot point about civility, leaders like Sen. Cory Booker criticized Biden and urged him to apologize. It also took Biden nearly 30 years to acknowledge his failings in the handling of Anita Hill’s testimony. At the core of Biden’s latest comments are questions concerning the black community’s solidarity politics: Why do black people vote Democrat if the party, and its presumptive nominee, seem to take the black vote for granted? And will comments like these ultimately matter to black people come November? Chryl Laird, assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College and co-author of the book Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, says supporting the Democratic Party is an entrenched norm for black people. And yet while Biden’s statement isn’t technically “wrong,” it’s problematic because he, as a white person, cannot be a norm enforcer for the black community. Laird explains to Vox how Biden’s comments might impact black voter turnout in the general election. Our interview has been edited and condensed. Fabiola Cineas Let’s talk about the recent “The Breakfast Club” interview when Joe Biden, unprompted, said, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” What was your initial reaction to his statement? Chryl Laird I face-palmed just thinking about it because Biden is notorious for saying out-of-pocket statements, especially with respect to race. Even with all of the ties to Obama, he’s made statements related to race around the Anita Hill situation and around segregationists. So I was not that stunningly surprised by it as much as I was like, “You need to think about what you say before you say it!” I think he is someone who appeals to black voters, as we saw in the primary. He has support, but he needs to be careful because the support he’s gotten shouldn’t just be assumed. And he doesn’t need to speak to African Americans in a way that isn’t understanding of their politics. It came off like he didn’t necessarily have respect for it. It comes off as patronizing. Fabiola Cineas In watching the full interview, did you feel there was an overall casual tone or carelessness on Biden’s part? And let’s break down “you ain’t black.” What’s the problem with him saying that? Chryl Laird The statement itself was sort of in jest, as others have said. But even in jest, you are an older white man; you are a white person, period, who is speaking on identity politics outside of your own group. You are not black, so placing yourself in that position as some arbiter of blackness makes you an interloper. This is an intra-group, within-group politics. If I recall the full interview, in the lead up to the Biden statement, there was discussion about black politics and the election. The interview had already been a little tense between the two of them and “The Breakfast Club” is notorious for controversial interviews. I don’t know how much prep [Biden] had going into it. There’s a casualness to it that’s appropriate to this setting since he’s trying to appeal to an audience that is young, Gen Z, or millennial voters who are African American or Latino and listen to the show. He’s trying to appeal to a base of individuals whose support he did not get in the primaries. If he were trying to appeal to older voters, who’d be listening to something like a Steve Harvey or Tom Joyner [radio show], there would be a different decorum. Same with if he were in a black church or traditional black institution. In this case, you should come with some casualness because being a stick in the mud is not going to appeal in that space. But also don’t let your guard down in the casualness that you take, because you are still a nonblack individual being invited into a black space and given a pulpit to speak to individuals that you need to work on your appeal with. Fabiola Cineas For me, something about Biden’s statement is reminiscent of Trump’s 2016 unscripted campaign trail appeal to black voters: “What do you have to lose?”Is that a fair comparison to make? Chryl Laird It’s interesting. I feel like they’re both in a similar space. They seem to be telling black people what they should do politically. It comes off as paternalistic, like black people need guidance on what they should do. As my co-author Ismail K. White and I write in Steadfast Democrats, we have frustrations with the literature on race, ethnicity, and politics because there’s been this idea that African Americans don’t have agency. For one, very little of the literature typically focuses primarily on African American political behavior. And even when blacks are the focus, it should be about giving them an agency and some consideration with respect to the constraints they find themselves in politically. Black people have to navigate a system literally not designed to include them. They’ve been added into a system that never had them in mind in the first place. So how do you politic in that? How do you engage the structure? And that is just not respected as much as we would want it to be. It assumes an ability of blacks to not understand what they should be considering. And it’s not even that what Joe Biden said was wrong. But I think for Trump’s statement “What do you have to lose?” he actually is wrong, in a lot of ways, in saying that. It assumes there aren’t a bunch of reasons that black people wouldn’t align with the Republican Party. I think Trump sees himself in isolation, like not within the context of Republican Party history. Fabiola Cineas So how is what Joe Biden said not inherently wrong? Chryl Laird Biden is in a situation where he is speaking to the phenomenon that Ismail and I speak to. We argue that partisanship and racial identity for African Americans are very intertwined. In some ways, we’ve even said, “to be black is to be Democrat.” Democratic partisanship is such an understood norm of the community, and it’s being done that way for a reason. It is through this constrained space that African Americans are in politics — where