BIRMINGHAM — At the Democratic primary debate last week, Joseph R. Biden Jr. prompted some distress within the party with a rambling, discordant answer to a question about the legacy of slavery, a moment that highlighted his unsteady instincts, and mixed record, on matters of race.
Three days later, a heavily African-American crowd gave Mr. Biden a warm welcome as he delivered a passionate address at the 16th Street Baptist Church, a symbol of the civil rights struggle, where he denounced institutional racism to mark the 56th anniversary of the bombing that killed four young black girls here in 1963.
The divergent responses underscore the uncertainty surrounding whether Mr. Biden can translate his longstanding connection to black voters into votes next year. His deep ties to black leaders, his service as Barack Obama’s vice president and his popularity among older, more conservative African Americans have given him a commanding lead in the polls among a constituency that is crucial to any Democratic candidate seeking the nomination.
But that support has never been rigorously tested at the ballot box outside of his home state of Delaware, and missteps like his meandering debate answer on slavery, as well as his legislative record on issues like busing and criminal justice, have intensified questions among progressive activists, and some party leaders, about whether he is the best standard-bearer for African-American priorities.
“Too much time left to say he’s got it locked down,” Leah Daughtry, a veteran Democratic strategist who ran the 2008 and 2016 Democratic National Conventions and is African-American, said of Mr. Biden’s standing among black voters. “He’s got an advantage, but I don’t think it’s locked.”
Mr. Biden owes much of his front-runner status to his backing from black voters. Polls show he consistently tops 40 percent among African Americans nationally, and surveys from South Carolina, the first southern state to vote and one with a high percentage of black voters, have shown Mr. Biden scoring even higher.
At the church on Sunday, there was little evidence that this advantage was sliding. In nearly a dozen interviews, many attendees who are focused primarily on defeating President Trump said that they had not yet firmly committed to a candidate — though Mr. Biden was at the top of most people’s lists with many citing his partnership with Mr. Obama and describing genuine affection for Mr. Biden. No one said that his past remarks on race had changed their views.
Arthur McGhee, a 72-year-old retiree who was ushering in attendees, characterized his support for Mr. Biden as “mild” but called him his first choice for now.
Many of the attendees at the church commemoration said they were not bothered by Mr. Biden’s unsteady answer on race at last week’s debate. CreditDustin Chambers for The New York Times
“The same ones that are complaining about Biden, they can’t get anything done,” he said of Mr. Biden’s critics who currently serve in Congress.
Many of the black voters and officials in attendance described him as an experienced leader who is well-known, and trusted.
“In the black community we appreciate the fact that then-former Vice President Joe Biden never overshadowed nor dishonored the role of the president, who happened to be African-American,” said Lashunda Scales, the president pro tempore of the Commission of Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located.
Yet the view of Mr. Biden in the church was only a snapshot of a large and diverse group. There are also many people of color who have been concerned by Mr. Biden’s record and remarks, whether on working with segregationist senators or his support for anti-crime legislation in the 1990s that is often now associated with mass incarceration.
At Thursday’s debate, when asked about what responsibilities Americans had to account for the legacy of slavery, Mr. Biden offered a rambling answer that included suggesting that social workers can aid parents who “don’t quite know what to do,” an apparent reference to a plank of his education plan. He also advised the use of a “record player” to expose underprivileged children to more words.
The moderator, Linsey Davis, started the question by saying that she wanted to discuss “inequality in schools and race,” and Mr. Biden’s allies suggested that explained his pivot to education. But others who watched the exchange were troubled by the fact that he did not substantively address the slavery question.
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“A lot of us are just shaking our heads, saying it seems to be a disqualifying sentiment,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a political advocacy group focused on women of color. “At this point in the primary, he does not have an easy and powerful political response to a question like that — it’s got a lot of us just saying, ‘O.K., well, there are other candidates who are seriously contending for our votes.’”
Both Ms. Daughtry and Ms. Allison noted that a recent survey of black women showed “other/prefer not to answer” leading the field, followed by Mr. Biden. They took it as a sign of how fluid the race is.
“If I were the vice president’s team, I’d double down on locking in the vote that they think they have, because right now I’d call it soft,” Ms. Daughtry said.
At the debate, Ms. Davis referred to a remark Mr. Biden had made in 1975, when he said, “I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” On Sunday, at the church, he struck a sharply different note.
“There can be no realization of the American dream without grappling with the original sin of slavery,” he said.
Eric Holder, the former attorney general under Barack Obama, told David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s former chief strategist, that he doesn’t think there is any basis “for people to believe that a President Biden would be less committed to civil rights enforcement” than Mr. Obama was, according to a tweet from Mr. Axelrod, who hosts a podcast and a television show on CNN.
Throughout his 20-minute address, Mr. Biden was at times booming as he linked slavery, the bombing at the 16th Street church and the rise of white supremacy today to the nation’s centuries-long struggle with racism and oppression. At other times he spoke slowly and emotionally, as he discussed his personal experiences with tragedy. Mr. Biden, who is practiced at delivering eulogies, read prepared text from a black binder, producing a far more fluent speech than he typically delivers on the stump, when he often walks away from Teleprompters.
“Those of us who are white try, but we can never fully, fully understand, no matter how hard we try,” he said. He spent much of the morning accompanied by Senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat who as a prosecutor attained the convictions of two men behind the church bombing.
That line stayed with Jeffery Lanier Jr., 35, who waved off Mr. Biden’s debate performances and remarks about working with segregationist senators.
“It’s not something he should just use on the campaign trail,” he said. “I can get past it. I see what he’s saying.”
He and his wife, Krystale, 34, both said that they are supporting Mr. Biden, pointing to his experience and his work with Mr. Obama.
If Mr. Biden is shielded, in part, by the Obama connection, other candidates are still working to introduce themselves to the African-American community. That is a particular imperative for Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has climbed steadily in the polls, but whose numbers with black voters, depending on the survey, barely hit double digits — and sometimes fall below.
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She has made strong gains in the first two early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which are both home to many white liberals. Her challenge is to expand her appeal with voters of color who dominate the later-voting Southern states.
“In the black community we know Biden because he was Obama’s vice president, we know Sanders because he ran the last time, but we’re not familiar with her,” Ms. Daughtry said. “That’s been her biggest challenge.”
Ms. Warren, like many of the other contenders, has been racing to catch up, making a concerted effort to address voters of color through her policy plans, including measures like combating the racial wealth gap. She also attended a dinner with the Congressional Black Caucus Saturday night.
Stanley Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, stressed that Mr. Biden’s standing with the African-American community may be more durable than many expect, saying that he “embodies the Obama legacy.”
But he also noted that for much of the lead-up to the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton appeared to be the strongest candidate with African-American voters. That changed dramatically after Mr. Obama won Iowa, proving that a black man could win in largely white states.
“That carried over to her until it didn’t,” Mr. Greenberg said.
Like many Democrats, Mr. McGhee, the usher, said he was focused on which Democratic candidate can defeat Mr. Trump.
“It applies to all of them,” he said. “But it does apply to him too.”
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