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Mini Symposium

The Biden Racial Justice Policy Agenda: Combating Systemic Racism with Targeting within Universalism

Sanford F. Schram

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1Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Consistent with his personal tendency to lie about almost everything, Trump has continued to claim that he actually won, even after his “Stop the Steal” campaign was rejected multiple times in court and resulted in his second impeachment after he incited an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol on January 6th. Trump nonetheless maintains a hammerlock on the Republican Party which seems now doomed to being a party committed to promoting White Nationalism with or without Trump at the top of the ticket (Balz, 2021). In other words, it was no small thing that Trump did to achieve dominance in large part by his willingness to fan the flames of white resentment toward outgroups, in particular African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and also Asians (blaming them for the COVID-19 pandemic). Even after losing re-election in 2020, Trump disturbingly continues to play the race card to deleterious effect, sadly reminding us that deeply engrained ideas of White Nationalism continue to reinforce many peoples sense of white privilege (if not superiority). Even the “Stop the Steal” Big Lie was itself a racial slur, grounded as it was in the dangerous conspiracy theory that non-whites in the big cities in critical swing states illegally flipped votes from Trump to Biden to snatch away Trump’s victory. This racist slur continues to receive overwhelming support from rank-and-file Republicans in a party re-made in the image of Trump.

2In the Post-Civil Rights era, however, much of this white hostility began to increase once again in reaction to the presidency of Barack Obama, widely assumed to be the first non-white president in U.S. history. Michael Tesler (2016) called this the “Obama Effect” whereby Obama’s political success sadly helped to instigate a white backlash. Of late there seems to be a “Trump Effect” where Trumps presidency inspired its own backlash (Fording & Schram, 2020). Racial politics in the U.S. has a long history of one movement countering another and the racist backlash to the Obama Presidency, in many ways, represented an inflection point in the developing resistance to efforts to achieve racial inclusion in the Post-Civil Rights era. That resistance contributed critical support to Trump’s successful campaign to win the presidency in 2016. Yet, Trump’s ascendancy inevitably fueled its own backlash from people who were appalled by his blatantly racist rhetoric and policies. And that counter movement of racial liberalism helped to put Biden in the White House (Schram & Fording, 2021).

3Biden himself has been keen to recognize that opposition to Trumps racism, in particular, has proven critical to his own political success and, as President, he has moved to populate his cabinet with people of color and to propose a series of policy proposals designed to address what Biden and others call “systemic racism”. Leaning on the more progressive activists in his Party, Biden – while having a history as a centrist – has thrown the weight of his Presidency behind the push for racial justice that has intensified in the era of the #Black Lives Matter movement, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Biden also appreciates that the votes of African Americans helped him to procure the Democratic nomination and, eventually, his presidency. For all these reasons, Biden has a very ambitious racial justice agenda. His definition of “systemic racism” is laid out in his executive pronouncement from his first day as President and refers to discriminatory practices embedded in the operations of societys basic institutions and everyday organizations, as opposed to merely consciously prejudice by individuals (Biden, 2021). Across a number of policy arenas, Biden hopes now, in a post-Trump presidency, to move the U.S. further down the road toward racial justice. How far he is likely to get in this endeavor is nonetheless very much an open question.

4Both as a candidate and as president, Biden has supported a number of policy initiatives to promote racial justice, ranging from addressing systemic racism in policing to reparations for African American farmers. The most noteworthy features in the COVID-19 relief bill that he was able to get through Congress were not race specific, but the assistance offered was targeted in a way that would disproportionately benefit non-whites who are over-represented at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Biden has also appointed a number of prominent non-white cabinet officials to head such agencies as the Department of Health and Human Services and even the Defense Department.

5It also bears mentioning that Bidens running mate in 2020 was Kamala Harris, the first non-white and also the first female Vice President of the United States. She has assumed an important role as a key policy advisor in Bidens White House and has already cast a key tie-breaking vote in the Senate (as the Constitution specifies that the Vice President presides over the Senate and is authorized to cast a vote in cases of ties). Given Bidens age, at 78, Harris is widely assumed to be a candidate to replace him if he decides not to run for re-election and, should she win, the Biden push to redress systemic racism is likely to continue.

6Yet whether the Democrats can cling to power – let alone implement an agenda for racial justice – is very much, at this stage, a tenuous presumption at best. Republicans are hell bent on continuing to act out, on behalf of the defeated former President Donald Trumps Big Lie, that Biden stole the 2020 election (Balz, 2021). The Republican agenda is, at this moment, to continue to race-bait and to blame non-whites for helping to steal that election. The main vehicle for this campaign is having states enact voter suppression laws to depress votes of non-whites who would most often vote against the GOP. The insistence on the Big Lie draws extra intensity from the widely recognized concern that non-whites are voting in larger numbers now and starting to make some previously Republican states actually competitive, as witnessed by the closeness of elections in such traditional strongholds as Georgia. Even states such as Texas are being eyed as new competitive arenas for the Democrats where Latino voters are growing rapidly in numbers and are largely voting against the Republicans. Therefore, it makes sense that at the center of Bidens approach to addressing racial injustice is an attempt by Democrats in Congress to push back against the efforts of Republicans to curtail the right to vote, suppress the votes of non-whites and thereby ensure that there will not be a repeat of the 2020 election where non-white voters were critical in defeating Trump in pivotal swing states. Biden can ill-afford to ignore this basic issue of voting rights, for if the GOP succeeds in rolling back access to the ballot, the Democrats will likely lose control of Congress and Bidens agenda for racial justice, along with just about everything else, will be blocked by a Republican Congress. Biden must attend to first things first if he is to succeed as President.

