DANVILLE, VA. — Ten minutes into a small community meeting between black farmers from Southern Virginia and regional campaign staff for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, an aide took the floor.
He was the only white person to speak in a room of older black voters seated in an old beauty salon. He stood, delivering an off-the-cuff pitch for Ms. Warren’s plan to help rural black America: proposals for new access to funding for black farmers, and to address discrimination in the United States Department of Agriculture. She understood the challenges black farmers faced, he said.
But he was cut off midsentence, before he could finish his appeal for their support. Instead, the black farmers had a message for him, and for Ms. Warren’s campaign. Plans and rhetoric are one thing, but to trust a candidate to deliver — or the government at all — is entirely another.
In a community all too familiar with legal discrimination and unequal access to public services, believing in “big, structural change,” as Ms. Warren likes to call it, is a gamble.
“No disrespect,” called out Lauren Hudson, a 62-year-old hemp farmer, “but there’s a whole different avenue when we go for funding versus when a white family goes for funding.”
Democratic candidates have come to understand that they need policies that target racial inequities, especially to win over black voters — a vital force in the Democratic primary. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont says single-payer health insurance will close disparities like the higher infant morality rate in black families. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., released his Frederick Douglass Plan, which calls for overhauling the criminal justice system, health care equity, and education funding.
In addition to her proposals for black farmers, Ms. Warren has aimed to design her health care and education plans so that they take corrective steps to address historical inequality.
Still, even as the plans add up, black voters have largely not shown enthusiasm about these candidates, and the polling numbers have barely budged. According to a recent nationwide poll of black voters from The Washington Post and Ipsos, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. holds a significant edge, with the support of nearly 50 percent of respondents. Among black voters 65 and older, poll showed Mr. Biden ahead by 60 percentage points.
Mr. Sanders had 20 percent support, driven largely by his popularity with black voters under 35 years old. Ms. Warren was third in The Post’s poll, with 9 percent.
Over the course of her campaign, at events geared toward black voters, Ms. Warren often cites policy proposals such as investment in historically black colleges and new housing in formerly redlined communities. Crowds generally respond positively.
“I want a world where the color of your skin doesn’t matter, you get the same opportunities,” Ms. Warren said at an event over the weekend hosted with groups including the Iowa chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “We do not fix a system like this by pretending that race doesn’t matter.”
Mr. Sanders’s progress with black voters has been a mixed bag; he is beloved among younger voters and viewed with some suspicion by older ones, who largely supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and found his insurgent campaign to be harmful to her in the general election. Late last year, Mr. Sanders replaced his South Carolina state director, a sign of the campaign’s desire to shift his strategy for winning over black voters.
Mr. Biden’s candidacy is helped by several factors, including his widespread name recognition, public proximity to former President Barack Obama, and close relationship with black community leaders dating to his years in the Senate.
But in interviews with dozens of black voters in Virginia and South Carolina, another theme emerges: Mr. Biden is also ahead because his leading rivals have yet to wrestle with how their promises of structural change must overcome historical distrust of the government in black communities.
Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies race and electoral politics, said black skepticism in government stretches back decades, citing Booker T. Washington and his early 19th century argument for black self-help, rather than a focus on systemic discrimination. Black voters are often described as “moderates,” but Mr. Johnson said the voting choices are more nuanced than straightforward ideological choices.
Racism “contributes to black people’s lack of support for mass federal programs,” Mr. Johnson said. “There’s a sense that, if you prefer federal programs, that can be an admission that you can’t make it without white people or government.”
In “Medicare for all,” free college and other signature progressive proposals, like the cancellation of student loan debt or housing equality, candidates are asking black voters to trust that government can correct the same systemic inequalities that government helped create. But there is often no plan to undo the cynicism that decades of governmental failure have created among older black voters in particular.
“No matter who is in office, the government has not been our best friend,” said Samuel Crisp, 73. He is part of the Piedmont Progressive Farmers Group, which focuses on egg production, and attended the Warren campaign event in Virginia.
“They all have programs that work against us,” he added. “And they don’t seem to understand that.”
There is some precedent for selling older black voters on the promise for structural change. In 2004, the populist campaign of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina won the South Carolina Democratic primary contest. The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 succeeded in bringing a message of systemic upheaval to black voters — winning 11 contests in 1988, including in Virginia and South Carolina. In an interview, Mr. Jackson urged the current crop of left-wing candidates like Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren to get better at working to relate to and understand black communities.
“I earned the trust of the people. I worked with them on the ground. I wasn’t just an election candidate. I served with them,” Mr. Jackson said. “I was at their restaurants. I played football. I stayed in their homes.”
Mr. Jackson acknowledged that forming those connections is a different challenge for white candidates, who could risk appearing “pretentious and not genuine,” but he said he believed there were authentic and effective approaches.
He said that his personal politics precluded him from voting for Mr. Biden in the Democratic primary, but that Mr. Biden was boxing out the progressive candidates among some vital black communities.
“Bernie and Warren are on the right side of history — Biden is a moderate and our needs are not moderate,” Mr. Jackson added. “You must build a coalition and you do it through new relationships.”
In the farming meeting, the difficulty of the task was evident.
Attendees mostly said they agreed with the substance of Ms. Warren’s farming proposal, which had been updated after dozens of black farmers said her initial policy did not adequately address racial bias. They said that they personally liked Ms. Warren. But they did not support her.
The reluctance to back her candidacy stemmed from forces that predate 2020 or modern politics itself: a general belief that big change promised by elected officials, and white candidates in particular, never reaches black communities.
“They make promises that are not going to be kept,” said Selena Thornton, 45, who works in nearby Caswell County in North Carolina. “Discrimination has been around how long? Since the beginning of time. And just inviting black people to events is not the answer to that.”
Bryant Hood, a 46-year-old resident who helped organize the event with Ms. Warren’s team, said he thought the candidates who are pitching enormous change and government involvement in people’s lives had not adequately wrestled with what they’re asking black votes to believe in.
Presidential candidates “hit the church, they hit the community’s leaders, and they think that’s all they need to do,” said Mr. Hood, who sat out the last election after voting twice for Mr. Obama.
“I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to do more,” he added, “they don’t know.”
Earning the support of black voters with policies that require real faith in what the government can fairly provide amounts to what may be the most significant challenge for the candidates seeking to beat Mr. Biden after Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s when the contest moves to states where the Democratic electorate is less dominated by white voters.
Mr. Crisp, of the progressive farmers group in Piedmont, is undecided in the Democratic primary. He said Mr. Biden was among his top choices, though he acknowledged that on the issues he prioritizes most, Ms. Warren’s plans better target racial inequality.
Mr. Biden “has a history, and a lot of them don’t have a history,” Mr. Crisp said.
Ms. Hudson, the hemp farmer, said that as a black voter, placing her trust in an unknown quantity was a risk. Referring to Mr. Obama, she said: “I didn’t vote for him because he was black. I voted for him because of what he said and I believe what he said.”
She has not found a comparable candidate in 2020.
“It’s hard to trust white politicians,” she said.