they’re trying to be a voice in a system that is majority-based and they are a minority group on a numerical dimension. So how do you do that? Black people have recognized that what you can do is work together in this structure as a group and throw our weight to the party and candidates that we think represent our group’s interests the best. We know what our group interests are, and we maintain it by basically calling out the people who seem to not understand the norm, like blacks who decide to be Republican. And it’s not that we aren’t politically diverse: There are conservative blacks, liberal blacks, progressive blacks, moderate blacks; there are blacks who are socially conservative and economically conservative. There is a lot of political diversity, a lot more than people realize. But we still vote Democrat. African Americans are extraordinarily aware of the system. They’re aware of what they are doing, and they are doing so with such a high level of recognition of the challenges this creates. It’s such a strange thing for people to understand. It just doesn’t sit with how we have been told politics is supposed to work because it’s a group-based politics. And, it doesn’t involve white people! That’s the other part of it — the way we maintain it and build a collective identity around it. How we invoke ways to call out others. And we don’t care when people on the outside comment on the way we do it. Black people still do what they do. We still call Kanye West a sell-out, if we think he’s a sell-out. And people refer to[black Republican Sen.] Tim Scott that way. Tim Scott came out and said he was saddened [by Biden’s comment], as did other black Republicans. After that, black people were like, “Yeah, whatever,” because that’s how the norm works. Fabiola Cineas You talk about there being a spectrum of black Democratic voters. So I’m curious what you think the impact of Biden’s statement will be on black progressives, for example. And, two weeks from now, will people remember this or even care? Chryl Laird Several years ago, I wrote an article titled “Black Like Me: How Political Communication Changes Racial Group Identification and Its Implications.” In that article, I talk about notions of blackness and black identity around this concept of linked fate. I stratify blacks into different groupings — those who are “chronically included” (which consists of the highly educated blacks and those with high socioeconomic status who are always at the top of the black agenda or can define the agenda); then there are blacks in the middle, and I call them “moveable blacks” mainly because they are encompassing a large set of African Americans, but they’re not in this chronically included set. I feel like the highly educated blacks are going to be the ones who remember this down the line. [Laughs] A lot of the black progressives, a lot of upper middle class blacks whose blackness has been questioned and challenged, will remember. Their blackness has been challenged because they are engaging in a lot of spaces, they are highly educated; they’re at predominantly white institutions. This hit something within them where they felt like the diversity of the black community and their views are looked down upon or overlooked by the party. Many of those individuals are the progressives and even activists working with grassroots organizations. But for large swaths of black people, I don’t think this is even on their radar. And even if it is on their radar, they’re like, “Yeah, but it’s not wrong.” And maybe they’re bothered that a white person said it, which is valid. Fabiola Cineas So what does this mean for voter turnout in November? This isn’t the first time Biden has had to walk back comments related to race. Does his ongoing record of this mean he’s actively turning away black voters despite what’s at stake in the general election? Chryl Laird What he needs to be careful with is that those chronically included blacks have access to media outlets. They are in prominent positions, so they can keep this going and keep coming back to it. For the campaign, their attempt to deal with it was to have [Biden’s senior adviser] Symone Sanders, who’s black, and others try to pivot the way that it was being interpreted. They tried to say he’s on Charlamagne’s show in the first place, so that displays his commitment to the community. That’s what Biden needs to lean into — his commitment to black interests and black communities for those who are in that progressive realm. And he may not get a lot of those voters. He honestly doesn’t necessarily need to get that numerically because of just how strong some of the moveable blacks and the other black individuals will be. Younger people who also comprise that progressive set sadly do not turn out in the highest numbers. So that might not be a space where he really needs to make significant inroads. But he definitely doesn’t want to piss them off either. I also think it would help if he just announced a VP that was a black woman already. That would be good! [Laughs] And Amy Klobuchar’s name has been floating around. They need to end that conversation because now they’ve just stepped in it. For this election, there’s obviously a choice between Biden and Trump, since they’re the major candidates. But there’s also a decision between Biden and abstention, a decision to just not turn out. Turnout is the challenge that the party is dealing with. Ismail and I also write about how we don’t like the way that people talk about black turnout. They say black turnout went down in 2016— no, it went back to normal levels. We had the pickup because a black president got elected in 2008 and 2012, which is an anomaly. We need to see the data that way. When it came down in 2016, it went back down to 2004 levels, and that’s where black people have stayed. If they’re planning on turnout being higher and they’re trying to get to Obama levels, I think many things will be motivating to black voters, like getting Trump