7This is undoubtedly a racial inflection point for American politics. The GOP at this time still remains in the thrall of Donald Trump who, even as the defeated ex-President, has maintained his dominance of the Party. Trump ran in 2016 on a platform centered on standing up for White people who felt that they were being marginalized in an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse society. He lost the popular vote to his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, but squeaked out a narrow Electoral College victory. Trump flipped critical swing states not so much by persuading people to switch parties but by mobilizing non-voters who harbored deep racial resentment but had previously not found a candidate who gave voice to their racism (Fording & Schram, 2020). Trumps campaign promise to Make America Great Again was a not-so-coded dog whistle to White voters that he would be their President and would act to assuage their fears of being marginalized in a changing society.

8Trump never had a popular approval rating of more than 50 percent while President but his base of loyal White voters deified him. When he lost the 2020 election, he claimed that Biden had stolen the election from him by illegally getting votes switched and committing massive voter fraud. In particular, Trump claimed that the cities of Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, in the critical swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia respectively, were hotbeds of corruption and sites of unprecedented levels of massive voter fraud. This was another thinly veiled, racially encoded dog whistle that non-whites were marginalizing Whites and illegally seizing power. Trump amplified the “Stop the Steal” campaign that his supporters started and, at a rally on January 6th, he called for his supporters present to march down the street and prevent Congress from certifying Bidens victory. The ensuing riot led to the sacking of the Capitol where violence ensued and police officers died. Hundreds of the insurrectionists were arrested and many were found to be members of White Nationalist or Militia Movement groups such as the Proud Boys, the Three-Percenters and the Oath Keepers. A number of the latter group were veterans, former or current police officers, and others whose patriotism was now shown to be perverted in a cause that gave voice to the anguish of angry Whites.

9This insurrection, one would think, would be a wake-up call for the GOP that their willingness to accept the support of blatant racists had now come back to bite them. As the Republican political consultant, Stuart Stevens (2020), said of the GOP: “The dark side has always been there, dating to McCarthy vs Eisenhower. Many of us thought it was a recessive gene. It turned out to be dominant.” Yet the Republican Party has refused to distance itself from Trump and his Big Lie of a stolen election. They fear retribution from his base if they do. And so Republicans in these critical swing states and elsewhere have been pushing through voter suppression laws so that, come the next election, the non-white vote in key cities will not be able to override the White votes for Trump loyalists. The battle lines are now drawn at the most basic level with one party favoring voter rights in the name of achieving a multi-racial democracy and the other opposing democracy and actively working to suppress the vote.

10Republicans have tried a number of ways to turn Bidens emphasis on combating systemic racism into a scandal. Early on in the first 100 days of the Biden Presidency, the GOP relied on Fox News in particular to claim that there was a new crisis of an excess of asylum seekers coming to the Southern border. This was an attempt to suggest that Biden was putting children in cages, as Trump had done in his racist campaign to discourage asylum seekers. The Biden Administration, under the leadership of the Secretary for Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, quickly moved to deal with the situation and moved children to dormitories run by the Department of Health and Human Services. While this was not a permanent solution, the attempt to smear Biden as no less racist that Trump had fizzled out. However, it remains unclear as to what extent Biden will be able to roll back many of the restrictive actions that Trump imposed on asylum seekers, especially the judicial appointments which saw Trump, with the support of the Republicans in the Senate, stuff many unqualified and reactionary judges into the federal courts (Kalhan, 2020). The more recent appearance at the border of Haitians and others seeking asylum has heightened the controversy.

11One particularly eccentric issue for the Republicans has been that of critical race theory”, as they refer to it (Demaske, 2009). Again, this is a campaign that is amplified widely by Fox News, although other right-wing media companies have joined the cause. Critical race theory is a well-established school of social theorizing that has led to much great scholarship. Its origins are found among the writings of legal theorists, such as Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams and others, but over time it has spread to include many others’ work. Critical Race Theory is fundamentally about examining the systemic racism that Biden has talked about. It became a popular meme among Trump supporters when the 1619 Project first began to appear with the writings of Nicole Hannah-Jones, which raised a major controversy among historians about the racist roots of the American political system that are still systematically neglected even in some of most prominent understandings of American history (Serwer, 2019). The Trumpists saw it merely as more left-wing political correctness and excoriated it as an indoctrination attempt aimed at getting young students to hate White people as oppressors. Without anything to point to at all, they accused the Biden Administration of wanting to foist this self-flagellation on the public schools. All this propagandizing has only furthered the defensiveness of the Biden Administration in the face of an increasingly racially divided country. Whether it slows Bidens attempts to begin to address systemic racism is likely to be a moot question as the resistance is already emboldened by these outlandish and baseless critiques.

