His Predecessors Dodged Race. Biden Embraces It

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I don’t think I’m that old. But I’ve followed presidential candidates through the ethanol fields of Iowa and apple orchards of New Hampshire enough times to remember when most politicians didn’t want to talk about race. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago when the nation’s first Black President almost made his way to the Democratic Party’s nomination without a major speech on race. In 2008, it was still conventional wisdom in national politics to stay away from the topic, if possible, and that engaging with it carried nothing but downside.

Then, back in the early-spring thaw of the 2008 primary, Barack Obama found himself backed into a corner. A network morning show had aired a two-minute segment about the pastor who married Barack and Michelle. His fiery sermons raised a big question for Democrats: would white, working-class voters rally behind this man who sat in the pews of a church where the pastor called the country Obama sought to lead the “USA of KKK”?

Still, almost everyone on Obama’s team was against the idea of a major speech on race. (Obama himself deadpans in his memoir that “the team was skeptical.”) But the candidate plotted a careful balancing act in the hopes of steadying a campaign that, to that point, had emphasized a message of hope, not its potential to make history. Obama, in his own recollection of the moment, had to explain simultaneously how Blacks loved a country they felt had betrayed them and why whites’ struggles were no less valid.

The speech did the trick, or at least changed the narrative of the campaign and set records for YouTube views. After the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in response staged a full meltdown at the National Press Club, accusing the U.S. government of causing the AIDS epidemic and praising Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Obama followed-up with a speech that formally ended his relationship with the pastor. But privately, Obama wondered if Hillary Clinton was right “about me being damaged goods” in his affiliation with the pastor, and that race was just the one thing Americans didn’t want to deal with explicitly in their politics, the former President writes in the first volume of his memoirs.

Fast forward to last night with President Joe Biden, who spoke to the nation hours after a Minnesota jury convicted Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, of manslaughter and second- and third-degree murder of George Floyd. Biden stood in the foyer of the White House mansion and spoke rawly about what has to come next after Chauvin’s conviction on all three charges. Biden said it “takes acknowledging and confronting, head on, systemic racism and the racial disparities that exist in policing and in our criminal justice system more broadly.”

There’s been a shift in recent years in the broader psyche of how race fits into American politics, and leaders past and present have responded in uneven ways. In 2015, Bill Clinton apologized for supporting the 1994 crime bill because of its racially uneven application of penalties. (Biden, too, has apologized for backing that bill.) As Jonathan Alter writes in his fresh assessment of former President Jimmy Carter, even a Southern figure who in the 1950s and 1960s was largely silent on racial injustice (before championing increased government diversity the 1970s and ’80s) last year released a statement that read to many, between the lines, as an apology. “Silence can be as deadly as violence,” the former President and his wife Rosalynn wrote. And just last night, the Business Roundtable — the lobbyist for CEOs — joined the flood of corporations in demanding improved policing standards.

It’s a big change, at least on the surface. After a campaign that largely steered clear of race, Obama, during his eight years in office, took up the tactic of his predecessors who dodged race. When he was asked about a white police officer’s arrest in 2009 of a Black professor at Harvard, Obama answered in what he thought was a clinical analysis, saying he understood why Skip Gates was angry to be cuffed on his own steps. Obama’s internal polling after that comment showed he suffered the single-biggest drop in support among white voters in his entire presidency, he wrote in his memoir. Three years later, when asked about the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Obama again answered with matter-of-fact style. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said in 2012, nimbly responding without using the words Black or race.

Americans have grown more concerned about racial justice since 2020; data backs that up. Younger voters in particular are animated by it, but not exclusively. The women who took to the streets after Hillary Clinton’s loss became reliable allies for last year’s marches for racial justice. That’s part of the reason Biden studied up on racially inclusive language during his campaign last year. He met with the Floyd family ahead of the funeral and spoke at it. He phoned the Floyd family in recent days and again after the verdict. And he told reports in the Oval Office that he was praying for the “right” verdict in the then-ongoing jury deliberations.

But America’s superhighway of progress isn’t self-fulfilling. Floyd’s death — caught on camera, as Chauvin pinned him to the sidewalk with a knee on his neck — sparked a reckoning on racial justice and moved the yearslong Black Lives Matter movement back into the national spotlight. Polling shows white voters’ feelings about the movement haven’t changed much. Civiqs’ polling shows Black Lives Matter enjoyed majority support for only about six weeks immediately following Floyd’s death. At its peak, it had 43% support among white voters. That number is now back down to 37%, roughly where it was before Floyd’s death, FiveThirtyEight notes in a helpful analysis. Among all voters these days, support for the movement stands at 47%, opposition at 40%, 11% saying they are neutral and 1% saying they don’t know. (In another piece, the polling site notes this fading support also happens after mass shootings when polls ask about changes to gun laws; the horror gives way to complacency pretty quickly.)

By the time we turned off the television last night, Biden had made clear his sincere vow to do better on race and push for legislation to combat systemic racism. There may be less political risk to Biden, as a white President, to bring race front and center in his politics than his predecessor. But, as my colleague Alana Abramson wrote last night, there’s still a rough path ahead for his pledges to become reality. Until lawmakers feel police reform is a priority for their constituents, there’s a real risk that legislation might get kicked down the road, as it has been for years. As much as America has shifted in important ways this last year, the absence of support is strong.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com