The summer of 2020 brought calls to address racism aggressively. The fall 2021 elections show how hard that has been.
"But Tuesday’s election results underscored how much the political winds have shifted since the start of what many activists had hoped was a new national awakening to the stubborn legacy of America’s racist history.
Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in Virginia, in part, by warning about anti-racism curriculums in schools that examine the ways policies and laws perpetuate systemic discrimination.
A proposal to overhaul policing was defeated in Minneapolis — the liberal city that gave rise to the summer of protests after a police officer killed George Floyd — as voters rejected the idea of replacing a traditional law enforcement presence with one that would take a “comprehensive public health approach” to public safety.
Democratic cities elected mayors more focused on economic, crime and education issues than implementing major police and racial justice policies advocated by the protesters in summer 2020.
And, in a reminder of how little Democrats have been able to do in Washington on voting rights, Republicans blocked another such legislative proposal Wednesday, even as Democratic leaders argue that major reforms are needed to counter GOP efforts at the state level to make it harder to vote, particularly in communities of color.
For many civil rights leaders, this week’s events brought a recognition — and renewed anger — that the political terrain over the past year has moved from one where Republicans were not only attacking proposals that came out of the summer of 2020 but were now realizing significant gains at the ballot box because of them.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said the election results validated concerns that some pushing for change have gone too far, alienating moderates and independents with talk of violent protests or proposals to defund police departments. The movement is at a tenuous spot, he said, needing to convince activists to tone down their rhetoric and become more pragmatic.
“We’re going to have engage more methodically and strategically in the process, because we could lose it all,” he said. “We’ve got to really bring everybody together and understand that this is a wake-up call and those really committed to voting rights and police reform need to deal with it in a practical way.”
Both parties are now examining what Tuesday’s election results can teach them about how to approach the 2022 midterms, where many of the same issues will be central to competitive campaigns across the country.
For Republicans, one major lesson was that if they talk about education — in part by tapping into fear and channeling concern about how racism is taught in schools — they can drive up turnout in White rural areas and cut down on Democratic margins in the suburbs.
It’s a strategy many civil rights leaders are worried will prove successful in the midterm elections.
“We have to acknowledge that they are weaponizing that to inspire fear into individuals, which is, well, it’s working to their advantage,” said Tay Anderson, a community organizer and one of the members of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education.
Republicans have pushed back against the charge that their campaign strategy is to stoke racist fears and note that along with Youngkin, Republicans Winsome Sears and Jason Miyares won the state’s lieutenant governor and attorney general races, respectively. Sears became the first Black woman elected statewide in Virginia and Miyares the first Latino.
For many Democrats, there was a recognition that they can’t ignore or dismiss Republican criticisms, and that they need to find a way to talk about race without alienating White voters.
“I’ve spent a lot of time today laying out plans to talk about not only your accomplishments — but also how to engage on these cultural issues,” Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who advises a number of congressional candidates, said Wednesday. “It’s going to be a big part of the playbook and Democrats have to realize Republicans are swifter on these and know how to use them better than, candidly, we have.”
The solutions, he said, are still a work in progress for a party that prides itself on a big tent and can struggle to talk about cultural issues.
“This is a country that generally elects middle-of-the-road ideas and middle-of-the-road thinking,” Sena said. “And the party has to think about how it’s preventing itself from reaching a larger swath of the electorate.”
But Democrats simultaneously risk alienating the Black voters who make up one of the most vital parts of the Democratic coalition — but one that is straining to see the tangible benefits of working to elect Democrats in tight races. While Confederate monuments have come down and streets have been renamed in some areas — and Juneteenth declared a federal holiday — many view those changes, while important, as well short of the kind of systemic reforms needed to address decades of discrimination.
“Have you ever been on an elevator with someone where they’re pretending to hold the door open for somebody that’s running but they’re really just pressing the metal plate?” said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, which has registered more than a half-million voters. “That is what Democrats are doing to Black voters.”
Ufot said she has grown tired of excuses from top Democratic leaders who have placed blame on Republicans, Senate rules and whatever other impediments pop up along the way.
“It is the president and the vice president that have the biggest bully pulpit in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “There’s a lot that they could do that I don’t see happening right now in this moment. I think it might just be a matter of priorities.”
But there is also concern that the political terrain is shifting.
A majority of Americans, for example, believe that American culture and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s, according to a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. That was a notable shift from 2020, when a majority of Americans — 55 percent — thought American culture had changed for the better. The shift is primarily driven by a steep drop-off among how Republicans and independents feel about the country.
Ben Rhodes, a former top adviser to Barack Obama, said that as president, Obama often tried to frame “progressive change as a validation of American history” rather than a repudiation of it.
“Like it or not we are living through an age of identity politics — in which the question of what it means to be American is contested more than any time in my life,” he wrote in a Twitter thread.
“Democrats absolutely have to engage on these cultural issues by presenting the changes we represent and advocate as an extension of our better history and not simply a repudiation of our darker history,” he added. “There are lots of people out there who are indeed racist and beyond reach. But there are lots of others who have voted Democrat and Republican who were open to the story of an America that is great enough to change.”
Ravi K. Perry, chair and professor of political science at Howard University, said that throughout U.S. history, gains by minority groups have been followed by a backlash, often at the urging of politicians who play to White fears.
“That’s how White fear and anxiety works,” he said. “I mean, that’s how it’s been working for centuries. What you first do is you make people feel threatened and uncomfortable in their own homes and their own schools and their own neighborhoods,” he said. “Fanning the flames of racism is an old playbook in Republican circles. And they did it very well this time.”
But Perry added that even among Democrats there is a wide-ranging debate about the best way to implement policies to fight racism and discrimination. Most liberals — even most Americans — believe that dismantling racism and addressing police brutality is important, he said. But the appropriate path to those end goals remains a source of conflict, as evidenced by the Minneapolis decision to maintain a traditional police force.
“Progressive values are of significant importance to the Democrats. But it’s clear that outside of perhaps the East and the West Coast, how those progressive values are implemented, or even agreed upon by progressives or liberals or Democrats, themselves varies,” he said. “And that’s what we saw in Minneapolis.”
President Biden, in his first remarks since the election results, on Wednesday acknowledged some of the factors that led to Democratic defeats. But he did less to engage on worries among Black voters that his party is not doing enough to rebut Republicans on cultural issues or tenuous claims that White students in K-12 public schools are being taught that they bear some responsibility for the country’s racist past.
“Well, I think that the whole answer is just to speak the truth. Lay out where we are,” Biden said. “Look, I’m convinced that if you look at everything from my view on [the] criminal justice system to my view on equal opportunity, to my view on economic issues and all the things they have and what I’ve pushing in legislation — each of the elements are overwhelmingly popular. We have to speak to them, though. We have to speak them and explain them.”
Some activists said they now feel that Democrats co-opted the message of protesters, but have not done enough to defend it from Republican attacks.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a Philadelphia activist who helped organize bail funds for people arrested during the summer 2020 protests, said that many of the people who protested or supported protesters — including Biden and politicians on Capitol Hill — were engaged in public gestures that have yielded very little.
“If you look at the protests that happened, a lot of it was ceremonial and performative. A lot of people came out in droves, because they didn’t want to be caught on the wrong side of history,” Muhammad said. “The Democratic caucus, they brandished kente cloth or the yellow painting of Black Lives Matter on streets of D.C. That didn’t really shift the culture that Black people ultimately wanted and want. A lot of it was really hot air. The U.S. didn’t really shift or become more connected and concerned about Black lives.”