Virginia Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin ran what many saw as a racially charged campaign — caricaturing teachers as foisting radical views about race onto their students — and Democrat Terry McAuliffe's response seemed ineffectual. After the results came in, pundits sympathetic to Democrats advised the party to rethink how it talks about racial matters.
Some made cranky calls to jettison "stupid wokeness." Others counseled the Democrats to confront Republicans about their racially divisive tactics and then "pivot" to discussion of topics on which different racial groups have shared interests — such as reducing economic inequality. Underpinning all this advice was the premise that Democrats are simply bad at talking about race, and that, one way or another, they need to change the subject.
That conclusion is hasty. The presumption that frank discussions of racial inequity will backfire on Democrats neglects one recent, prominent example: President Joe Biden, who during his campaign and since then has spoken with candor about the challenging topic. Given his electoral success, he offers an example other Democrats might consider emulating.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, demonstrations for racial justice engulfed the country. Many pundits, fearing a repeat of the politics of 1968, gave advice similar to what they are telling Democrats now: Biden should have a "Sister Souljah moment," they said. He should condemn the excesses of Black protesters, partly to neutralize Republicans' calls for "law and order." Biden, these commentators believed, should essentially throw Black people under the bus to reassure white voters.
Biden rejected that tactic, however, and continued to speak candidly about race and racism. As he did so, he honored the Democratic base and Black voters, and — as the election results would go on to show — locked down white swing voters at the margins.
"'I can't breathe.' 'I can't breathe.' George Floyd's last words. But they didn't die with him. They're still being heard. They're echoing across this nation." That was how Biden began his June 2, 2020, speech about Floyd's murder. Biden then described Floyd's death as a "wake-up call for our nation. For all of us." And part of what we are supposed to wake up to is systemic racism. Floyd's words, Biden said, "speak to a nation where too often just the color of your skin puts your life at risk," one in which deaths from COVID-19 and pandemic-related job losses were "concentrated in Black and Brown communities." Racism was "part of the American character," he said. It sat uneasily beside "the American ideal that we are all created equal." He did not paper over the challenges of reconciling these two Americas but said, "We are at our best when we open our hearts, not when we clench our fists."
A year later, now president, Biden once again showed a willingness to engage with the topic of violent racism when commemorating the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In this speech, Biden even more assertively appealed to white Americans to envision the lives of Black Americans (as he had asked them to remember Floyd in his last moments). "At the Dreamland Theatre, a young Black couple, holding hands, falling in love. Friends gathered at music clubs and pool halls; at the Monroe family roller-skating rink. . . . All around, Black pride shared by the professional class and the working class who lived together, side by side, for blocks on end." After setting this scene, Biden then gave a graphic account of the violence that destroyed these American lives — "hell was unleashed" — before summarizing: "This was not a riot. This was a massacre." The perpetrators were "a white mob."
The hate of the Ku Klux Klan, Biden said that day, "became embedded systematically and systemically in our laws and our culture." And we should look frankly at that history, he insisted: "We can't just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That's what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides. And we're a great nation." He then segued into a call to defend voting rights, and mentioned economic projects to help all middle-class and working-class Americans, as well as programs targeted to "building Black wealth."
Note how Biden, again, does not shy away from calling racism systemic, and he invites white listeners to imagine race and racism beyond the abstract. He centers Black pride, Black citizenship, Black victims — and white perpetration. When he turns to anti-racism, his message is that it is patriotic.
Compare this approach with McAuliffe's comments on racism in the Virginia gubernatorial race. Rather than positively asserting Democrats' identity as the party of racial justice, McAuliffe played defense against Republican insinuations. When asked about critical race theory, McAuliffe correctly identified the subject as a dog-whistle, before saying, "Critical race theory is not taught in Virginia." This response played into Republicans' hands. Voters surely walked away still confused about critical race theory — which examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism — and worse, believing that if the subject were taught, it would be a bad thing. McAuliffe also offered no positive defense of how teachers should be addressing matters of race in the classroom.
Democrats can do better — in part by learning from Biden. It's easy to imagine, for example, how Biden would handle the issue of critical race theory — which was devised as a tactic for misleading voters about Democrats' agenda and leaving a fog of negative connotations. He might dismiss it as "malarkey," before moving on to more important issues.
A Democrat who sidestepped the trap of debating the semantics of critical race theory might instead — using Biden's rhetorical techniques — give an account of the genuine oppression Black children experience in schools. Sadly, there have been no shortage of such examples recently. In Maryland, in October, white students shouted racial slurs at Black girls who were playing a volleyball game. In Missouri, that same month, white students passed around a petition calling for the reinstatement of slavery. In just the past two months, schools have reported dozens of incidents of white children using the N-word.
It's easy to imagine Biden saying: "I think all children have the right to feel safe and respected at school — whether they're learning to read or are playing volleyball. When teachers point out that using the N-word as a slur is wrong, they aren't trying make anyone feel bad. They are trying to teach kindness. Do you think that white students should learn that calling Black students the N-word is wrong or not? I do. Perhaps my opponent disagrees."
An effective Democratic politician should be able to move away from the murky, disingenuous conversation around critical race theory, and forcefully advance Democrats' positions on race and racism — while also placing Republicans on the defensive about their own arguments. Are they really defending schoolyard racist bullying? Can't a powerful nation admit past mistakes? What is gained by turning away from the Tulsa Massacre?
Biden is far from the only Democrat who has successfully campaigned on anti-racism. Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Lucy McBath of Georgia, both Black women, made anti-racism central to their platforms, flipped two red House seats in 2018 and sailed to reelection in 2020. The two new Democratic senators from Georgia, Raphael G. Warnock, a Black man, and Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, both spoke forcefully about racism during a campaign in which their opponents engaged in race-baiting.
The idea that Democrats are inept at talking about race ignores several prominent political contests in which they have talked about the issue quite effectively — including at the top of the ticket. Biden spent the latter half of his 2020 campaign speaking about racial justice. And he didn't win the presidency simply by activating the enthusiasm of Democrats; he flipped two red states, Georgia and Arizona. If Democrats adopt aspects of his rhetorical approach, they can stay true to their core principles while also, possibly, winning more elections.
Magdi Semrau is a freelance journalist focussing on science, politics, and culture. She writes a weekly column for The Editorial Board newsletter.