Biden’s sky-high promises on racial justice

By Lisa Lerer

As a college student, President Joe Biden was more consumed with Corvettes than with civil rights. A little more than a decade later, he made common cause with Southern Republicans in the Senate to slow school desegregation. One of his most significant legislative achievements was a 1994 crime bill that helped lay the groundwork for the mass incarceration that has devastated America’s Black communities. And as vice president, he often ceded discussion of the complex dynamics of race to Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president.

Yet through it all, Biden cast himself as staunch ally of racial justice, captivated and inspired at a young age by the battle for civil rights.

“I wasn’t at the bridge at Selma,” Alabama, he said in an interview in 2008, “but the struggle for civil rights was the animating political element of my life.”

Well, that was then. Thirteen years later, race is an issue that Biden can no longer finesse quite as easily.

The killing of George Floyd last year reignited a civil rights movement, plunging the country into a deep reckoning over race. As president, Biden now leads a party that has made racial justice a defining element of its coalition, offering the country sweeping pledges to combat deep-seated prejudice and reform the criminal justice system.

Unlike any other period in recent history, Democrats have infused their agenda with a focus on racial inequality, upending decades of conventional party wisdom that such appeals could prove politically risky.

“The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer,” Biden said during his inauguration address. “We can deliver racial justice.”

So Biden is promising big things — very big things, like correcting more than 400 years of systemic racism in America. Now that Democrats control Washington, how far they can move the government to make good on that vow offers one of the first tests of their campaign pledges.

Activists say that Biden’s embrace of racial justice reflects how the country has changed. The president has always positioned himself at the center of his party, shifting his positions as Democrats marched to the left on issues including abortion, gun rights, criminal justice and race.

“Biden is actually being Biden by being inside of all of the ways in which the current landscape is sending him messages,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a racial justice organization that was skeptical of Biden during the Democratic primary race but now praised some successes while believing much more needs to be done. “That is good, but I don’t want to be classifying this as some sort of out-front radical leadership. That would really not represent everything that could be possible if we leaned in more.”

Yet the Democratic decision to embrace racial issues is not without political peril, given how deeply these matters have come to be defined by partisan divides. While the country’s views on race have shifted, it is an open question as to how much white liberals and independents would support efforts to truly unwind some of the broader systems — like segregated schools and neighborhoods — that reinforce racial inequality.

A new paper by political scientists at Yale found that support for progressive policies — like raising the minimum wage, forgiving student loan debt and the Green New Deal — actually declines when Democrats frame their arguments in racial terms, despite the shift in public opinion on the topic.

“Democrats’ use of racial frames in describing their progressive policies may inadvertently make it harder for them to adopt public policies that will advance racial justice,” the Yale researchers write.

Biden is far from the only Democrat speaking more explicitly about race. After Floyd, many Democratic voters and politicians found themselves getting a crash course in racial inequality.

Some of the efforts to show solidarity were ham-handed, at best: When Democrats released legislation to overhaul policing last June, they did so draped in cringeworthy kente cloth stoles. Even this past week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered a tone-deaf response to the guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin by thanking Floyd for “sacrificing” his life, seeming to imply that the victim of police violence had a choice in the matter.

But during the campaign, Biden “did the work,” as liberal activists would say, despite his occasional gaffes when talking about race and Black Americans. He apologized for portions of the 1994 crime bill. His campaign released a comprehensive plan to address racial disparities on issues ranging from health to policing, with a particular focus on advancing economic equality, increasing access to affordable housing and education, and reforming the criminal justice system.

Since taking office, Biden has vowed to make racial equity central to every element of his agenda — from his response to the coronavirus pandemic to where infrastructure is built to how climate policies are crafted.

This past week, the Justice Department announced a sweeping investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, a sign that the Biden administration will apply stricter federal oversight to local police forces. And in a speech Tuesday night, Biden formally called on lawmakers to resurrect the Democratic bill known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which seeks to address racial discrimination and the use of excessive force. The president pledged to sign it into law “as quickly as possible.”

A fair number of voters believe those actions are not enough: 42% of Americans say Biden is doing “too little” to reform police practices in the country, while 32% say he has done the right amount and 15% say he has done “too much,” according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Nearly half of Black Americans and Democrats say Biden has done too little on the issue, a significant break from their strong support of his agenda on other issues.

Republicans see an opportunity to campaign on some of those fears. In 2020, the party found some success by characterizing moderate Democrats in swing districts as anti-law enforcement and supportive of violent protests, saying they supported calls from the left to “defund the police.” Since then, Republicans have leaned into that messaging, with GOP-controlled state legislatures passing bills to reduce voting access, empower the police and target protesters.

The response to Floyd’s killing provided more evidence that Republicans see political opportunities in this moment of reckoning. While many Republicans stayed silent on the Chauvin verdict, some of those who responded showed an unwillingness to let reality get in the way of what they see as a good political talking point. Even as worries of unrest dissipated into a pained sort of celebration, some in the GOP kept their focus firmly on the violence that did not happen Tuesday evening.

On Fox News, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida implied that the guilty verdict could have happened because “the jury is scared of what a mob may do.”

The idea that rioting “is going to influence how the rule of law is applied would be a total disaster if that idea takes hold,” he said.

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