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Black voters in Philly are backing Biden. But they’re not excited: ‘If Obama chose him, he can’t be so bad.’

Black voters were energized then by the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy. Now, a pandemic and protests against systemic racism have given the election a more apocalyptic feel.

Aaron McCall, 39, of Elkins Park, Pa., on Friday.
Aaron McCall, 39, of Elkins Park, Pa., on Friday.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / The Philadelphia Inquirer

Aaron McCall had just dropped his son Rey off at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Philadelphia. The 18-year-old was renewing his driver’s license to vote for the first time.

“My son’s friends, they’ll tell him, ‘Your vote doesn’t matter,’ ” McCall said earlier this month. “I tell him, ‘Your vote does count. It’s people who don’t vote, who don’t take action, whose voices go uncounted.’

“And this year,” McCall said, "I’ve got to be honest with you: I am worried.”

McCall, who lives just outside Philadelphia in Elkins Park, is worried another four years of President Donald Trump would further fuel the racism he’s seen Trump stoke. He’s worried that without a more effective government response to the coronavirus pandemic, more people he knows will succumb to it — like one close friend who died in April. And while his son is eager to vote, McCall is worried other people Rey’s age won’t.

“I don’t think this generation really knows how important this is,” McCall said outside the West Oak Lane DMV, looking toward Olney Avenue. “[Trump] wants to continue to be president. He wants to be a dictator.”

Black voters are expected to overwhelmingly back Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who was vice president for eight years under the nation’s first Black president. But whether they come out to support him at even greater levels than they did for Barack Obama could help determine who wins Pennsylvania — and the presidency. Democrats are hoping to grow their Black support beyond middle-aged and older voters — long the party’s most reliable voting bloc and one that powered Biden’s comeback in the Democratic primary — to help offset Trump’s resilient strength with white voters in rural areas, and in small towns across Northeastern and Southwestern Pennsylvania.

There are differences between now and when Obama was on the ballot. Black voters were especially energized then by the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy. Now, a pandemic and protests against systemic racism have given the election a more apocalyptic feel. Trump is a president who has used racist slurs, defended white supremacists, and shrugged off a virus that is disproportionately sickening and killing Black Americans.

» READ MORE: 5 questions that will help decide the presidential race in Pennsylvania

Interviews with more than 20 Black voters across Philadelphia showed a commitment to vote against Trump, as well as deep frustrations over gun violence, poverty, and lack of health care. Many said they are skeptical Biden can do much to solve such problems — but are much more hopeful about a country led by him. And while few people interviewed said they were considering sitting out the election, almost everyone expressed concerns that others would.

“I do think that people are motivated,” said State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat and a top Biden supporter in the state. “I also think people are incredibly disheartened by the drain of all that has come with the mismanagement of this pandemic.

“But I often push back on this amorphous idea of enthusiasm because ... an enthusiastic vote, an unenthusiastic vote counts the same,” he added. "A vote is a vote.”

While Hillary Clinton’s share of the Black vote fell compared to Obama’s to disastrous effect in big cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, that wasn’t the case in Philadelphia.

Turnout for Black voters in Pennsylvania overall fell only slightly, from 65.4% in 2012 to 65.1% in 2016, an analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress found. In Philadelphia, home to the largest number of Black voters by far, Clinton’s citywide vote total dropped by less than 4,800 votes, or only 0.8%.

The bigger difference was that the Republican vote total grew by about 12,000 in Philadelphia, while third-party votes almost tripled, to almost 15,000. Trump won the state by about 44,000 votes, or 0.7%.

This time, Democrats want to squeeze even more votes out of Philadelphia. And some undecided Black voters said in interviews that they are not choosing between Biden and Trump — but between Biden and not voting. Those who said they will definitely vote expressed a singular focus on defeating Trump, while also crediting Biden for his service under Obama.

“Biden is kind of stale,” said Dawn Athy, 56, of West Oak Lane in Northwest Philadelphia. “But I’m sorry, I don’t care. He could be on the cane. He could be blind, it wouldn’t matter.”

This election, Athy said, “it’s life or death, especially as a woman of color. ... If [Trump] gets reelected, it’s just gonna be devastation.”

» READ MORE: At Harrisburg rally, Trump vows to win and renews warning about ballot cheating

Kayla Mathis, 21, of Grays Ferry in South Philadelphia, is concerned about police brutality and how the coronavirus has affected education. “I don’t like Trump,” Mathis, who plans to vote for Biden, said as she watched her kids at a park. “[Biden] better win. Trump is just irking. He’s not a good president.”

For John Graves, 52, a construction equipment operator and pastor at Faith Chapel Church in Germantown, Trump’s presidency has been mobilizing. “He’s done a good job of showing people that voting does matter," he said, "and it can have a ripple effect on the lives of everybody.”

But Graves also worries about Trump’s support with white working-class voters. He pointed to members of the city’s building trades — his fellow union members — previously a heavily Democratic group.

“I’ve seen excuses for some of the behavior of the office of the president,” Graves said. “And I know for sure these same people wouldn’t have tolerated it from President Barack Obama.”