out of office and now coronavirus. Fabiola Cineas This all fits into the broader conversation that Democrats take the black vote for granted. Similarly, we don’t see leaders on the right enacting enduring policy that creates real prosperity for the black community. So what’s a message you have for black people on how to maintain a sense of dignity and direction as we make voting decisions in a framework that constrains us? Cheryl Laird Black individuals, even the chronically included people (and I am a member of said bougie contingent — I have a PhD; I work at a private liberal arts college; I live in Maine), all of us, shouldn’t be ashamed of what we do politically. There’s a way in which the concern about the white gaze or what white people think of us starts to become very concerning. I think that’s a lot of what we saw on Friday. People were very bothered by a notion that white people are seeing us and this is how they’re going to think about us, and that Biden clearly believes this and others are going to look at us and not think we are diverse. I say don’t worry about it. I think what we have in strength and power politically is the fact that we do have strength and power politically. It speaks to why Biden even has to apologize. It speaks to the power of what it did in the primaries. Black people are making very difficult political decisions in a very constrained space. Many blacks are risk averse because government is slow and clunky. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Bernie Sanders’s campaign was struggling with this. They were making it sound like they were going to change the world in two presidential terms and black people, especially older blacks in the South, were looking at him like, “I don’t know you. It’s never happened. That’s not a thing. No one can do that. Give me something more realistic.” And you see what they did in South Carolina [by voting for Biden in the primary]. Everyone seemed shook, but that was expected. It is a strategic and very informed decision. I think black people have to be more politically aware than anyone else because of where we are situated in society. We are lucky enough, unlike other communities like American Indian populations, to have the numbers to leverage power, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I think sometimes people feel shame about it. It makes them feel like sometimes we are collectively “on the Democratic Plantation” and that we “don’t have minds of our own or free thoughts.” Black people are thinking; they aren’t just blindly making decisions. And even if they don’t articulate it the way we are — we are lucky enough to have gone to college, gotten degrees, and have the time, resources, and linguistics to talk about these things — that’s okay. If other black people are saying, “I’m voting for this person because black people are like, ‘this is what we do,’” I don’t know how that’s any different from any other type of group politics. People are just confused by it manifesting for blacks. We do it for the parties — that’s party politics and what all politics is. And people are trying to pretend like it’s not. Right now in the pandemic, there are anti-lockdown people and anti-vaxxers collectively organizing under an identity and behaving in certain ways based on that. I think black people should feel unabashed in what we do. We are doing it, and we are brilliant. And the fact that Biden even has to pay attention to this, and that Trump’s campaign has picked up on it, is a signal to how important the black vote is to both campaigns. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Zac Freeland/Vox VPNs, anti-malware, and good cyber hygiene will help prevent viruses and phishing attempts from penetrating your home office. Alice M., who works as a benefits manager for a health insurance company, primarily used her personal laptop for Netflix binges and Facebook updates before the coronavirus pandemic. Since March, and for the foreseeable future, she’s had to give it a new task: handling confidential medical records. Alice worries her home equipment isn’t up to the job of her job. “My company usually does give us necessary tools to feel secure, but because of Covid, they had to send everyone home,” Alice told Recode. “If you didn’t have their setup already, you had to use yours.” “I’d argue that if patients knew this, they wouldn’t be so happy,” she added. “We aren’t as secure as we should be.” Alice, who requested that neither she nor her employer be named for fear of retribution, may have reason to worry. Millions of workers have had to take their work home with them due to the pandemic and may continue to do so for months to come. Many are doing it without the security and privacy tools their offices had — or even, in cases like Alice’s, the equipment. The result: Hacking activity has more than doubled. One Australian company even blamed the sudden switch to remote work for a ransomware attack. “In most scenarios, those protections that you had in place in the office don’t exist at home,” Mark Ostrowski, security evangelist at cybersecurity company Check Point, told Recode. “So that’s where you start talking about what are some things that I can do to protect myself?” Cover the basics There are a few easy and important things you should do in your work (and personal!) lives to help keep yourself safe. For example, make sure you’re using strong passwords and picking different passwords for every account. Use two-factor authentication everywhere it’s offered. And if you’re one of millions of people who will work from home a lot more as the pandemic stretches on for months, you should take a fresh look at everything. Rizwan Virani, president of Alliant Cybersecurity, told Recode that with employees setting up several new accounts for various remote work services like file-sharing and virtual meetings, it’s especially important that they’re using strong, unique passwords. And that extends to your home equipment: