When President Biden gave his inaugural address, he denounced domestic terrorism and white supremacy — the first president to do so — saying that the U.S. “must confront” and “will defeat” both. In his first days in office, he also made it a goal of his administration to address America’s racial equity crisis. Several of his policy proposals, like those to improve infrastructure and help families, explicitly state that they’ll take action by, for example, raising low wages and creating jobs for caregivers, who are predominantly women of color, or supporting minority-owned businesses.
This marks a stark departure from how past Democratic presidents have tackled race and is arguably part of the Democratic Party’s larger shift in promoting more left-leaning policies in response to the Trump era. But you wouldn’t necessarily know this had you just listened to Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress. He focused on the economic benefits of his plans and how they would increase jobs and help families without really expanding on how they would help people of color specifically. In fact, the few times Biden did talk about race in his speech, he either lumped all Americans together or distanced himself from taking a stance. For instance, when he mentioned the injustices that Black Americans have suffered at the hands of police, he was quick to follow up by saying that most police officers serve their communities honorably.
How Biden has chosen to embrace — but also distance himself from — issues of race isn’t new. Democrats have long debated just how much they can talk about race without alienating voters. This is why many such debates often devolve into a false choice of either prioritizing the economy or tackling racial inequities. The problem, and in part why it’s a false choice, is that not talking about race can similarly hurt politicians, especially Democrats, according to some research. The argument there is that regardless of whether Democrats are silent on race, Republicans will still bring it up, which underscores why Biden isn’t likely to talk meaningfully about race anytime soon: Republicans are going to run an identity-based campaign against Biden, and at this point, it’s a bit of an open question as to what extent talking about race drives voters’ behavior. Voters are more divided by race and gender now than they were in previous elections, but it’s not clear yet how much of a factor that will be in future elections and in how voters choose to identify politically.
The discussion over how much politicians should talk about race is an old one. And over the years, several researchers have examined whether turning explicit race-based appeals — that is, making clear how certain policies will benefit people of color specifically — into political messages reduces support. They’ve found that linking some policies to race backfires. A recent study from Yale political scientists Micah English and Joshua Kalla echoed this, finding that highlighting the benefits of progressive policies for racial minorities actually decreased support for them. The pair conducted an online survey of six progressive policy ideas — increasing the minimum wage to $15, forgiving $50,000 in student loan debt, changing zoning laws to encourage affordable housing, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and decriminalizing marijuana and erasing prior convictions — and asked randomly assigned participants to read about them in a neutral, race-based, class-based or race-plus-class-based frame. The result: Respondents overall were less likely to support policies framed around race than around class. “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 researchers wrote.
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This has led many Democratic politicians, Biden included, to do what some political scientists call “racial distancing” — or, voicing support for policies and positions that have wide support among Black voters, a key Democratic voting bloc, while making it clear that they won’t disturb the existing racial hierarchy of white Americans in a position of dominance. For example, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced in February that Biden supported the idea of studying reparations for Black Americans, but she refrained from saying whether the president would actually sign a reparations bill. And Biden’s tempered response reflects what Perry Bacon Jr. and Meredith Conroy found in previous analysis for FiveThirtyEight: White Democrats are much less supportive than Black Democrats of providing reparations to Black Americans as restitution for slavery.
This kind of political maneuvering is especially important, some researchers argue, if Democrats want to successfully win white voters without a college degree, as these voters are more likely to have negative attitudes about racial and ethnic minorities. “There are white people who have racially conservative attitudes,” Hakeem Jefferson, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and professor of political science at Stanford University, told me. “As long as they exist, there will be a share of the party that’s antagonistic to anything they perceive as disproportionately beneficial to people of color, and Black folks in particular.” Jefferson said this explains why Biden walks a tightrope when it comes to meaningfully discussing racism and racial inequities.
We can see this balancing act in some of Biden’s policies, too, like the American Families Plan. In that proposal, for instance, Biden outlines how Black Americans will reap the benefit of his proposals but then quickly segues into how “working families” and “low- and middle-income families” will also benefit. “Biden tries to talk about policies inclusively,” LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, a professor of politics at Princeton University, wrote in an email. “So, it’s not that he doesn’t mention how his ideas can benefit communities of color. Still, he rarely mentions the benefits for communities of color without mentioning how those policies will also benefit the ‘average American’ or ‘middle-class Americans’ — terms that are often used to describe White Americans.”
