During five decades in public life, Joe Biden has confronted, with varying degrees of success, nearly every flashpoint in American racial politics, from school desegregation to crime crackdowns that disproportionately affected communities of color. When he ran for president last year, he promised to “heal the soul of our nation” that had been inflamed by Donald Trump.
Now, less than one year into his term, Biden is facing a rising furor over education and critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that’s become a catch-all term for everything Republicans dislike about diversity initiatives, how schools teach U.S. history and other ripple effects from last year’s reckoning on racial injustice ignited by the murder of George Floyd.
The issue presents an array of challenges for the president and his party. Stoked by a right-wing media ecosystem that can amplify and distort the debate, it echoes appeals to white grievances that have a tradition of electoral success. Democrats can be hesitant to engage, but ignoring the controversy opens them up to criticism that they’re out of touch or dismissive of parental concerns — a sentiment that Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, harnessed in his successful campaign for Virginia governor.
So far, Biden’s response to questions about critical race theory has been brief.
“I think that the whole answer is just to speak the truth, lay out where we are,” he said at the White House last week. Biden has tried to refocus attention on his sweeping economic agenda, which took a significant step forward Friday when the House approved bipartisan infrastructure legislation pegged at more than $1 trillion.
Democrats see the conservative focus on critical race theory as part of a long lineage of racist dog whistle politics, a tactic that has often put their party, which relies on a multiracial coalition, on defense.
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, described it as “the latest, greatest, most eloquent iteration of the Southern strategy,” a reference to the political realignment during the civil rights movement in which Republicans appealed to white racists to peel away votes from the Democratic Party. “It is the latest iteration of welfare queen, crosstown busing, invasion at southern border, defund police.”
Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist who worked for Youngkin, rejected the accusation that talking about critical race theory was a dog whistle.
“Just because Terry McAuliffe,” the Democrat defeated by Youngkin, “says it’s racist doesn’t mean it is,” Roe said. “Nobody thinks that besides Democratic operatives.”
In the end, McAuliffe’s attempts to accuse Youngkin of racism did not resonate with enough voters for the former Virginia governor to win back his old job. Neither did his attempts to portray Youngkin, a former private equity executive who has never previously held public office, as “Trump in khakis.”
Political analysts said McAuliffe didn’t do enough to generate a positive message about his record or his goals for another term as governor. Voter turnout increased, but it rose more for Republicans than Democrats — a sign that McAuliffe’s message “wasn’t sufficient for the Democratic base,” said Amanda Wintersieck, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Biden campaigned with McAuliffe on Oct. 26, but schools weren’t a focus of his stump speech, and he didn’t bring up critical race theory. Instead, he echoed McAuliffe’s message of tying Youngkin to Trump.
“I ran against Donald Trump,” Biden said. “And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump.”
Youngkin’s appeals were especially resonant with families still reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
David Winston, a pollster who advises Republican leaders in the House and Senate, said conversations about racism — such as efforts to change the names of schools — struck some parents as tone-deaf after the coronavirus had upended their children’s education.
“Why are we involved in talking about all these problems when their kids are a year and a half behind?” he asked.
Winston said the issue picked up momentum during the campaign’s final debate when McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” granting Youngkin an argument that crossed party lines.
“The idea that you want to assert parents should have a major role in defining or having discussions about their child’s education is not a particularly partisan discussion,” Winston said.
Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, which supported McAuliffe in the Virginia race, recognized that Republicans had developed a compelling message.
“I don’t think they’re wrong about this business about parents, and parents wanting more say,” she said. “They certainly want to be engaged and involved in how school decisions are made.”
But the conversation also struck a chord in another way, Shropshire said. Republicans, she argued, have gone from “declaring that white children shouldn’t have to sit in physical proximity to black kids, to now saying white children shouldn’t have to sit in physical proximity to a curriculum that talks about the role of racism in this country.”
Virginia wasn’t the only state where an election touched on critical race theory, which is built around the ideas that race is socially constructed and that racism has historically been inherent in the country’s legal and government systems.
Candidates who denounced it fell short in local school board races in states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Connecticut. But after Youngkin’s victory in a state that Biden had won by double digits just last year, Republicans are likely to lean into similar messages in the upcoming midterm election.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who has denounced critical race theory in the past, said his caucus would release a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” to keep the party’s focus on education, which has traditionally been viewed as a stronger issue for Democrats.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), another leader of the caucus, said the election showed that parents are “concerned about things like critical race theory being rammed down their kids’ throats, trying to teach hatred of America.”
Arguments about education and race have a particular resonance in Virginia, where some public schools shut down rather than face integration after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Taxpayer funds were rerouted to “segregation academies,” which were only for white students.
This cycle of racial progress and backlash continued after Floyd’s murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis at the same time the COVID-19 pandemic was having an outsize effect on communities of color. Millions of white people became involved in the ensuing protests, particularly young white people who suddenly had questions for their parents, said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a U.S. history professor at Ohio State University.
Before the protests, “Kyleigh hadn’t been coming home saying, ‘We have a systemic racism problem,’” Jeffries said. “And now Mom is saying, ‘What the hell is this?’”
As conversations about race were shifting, parents were suddenly granted an intimate look at their children’s education when schools closed during the pandemic, turning their lives upside down.
Some parents didn’t like what they saw or thought the remedy went too far, and right-wing figures have branded such concepts as critical race theory. The solution, Republicans argued, was to get that theory out of schools — even though it wasn’t actually part of the curriculum.
“Republicans are lying. They’re not being honest,” White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. “They’re not being truthful about where we stand. And they’re cynically trying to use our kids as a political football.”
But some believe that Democrats are underestimating the potency of racially charged messaging.
“A lot of liberal political insiders tell themselves that racial dog whistles are obvious and only appeal to people who are racist,” said Ian Haney López, author of “Dog Whistle Politics” and a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law. “That’s not true at all.”
After all, he noted, Trump won more votes in 2020 than 2016, and he increased his share of nonwhite voters. Republicans also ran a diverse slate of candidates in Virginia, including a Black woman for lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, and a Latino man for attorney general, Jason Miyares. All of them won.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with Biden’s campaign last year, thinks Democrats can have an effective response to arguments about critical race theory by saying, “We want our kids to learn the good and the bad so they have a bright future and don’t repeat mistakes of the past.”
Going into next year, she said, Biden “has a lot of credibility, he has a lot of comfort, he has a lot of experience.”
Biden developed strong relationships with Black communities early in his political career, but he isn’t easily pigeonholed when it comes to issues around racial justice.
He participated in civil rights protests and worked as a lifeguard in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Wilmington, Del. As a senator, he opposed federal support for school integration programs that involved busing and pushed tough-on-crime policies that increased incarceration rates.
He later became a devoted wingman to President Obama, serving eight years as vice president to the country’s first Black commander in chief. He won last year’s Democratic presidential nomination and the election in large part because of the support of Black voters, even as some off-the-cuff remarks created controversy along the way.
Heather McGhee, who studies the role of racism in American politics and previously worked for Democratic politicians and organizations, said Biden can succeed as a messenger for his party by weaving populist appeals with conversations about race.
Added McGhee, “You can be honest about the role of racism while also expanding the circle of people who feel like they can be on the right side of history by explaining that it’s not a zero sum.”
Megerian and Logan reported from Washington. Mason reported from Los Angeles.
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