If you’re using the default password that came with your router, change it. Hackers love default passwords. “Take time to set that equipment up adequately,” Virani said. “Personalize it and secure it.” Make sure you’re keeping current on software updates, too. These often come with security patches for newly discovered vulnerabilities. You can also set up your computer to update automatically so you get them as soon as possible. Also, be wary of freeware. Virani says one of the riskiest things he sees in the small- to mid-market companies his company advises is their use of free services to handle sensitive information like file-sharing or teleconferences. “The company that’s giving you something for free, they’re getting something out of it as well,” Virani said. “Really vet the partners you do business with and the tools that you use in your business. ... I think a lot of this free software out there, they put a lot of the company information at risk because you don’t know what they do with that information.” You should also keep your work and personal life as separate as possible. Don’t use your work device for personal stuff and vice versa. That’s a lot harder to do when everything is done in your house, where your personal computer might be just a little bit more convenient in a given moment. It’s even harder if you have to use the same device for work and play. You might open your work computer up to security threats through whatever weird things you do or sites you visit in your personal time. “I’m sure a lot of people have a distinction between what you do in the workplace and what you do on your own time,” Jeremy Tillman, president of Ghostery, told Recode. “When you blur those lines, and you mash those two things together. You make yourself a little bit more vulnerable in no small part because you’re simply increasing the amount of volume of your at-home digital activity.” Try a VPN A virtual private network (VPN) creates a private connection over a public network. Some VPNs allow remote workers to connect directly to their physical office’s server or intranet through their home internet connection. Think of these VPNs as secure tunnels between the two. Naturally, as more people work from home, VPN use has surged during the pandemic — but so have attacks on VPNs. So while VPNs are certainly useful, they’re not foolproof. There are also consumer VPNs that anonymize all your internet activity by first routing it through a server and encrypting it before it goes out to the internet. If you spend a lot of time on the internet for work, making that activity as private as possible is generally a good idea. “You do have this entire ecosystem of data brokers who have an extensive network of tracking technologies,” Tillman said. “You’re creating a digital footprint of your business activities and those can in turn be sold to anybody, really. ... It does take on a very different implication when it’s your work.” A VPN hides your real IP address and anonymizes your internet activity from the websites you visit (as well as the trackers within them) and your internet service provider. To that end, you may also want to consider using tracker and ad blockers and limiting the cookies your browser accepts, if it doesn’t do this already. VPNs also prevent your data from being intercepted by man-in-the-middle attacks. This is more of an issue when you’re using an unsecured public network like a coffee shop’s wifi — which many of us won’t be doing anytime soon, but we live in hope. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a man-in-the-middle attack could happen to you over your home network, too. So when you’re sending important work-related data over that internet, it’s more important than ever that it’s encrypted. One thing to watch out for if you’re considering getting a VPN: Make sure you’re using a reputable company, since you’re running all your internet traffic through its servers. Check out neutral and knowledgeable review sites like CNET and Wirecutter for their recommendations. You’ll probably want to avoid the many free VPN services out there, as many have been caught collecting and sharing user data or even containing malware. In some ways, these options are riskier than not having a VPN at all. Consider buying some security software This one should be pretty obvious, but it’s not always. If you’re using a Mac, you might think your device is immune to malware — and you’d be wrong. Windows devices are still more susceptible, but Macs aren’t impenetrable fortresses. Or maybe you just assumed your company’s IT department was taking care of protecting your company from cyberthreats. The average company’s office-based protections might include many good security measures like url filters that block access to suspicious links or sites known to contain malware, firewalls that shield the network from attacks, browser protections, not to mention antivirus software. But that protection might not extend to your living room. “You’re using a personal computer or even just your work computer, and a lot of these things that are protecting you, unless the company is rerouting all your traffic back to your office [through a VPN], you start off on your own,” Ostrowski said. While you might be okay with running the risk of getting a virus or malware on your home computer, it might not be worth the risk on your work equipment. You also may be putting your company at risk of a ransomware attack, and those can be devastating both in the money that has to be paid out and the time lost. There are plenty of good antivirus programs and even browser extensions out there that will help protect your computer. Again, review sites like CNET and Wirecutter are good places to start if you’re looking for recommendations. Wirecutter’s take is to eschew the antivirus software suite for a combination of your operating system’s built-in protections and a few add-ons like browser extensions. Wirecutter does recommend that people