Outside a corner store in Northwest Philadelphia, Taj Wade, 46, said he wants to know what the candidates will do about gun violence in the city, which has experienced a surge of shootings this year.

“That is the real pandemic," Wade said.

“It’s dangerous to be outside in your own neighborhood," he said. "You can’t even have a misunderstanding with a child no more, because the likelihood is they got a gun and they’re ready to shoot.”

Wade said he always votes Democratic, but isn’t sure whether he’ll bother this year.

Trump did make modest but important inroads with Black men in 2016, when 14% in Pennsylvania supported him, compared to just 1% of Black women. The Republican National Convention last month featured several Black men, often directly rebutting charges that the president is racist. And Trump frequently cites Black unemployment numbers from before the pandemic to falsely state that he has done more for African Americans than any president except Abraham Lincoln.

NextGen, a progressive group that aims to encourage youth voting, has found that young Black voters who are Democrats or lean Democratic are enthusiastic about the election, but with a gender gap: 90% of Black women 35 and under are extremely motivated to vote, compared to 76% of Black men the same age, according to polling in key battleground states, including Pennsylvania.

“Black men are a little more dissatisfied and disinterested in the political process just because of years of systemic discrimination and racism,” said Terrell Smith, the group’s Pennsylvania organizing director.

“They don’t need to be sold on Trump being a horrible president or a threat to democracy," Smith said, "but what they need to be convinced of and to buy into is [Biden’s] platform.”

Biden campaign ads focused on criminal justice reform have run in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The ads heavily feature vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket, who visited Philadelphia this month. Last week, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Black Thought of The Roots, and 76ers All-Star Ben Simmons headlined a turnout event hosted by the Pennsylvania Democrats.

Carol Cooper, 73, of West Oak Lane, worries about Trump cutting Social Security and doesn’t like how his policies have treated immigrant children and families. She thinks Biden has a better chance at reforming the criminal justice system, and is willing to look past the fact that he wrote a 1994 crime bill that contributed to the growing incarceration of Black men.

“There are too many African Americans in jail, and they’re in jail for almost nothing," she said. “I know he wrote the bill. But I know he didn’t write these sentences. I can’t blame him for that.”

Voters in Grays Ferry, where census estimates show the median household income is about $33,600, mostly said they’d vote for Biden — but weren’t optimistic he’d change much. Kids haven’t been in school for six months because of the pandemic, and once they go back, they could be exposed to asbestos, noted Tyrique Glasgow, executive director of Young Chances Foundation, a community group. There’s food insecurity in the area and a lack of playgrounds, he said.

“The president needs to be removed,” said Glasgow, 37. “Are you going to remove the things that got him in there? ... That’s not going to change.”

» READ MORE: How ‘naked ballots’ in Pennsylvania could cost Joe Biden the election

Annette Pressley, 51, had a job as a chef before the pandemic. Her unemployment benefits ran out after six months. Her daughter, a Temple University student, had to move back home and started working part-time to help pay the bills.

“It’s damn near impossible to get a job” as a cook, Pressley said. “It’s been horrible.”

She was sitting on a park bench in Lanier Playground around 6 p.m. earlier this month. She wanted to get away from the TV. “I hate to even turn on the news because I see people getting killed every day,” Pressley said. “Nothing gets done.”

Pressley said she’s “disgusted” with Trump, and she’ll vote for Biden — reluctantly.

“You’ve been in office for decades and decades," she said of Biden. "What have you done? ... What’s going to be different?”

Kim Demby, 54, voted for Clinton in 2016, but said she’s undecided and considering Trump. “Joe Biden, I don’t know too much about him,” said Demby, a retired state worker who was watching her two dogs at a park. “If he wants to defund the cops, I think that’s a bad idea.”

She said she was almost robbed last year in her home: “And the cops came so fast, so I was happy.”

Biden has said he does not support defunding the police.

Demby described Biden’s selection of Harris as running mate as a “ploy to get Black votes.”

But she said Trump did a “really bad job” responding to the coronavirus, leaving her uncertain who she’ll back.

A few miles away in the Overbrook Park neighborhood of West Philadelphia, Kim Young was picking up some groceries. The 58-year-old works in a hospital maternity ward and said she’s voting for Biden. But she wasn’t excited.

“If Obama chose him," she said, “he can’t be so bad.”

Nearby, Gené Hamlin, 41, watched the Eagles season opener start to turn bad at a friend’s outdoor watch party.

“Another four years of Trump will set us so far back,” she said. She wants to see more politicians come into struggling communities. “It’s kinda hard to want to vote for someone who isn’t really showing up for the people and not willing to bring these people up,” she said. "Biden sounds good but is he going to really do something miraculous?”

Despite her skepticism, she’s committed enough to defeating Trump that she’s making sure she turns out her household.

“I’ll definitely be voting," Hamlin said. “And my daughter, too. She’s 18 and we just got her registered.”

-Staff writer Sean Walsh and staff photographer Tyger Williams contributed to this article