12A good example is found in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill which Biden got enacted with Harris’s tie-breaking vote. Included in that bill was $4 billion in debt relief for minority farmers (primarily Black), designed to compensate them for years of past discriminatory agricultural lending and subsidy policies (Rappeport & Swanson, 2021). Nonetheless, banks have resisted distributing funds at pace, saying that this would significantly harm their profit margins (Rappeport, 2021). These types of reparations to address systemic racism in banking or elsewhere are not being accepted passively but instead being actively resisted by the corporate sector even as they are accused by the Trump camp, especially via Fox News, of being led by misguided woke executives”. It increasingly seems that these types of rhetorical moves are central to the Trumpist propaganda pushback and are not a distraction; rather, given how they can resonate with the mass public, they are likely to become a major political factor in possibly limiting Bidens push to address systemic racism. Such is the highly divisive nature of racial politics in the U.S. in the current era.

13Although Biden has used the language of systemic racism to align his Administration with the progressive left in the Democratic Party, his main approach is actually more subtle being less about targeting aid to non-whites and more about universalistic policies designed to help those struggling economically. Not surprisingly, this approach disproportionately benefits non-whites who are more likely to be economically disadvantaged compared with Whites overall. Theda Skocpol (1991) has long championed this approach as more likely to be politically popular, especially since it is inclusive and leads to a broader base of support across racial groups. She calls it targeting within universalism”. A prime example of Bidens strategy of targeting within universalism is in the infrastructure” strategy he has proposed (White House, 2021). Bidens definition of infrastructure goes well beyond roads and bridges, or even mass transit, to include a wide variety of expenditures related to such diverse things as modernizing waste water systems, improving the plumbing for public water supplies, extending high-speed broadband internet access to all Americans, universalizing child care, and radically increasing the benefits that families can receive from the childcare allowance in the tax code. The latter would basically cut child poverty in half and disproportionately affect non-whites. The infrastructure proposals have polled extremely well across partisan and racial lines and suggests that targeting within universalism may in fact be the winning approach for Bidens racial justice agenda.

14Biden has decided that he needs not to repeat the tepid responses of the Obama Administration. And while he too, like Obama, has emphasized a desire for bipartisanship, he has put forth bold initiatives in an adroit, politically inspired quest to claim the mantle as the leading social justice warrior. Yet he is also pursuing this agenda with an inclusive strategy of targeting within universalism at its core. Whether this strategy, which emphasizes political feasibility, will enable him to make progress in combating systemic racism remains an open question. The path forward is becoming clear for the Biden Administration, but it is by no means clear whether it can advance down it, especially in the face of implacable resistance from the Trumpists who continue to follow their leader in the shameless use of demagoguery to undermine all things progressive that hold out hope for combating racial division.

15At present, the likelihood of success is very much in doubt. Policy paralysis in the face of a highly polarized political climate and the willingness of Republicans in the Senate to use anti-majoritarian practices such as the filibuster may continue to stall the Biden agenda and prevent it from succeeding, in part or in whole. Yet, should Biden be able to overcome these obstacles, his strategy may produce what political scientists call positive policy feedback whereby enacted policy feeds back to affect politics and produce positive change in the political realm (Soss & Schram, 2007). Targeted universalism, in the form of universalistic social welfare policies that target benefits for non-whites disproportionately, may end up not dividing but mobilizing a racial justice coalition on behalf of the Biden Administration and producing future electoral gains for the Democrats more generally. Targeted universalism may lead to a more energized multi-racial coalition fighting for more gains in racial justice. It may also lead to a virtuous cycle of positive policy feedback on behalf of a more robust politics of racial justice. Biden’s inclusive social and economic initiatives could possibly lead to a diminution of racial hostility. People might begin to appreciate that, with such policies, politics can be a win-win, and not a zero sum game. Inclusive social and economic policies that involve spreading benefits widely, but also target those on the bottom for the biggest gains, might produce such political feedback effects. It could come to the point where people start to appreciate that a rising tide not only lifts all boats but can also begin the process of bringing people together with a great sense of solidarity, based on an appreciation that benefits for one group need not mean disadvantages for others. Yet this will all depend on overcoming the obstacles that the current political climate poses. Biden’s strategy, centered on targeted universalism, could possibly produce such long-run positive political effects. Nonetheless, this strategy seems almost utopian in an era of highly divisive polarized politics that produces policy gridlock. We may not get to find out if Biden’s strategy is the right one for our time if he fails to get his agenda through Congress. Only time will tell. But it is running out.

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References

Electronic reference

Sanford F. Schram, The Biden Racial Justice Policy Agenda: Combating Systemic Racism with Targeting within UniversalismInternational Review of Public Policy [Online], 4:1 | 2022, Online since 01 April 2022, connection on 16 August 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/irpp/2408; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/irpp.2408

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About the author

Sanford F. Schram

Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, USA
Sanford.schram@hunter.cuny.edu

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Creative Commons - Attribution 4.0 International - CC BY 4.0

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