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Not all research agrees that this is the right approach, though. In fact, a colorblind outlook to talking about policies and programs that ignores racial disparities could turn off many Democrats. This is true of the very liberal white Democrats who have moved left on issues of identity since 2016. But it’s also true of nonwhite Democrats. The Race-Class Narrative Project, an initiative of Demos, a progressive think tank, found that failing to address race meaningfully leaves voters of color unmotivated to engage or vote.
This risk is especially true for Black voters, according to Robert L. Reece, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. To drive this point home, he invoked rapper Big K.R.I.T.’s famous line in his 2010 song “As Small As a Giant,” where he knocks then-President Barack Obama for not doing enough to really address poverty in Mississippi: “Obama cool, but he ain’t sending me no free checks.” In essence, Reece said, Black people, who resuscitated Biden’s once-dying campaign, recognize when politicians talk a big game about race but ultimately don’t follow through. “Most Black people who do vote are going to vote Democrat. The question is whether [politicians are] going to be able to motivate those people to vote,” Reece said. “Because Black people will stay at home if they feel like you’re taking them for granted, which the Democratic Party tends to do.” A Washington Post/Ipsos poll from June 2020 found, for instance, that younger Black Americans were less certain to say they’d vote in 2020 because they were skeptical that Biden could effectively address certain issues relevant to their communities.
What’s more, Republicans are going to bring up race — attacking “wokeness” has become the GOP’s main political strategy. As a talking point ahead of the midterms, for example, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio responded to Major League Baseball’s moving its All-Star game out of Georgia by blasting “woke corporate virtue signaling.” And in an April 25 New York Post op-ed, he criticized corporations for “[b]ending a knee to woke progressive craziness” and taking positions on ”woke cultural issues that tear at our national fabric.”
It’s too early to know how effective this strategy will be, but Republicans seem to see a winning message here. While polling on “wokeness” is difficult — there is no agreed-upon definition for what is meant by it, and it probably has more to do with one’s political persuasion than anything else — an April NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that majorities of Americans were opposed to American companies’ and professional sports teams’ using their platforms to “influence political, cultural or social change,” some of the main targets of the GOP’s campaign. And according to a March Harvard CAPS-Harris poll, 64 percent of respondents said they agreed with the statement that there is “a growing cancel culture” that is a “threat to their freedom.”
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It’s unclear, though, whether this crusade will hurt Biden specifically. It’s harder for Republicans to run an identity-based campaign against an older white man; plus, Biden has more latitude to talk about issues of race and identity. For instance, after he challenged white Americans to address and acknowledge systemic racism amid protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Biden’s polling numbers didn’t plummet, even though some pundits expected this at the time.
Even then-President Donald Trump had trouble successfully using the GOP’s race and gender schtick against Biden. That’s why when Republicans now discuss race, they often do so in a manner that presents all Democrats — not just Biden — as the aggressors or as too “politically correct.” In March, in response to a decision by Dr. Seuss’s publisher to pull the plug on six books that contained racist images, North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn tweeted, “Apparently Dr. Seuss books are now offensive and Democrats are trying to cancel publication of anymore of his books. This has to be a joke.”
As a result, Biden has found himself at a crossroads. While Republicans haven’t been able to criticize him on race specifically, he’s still taking a more measured approach to seemingly keep white voters on his side. But as he juggles these forces working against him when it comes to how much to talk about race, his party struggles with a math problem: Democrats face an uphill battle in retaining their House and Senate majorities given institutional advantages that benefit the GOP. And because Democratic voters are often concentrated in certain states and cities, that can lead to wasted votes. So, there’s a desire — whether it’s grounded in research or not — to run a campaign centered on economic populism that wins over all voters.
Which is why it’s very unlikely that Biden will talk meaningfully about race during his presidency. In doing so, he risks potentially alienating the voters Democrats need to avoid a midterm shellacking and opens himself up to criticism from the GOP. “[Biden] is trying to find a way to talk about race that makes it seem as if we can address racial issues without risk of losing anything,” Reece said. “In the end, I think his strategy will be more focused on things like ‘unity’ and ‘loving your neighbor’ and less about race-based social programs and the like.”