DETROIT (AP) — Every day feels like a raw wound for Omari Barksdale.
His sister, Laneeka Barksdale, died of COVID-19 in late March in Detroit — and since then, so have more than 228,000 Americans. Many were Black Americans whose communities were disproportionately devastated by the virus.
Barksdale watched with alarm as the toll of the country's racial injustice mounted. People of color bore the brunt of pandemic-related job losses. Police shot and killed Breonna Taylor inside her Kentucky home, and a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into George Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes.
The convergence of the pandemic, joblessness and police brutality has forced the U.S. to confront its legacy of systemic racism. For Barksdale and many other Black Americans, it's turned next week's presidential election into a referendum on race relations, an opportunity to move toward healing or the potential of a deeper divide.
“For many years, we’ve had this commentary about how far we’ve come, but if you look at the landscape and dynamics right now of America, we’re back in the ’50s and ’60s," said Barksdale, who began leading a team of volunteers canvassing Michigan voters after his sister's death. "The reasons for protesting are the same now as they were then: for the protection of Black lives, the opportunity for Black lives and the understanding and value of Black lives.”
Black voters will be decisive in the outcome. Democrat Joe Biden is relying on strong turnout among Black voters in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee to tip critical swing states in his direction. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, is focusing on appeals to his core base of white voters.
“Another four years of Trump would completely set us back and the advancements that we’ve made towards equal rights, human rights and civil rights," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime civil rights leader. "It would take us 20 or 30 years, a generation, to get back what he would cement.”
The election-year reckoning is the culmination of centuries of inequity and racism that predate Trump's political career. But Trump has pulled at the nation's racial divide throughout his presidency, blaming “both sides” for violence between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to go back to the “broken and crime infested” countries they came from, despite the women being American citizens.
“I fear for our communities if he retains the seat of the presidency for four more years. I also have a deep worry that his continued occupation of that seat would result in those who intend us harm who will feel that they have carte blanche to do so,” said Stacey Abrams, a voting rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate.
Trump points to criminal justice reform, opportunity zones and funding for historically Black colleges and universities as examples of what he’s done for Black Americans, but many critics argue his claims are exaggerated or undermined by his comments.
After a summer of nationwide unrest led to millions marching in the streets, Trump billed himself as a leader who will restore “law and order” — an attempt to appeal to white grievances and allay white suburban fears. Just this week, Trump’s presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner said the president wants to help Black Americans, but they have to “want to be successful” for his policies to work.
“What we see is when racism goes unchecked and becomes institutionalized publicly and becomes a part of our administration,” said Jessica Byrd, who leads the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project and The Frontline, a multiracial coalition effort to galvanize voters. “We’ve seen firsthand the way that a vocal minority can become an extremist power building faction.”
Biden has his own vulnerabilities on race, including the poor treatment of Anita Hill at Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearing and a 1994 crime bill that has been blamed for incarcerating a generation of Black men.
But Biden has put Black voters at the center of his 2020 campaign and, unlike Trump, has acknowledged systemic racism and pledged to address it.
“Donald Trump fails to condemn white supremacy, doesn’t believe that systemic racism is a problem and won’t say that Black lives matter,” Biden said Tuesday in Atlanta. “We know Black lives matter.”
In the final stretch of the campaign, Black voters are organizing to make sure their ballots are counted. LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, said her organization has traveled across 15 states to galvanize voters, including in rural counties and smaller cities that are often ignored.
“America is at its tipping point," Brown said. “We’re in a perfect storm of being at the intersection of a health pandemic, an intersection of a lot of uncertainty around the political future of this country, and the economic future of this country and blatant open racism. All of that is forcing us to deal with the evils of this country that we have not dealt with.”
For the past several months, Tylik McMillan, the National Action Network's national director of youth and college, has focused on educating first-time voters, college students and young voters who have been disengaged with the political process about what's at stake.
“The reality is when I step out of these doors, we're still just Black in America, and I can be the next George Floyd. I can be the next Ahmaud Arbery. And to have a leader at the highest office not understand that racism is real in this country, it's a problem," McMillan said.
But regardless of the election's outcome, the fractures of racism and inequity have been made clear.
“Nov. 3 will be a referendum on Black lives, it will be a referendum on structural change," and it will be a referendum on unity, said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of Working Families Party, who is also a leader of The Frontline. “The movement, now the largest social movement in our country’s history, will be the story of 2020, whatever the outcome."
Kat Stafford is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow Stafford on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kat__stafford.