who work with sensitive information or browse “riskier parts of the Internet” may want to seek “more intense measures.” Whatever you choose, consider purchasing it from an official app store or from a company you otherwise know you can trust through impartial reviews so you’ll have extra confidence that it’s on the up-and-up. There are plenty of scams out there — especially these days — claiming to sell antivirus software that’s actually very much the opposite. Watch out for phishing So, here’s the thing: The vast majority of security breaches don’t come from bad actors hacking their way into your computer or home network. They come from you letting them in through phishing attacks — that is, emails or even text messages that appear to be from someone you know and trust, like your employer or the World Health Organization, that contain links to malicious sites or files containing malware to download. During the pandemic, the number of phishing attempts has grown exponentially. You can prevent most, if not all, of these just by being careful about clicking on links or downloading files in emails, especially if they come from unknown senders. Sometimes phishing emails come from a known display name but an unknown email address, so check your email provider’s settings to make sure you’re able to see both the display name and actual email address of the sender. Also, be wary of any emails that ask you to provide any kind of personal information, like your Social Security number, account passwords, or bank information. When in doubt, don’t click on those links and certainly don’t download attachments. The FTC has a nice little guide on how to recognize and protect yourself from phishing attacks. And if you think you have been the victim of a phishing attack, notify your employer as soon as possible and change any passwords or sensitive information you’ve given away. Don’t forget about your phone ... Our lives are in our phones, and that means our work lives are in those devices, too. But it’s easy to forget about or get sloppy with cybersecurity when it comes to your devices. “People often overlook their phone because they think of it more as a personal device, not a work device,” Ostrowski said. “But we’ve also seen a huge uptick on mobile malware relative to Covid.” Hackers may send text messages with malicious links, and for emails you open on your phone, it’s harder to tell if the sender names are spoofed or if links point to malicious sites. If you must, refrain from opening suspect emails until you’re on your work computer, assuming that machine has security measures in place. “Mobile’s kind of the wild, wild West now, so if you’re not expecting something, be cautious,” Virani says. ... or your other connected devices And while we’re on the subject of devices, take stock of what you’ve got connected to your home network. You might have a bunch of threat vectors hanging out there you didn’t even realize. The proliferation of “Internet of Things” devices means everything from sex toys to baby monitors could be connected to your home wifi. Not all of them take user privacy and security into account, leaving them — and you — with multiple vulnerabilities. And with people working from home, there may be more devices on your network than ever. Employers and employees alike may overlook wireless devices like printers and smart speakers, but anything connected to your wifi can present hackers with another way into a target’s computer or home network. “Within the last two months, we’ve seen a 42 percent increase on the number of devices connected to an organization,” Yossi Appleboum, CEO of Sepio, a company that provides security from hardware-based attacks, told Recode. “In the last week, we’ve seen an even bigger jump because people started to realize it’s not going to be another week or two [of remote work], it’s going to be longer.” Aside from limiting your network to only the essential devices (do you really need every device to be a smart device?), keep your software and firmware updated for patches to any newly discovered vulnerabilities. Again, don’t forget to change any default passwords. And make sure you’re buying connected devices from a manufacturer you know and trust. While no brand is perfect, cheap devices from obscure companies tend to have serious security flaws. One other thing to consider: microphones and cameras. Many devices have them, and if they’re on while you’re working they could present a risk. For example, Alice, the benefits manager, told Recode that one of the few security measures her company did put in place was a rule to turn off all listening devices, like her Amazon Echo, which could accidentally pick her up discussing confidential patient information. The same could go for home security cameras that often start recording whenever sound or movement is detected. Inevitably, you should think about the security of your home office in broad terms as well as these specifics. Don’t just do one of these suggestions to protect your work life. Try several! Security experts recommend a stack, or layers, of security so that you build some redundancies into the whole system. Even the best anti-malware program can’t guarantee you won’t get hacked, but having multiple safeguards in place means one might catch or prevent an attack or vulnerability the others missed. If your employer has done its due diligence and provided you with the most secure home office setup possible, that’s great. But it might not be a bad idea to incorporate some or all of these suggestions for your personal computing needs as well. When it comes down to it, hackers are almost always after money, and they can get that from your workday as well as what you do after hours. If you’re trapped inside with nothing else to do, you’re probably using the internet more than ever. Might as well do it as safely as you can. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. 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