Republicans find a message on race that works; here’s how Democrats should respond

A voter fills out their ballot at a early voting polling site at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Va., on Thursday, September 23, 2021.
Greg Nash

Republicans have figured out how to turn moderate Democrats against the progressive wing of the party, and last week’s election losses are just the beginning of a free-fall — unless Democrats overhaul their strategy.

The main event of the election day slaughter was the Republican takeover of Virginia’s governorship. The Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, was handily beaten by Glenn Youngkin, a Republican political novice. How a Republican with no political experience beat a Democrat who previously ran Virginia as governor has spawned a frenzy of newspaper, TV, and Twitter analysis.

Sure, Democratic senate spoilers Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) succeeded in blocking President Biden’s social spending legislation, dragging Democratic enthusiasm that followed the blue takeover of the presidency and both Houses of Congress, but it was “white racial anxiety” that many are blaming for the Republican sweep of the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general posts in Virginia.

Whether it was the threat of teaching critical race theory to high school students, or the GOP-adopted crusade by a mother to have a novel on slavery banned from Virginia public schools, Republicans latched onto issues of race and rode them to victory.

Reaction from many Democrats has been to label Youngkin voters white supremacists. Given the Republican Party’s history, that’s understandable — but Biden’s 10-point win in Virginia, just a year ago, makes it impossible to reasonably accept racism as the only reason Democrats were rebuked by Virginia voters.

Beyond the individual issues of CRT and whether novels that include graphically violent passages about slavery should be taught in schools, there is a deeper issue of how Americans in 2021 and beyond are going to deal with the injustice — and its vestiges — of state-sanctioned slavery.

Youngkin homed in on the problem and offered a solution that is palatable not only to Republicans who were turned off by Donald Trump’s blatant racism, but also to moderate Democrats. Here are excerpts from Youngkin’s stump speech on race:

“America is the greatest country on the planet … but we also have some dark and abhorrent chapters. We will teach all history, the good and the bad. What we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through the lens of race, (where) one group’s an oppressor and another group’s a victim. (We must) live up to those immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who implored us … to judge one another on the content of our character and not the color of our skin.”

The words are compelling, reasonable, and — standing on their own — appeal to both parties. Yet Youngkin’s speech was all in support of his promise to ban CRT from Virginia classrooms, a flashpoint for Republicans who support the ban and an equally emotional issue for progressive Democrats who strongly support a curriculum that includes much of the substance associated with CRT, though not its name.

We should expect other Republicans to come up with their own versions of this speech. If Democrats do not want to lose their conservative-leaning base, they need to understand why Youngkin’s take on race resonated and how they can recast their own message on racial equality so it is not co-opted by moderate Republicans.

That white Americans benefited from slavery and centuries of racial inequality is a fact that should not be up for discussion among rational people. But Democratic progressive orthodoxy on issues of race brings an implicit, if not express, yoke of personal shame. In 2019, actress and civil rights activist Rosanna Arquette tweeted: “I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” This sentiment causes many people to recoil. They do not want to be indicted, tried, and sentenced for crimes they did not commit — based on the trending race-wide vilification broadly referred to as “white privilege.”

Condemning past racism, acknowledging its continued existence, and working to counteract it is what we should all be doing. But being endlessly told our country can never rise above its wrongs — and that the sins of your ancestors are your sins — has left many Democrats cold. 

Making things worse is the frequent knee-jerk claim of racism, even when the facts do not support it. And it’s not just on issues of substance like police use-of-force. Recently, Ellen Pompeo jokingly recounted an innocuous dispute she had with Denzel Washington several years ago, when he directed an episode of the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” in which she starred. The attack from both the Black community and progressive white “allies” was swift and severe. Pompeo was plated and served as an unabashed racist — never mind that she is married to, and has three children with, a Black man.

Recalibrating how Democrats talk about issues of race and racism does not mean they should abandon their core policies. Democrats must not only acknowledge the horrors of slavery as an American institution, but also recognize that racism persists in a way that makes the lives of most Black Americans more difficult than their white counterparts. 

Democrats should support Black candidates for office because real change will come when more African Americans are in seats of political power. Scholarships should be created to ensure the brightest and best of the Black community have an opportunity to excel in education, despite their financial status. And Democrats should support teaching all children the history of slavery and racism, without asking white students to be ashamed of being white.

All these things can be accomplished without: dumping centuries of guilt on 21st Century Americans; tearing down statues of imperfect American heroes like Thomas Jefferson; and crying racism when the facts don’t support it. 

I expect some may accuse me of recklessly comparing the discomfort of modern white guilt to the history of slavery, violence, and racial inequality experienced by generations of Black Americans. I’m not. There is no comparison.

People look for ways to end things that make them feel uneasy — like guilt or fear that anything they say will get them labelled a racist. They remain quiet in public, but make their voices heard in the anonymity of the voting booth. 

As moderate Republicans repackage their message on race to pull in swing voters, Democrats are going to have to take the temperature of the room — not just the left side of the room — and develop policies on racial equality that maintain the moral high ground but are tethered to common sense.

In a country that is evenly divided, Democrats cannot afford to send any of their base running into the arms of Republicans.

Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for more than 24 years with the Department of Justice in Detroit and Los Angeles, prosecuting high-profile crimes, including conspiracy cases related to international drug trafficking and organized crime. He has since worked on the indigent defense panel for the federal courts. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelJStern1.

Tags 2022 midterm elections conservative democrats Critical race theory Democratic Party Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema moderate Democrats moderate white voters Politics progressive Democrats Progressive wing race and society Racism Terry McAuliffe Virginia White guilt White privilege

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