This week, Joe Biden sat down with radio host Rickey Smiley, who asked the president point-blank what he had “done to improve the lives of African Americans.” The first thing the president thought of was his efforts to scrub their criminal convictions from the public record.
“For example,” Biden said, “too many African Americans were denied everything from Pell Grants, student loans, housing, etc. because they were arrested for possession of marijuana, many too many.” To be sure, Biden added, his pardoning of Americans convicted of federal marijuana possession charges affects “whites as well.” But the fact that criminality was, as Karine Jean-Pierre would say, “top of mind” when the president was asked about the black experience wouldn’t have escaped the notice of those who police covert racism if a similar statement had been uttered by a Republican. Indeed, if it had been said by Joe Biden circa 2019, it would have fueled a national news cycle akin to those that erupted around the efficacy of forced busing and Biden’s relationship with the segregationists in his caucus.
At the very least, Biden believed there would be some residual political benefits that the black community would bestow on him for pursuing decarceral policies. The administration has acted as though that were the case since Biden was elected.
Upon Biden’s assuming office, “equity” fast became an administration euphemism for a variety of policy reforms aimed at promoting equal rights and just outcomes for all Americans. The Biden White House was quick to promise that it would integrate “issues of racial equity into everything it does.” The merits of the various legislative reforms and executive actions this philosophical outlook produced aside, its political benefits have yet to materialize. In fact, in these midterms, “equity” seems more like a drag on Democratic electoral prospects than a boon to them.
In a merciless filleting of his fellow liberals, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg recently analyzed how his party has mishandled the issue of crime to such a degree that the damage is irreparable in this election cycle. His polling suggests Republicans have effectively tarred the Democratic Party as “pro-crime,” and that this is not a byproduct of the GOP’s savvy. It was an outgrowth of “the choices they made” in 2020, and Democrats’ being captured by political interest groups wedded to “equity” initiatives.
“The Democrats had so little credibility on crime that any message I tested this year against the Republicans ended up losing us votes, even messages that voters previously liked,” Greenberg wrote. “With Democrats so out of touch on crime and the police, just discussing crime cost Democrats.” He added that his research since 2016 had found that the base of the Democratic Party always responded more favorably to “attacks on the rigged political economy,” but Democratic lawmakers focused not on those inequalities but on the “systemic racism that produces police abuse and threaten their right to vote.”
This year, Greenberg’s firm tested the Democratic response to Biden administration initiatives such as those that provide black farmers with “grants,” “housing vouchers targeted to minority communities,” increased funding for predominantly minority institutions of higher learning, and infrastructure initiatives aimed at removing lead from pipes. Biden himself highlighted a handful of these efforts when pressed on the matter by Smiley. “But that scored at the bottom of the list of ten actions of the administration,” Greenberg confessed. “Blacks ranked it third, but well below empowering workers and Medicare. It was the lowest-ranking accomplishment for Hispanics and Asian Americans.”
Black voters prioritize worker protections and Medicare expansion over anti-discrimination initiatives. Asian Americans are more focused on infrastructure and the corporate tax structure than “hate crimes.” Hispanics rank immigration reform dead last on their list of priorities. In other words, minority voters, like all voters, tend to prioritize governmental initiatives that are traditionally the province of government. The specter of “systemic racism” manages to be both omnipresent in American institutions but so vague that it’s hard to identify, much less extirpate. By contrast, the downstream consequences of this outlook are clear as crystal and just as tangible.
Equity compelled the state of California to try (and blessedly fail) to codify language authorizing racial discrimination in the state constitution. The same could be said of New York City’s attempt to eighty-six high-achieving high schools and standardized tests. Opponents of these measures were predictably demonized as bigots, though a significant number of them were the Asian Americans these initiatives were designed to disempower.
The depopulation of America’s prisons and the popularization of cashless bail, too, were equity-related enterprises. Though ostensibly justified by the strain Covid placed on the public-sector workforce, the reduction in prosecutions, early prisoner releases, and the “de-policing” of dangerous neighborhoods were ideas hatched long before the onset of the pandemic. Long after “Defund the Police” was universally recognized as a toxic slogan, the effects of our national experiment in curtailing police powers were acutely felt.
Even when the Justice System worked, as it did in the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, it remained evidence of America’s “long history of systemic racism,” according to Vice President Kamala Harris. Violent crime is up, in part, because of these misguided gestures in the direction of racial rapprochement. Far from being grateful for the effort, black voters are more likely than any other demographic outside conventionally conservative redoubts to say crime is “very important” to their midterm vote.
When it comes to America’s Hispanic population, “equity” drove a variety of educational reforms. The academic framework that became “critical race theory” is often attributed, in part, to Hispanic scholars. “LatCrits, as they would be later called,” Axios reported in 2021, would give way to “Latinx,” and the imposition of CRT-related themes in schools would light a fire under formerly complacent parents. Pedagogical fads that deemed universal arithmetic and English grammar racist are viewed with understandable suspicion by groups that regard education as the vehicle to achieve upward social mobility. And access to an unadulterated education is fueling concerns that Republicans will continue to make inroads this year in Hispanic-heavy districts along the border and even in dark-blue areas of the country like Miami-Dade, Florida.
What Greenberg astutely indicts as the “choices” Democrats made in 2020 weren’t made on a lark. They were informed by a philosophy of dubious provenance, a theory of everything that set its sights on everything. In the pursuit of equitable outcomes (often in direct opposition to equal access to opportunity), Democrats went to work attacking the conventions and institutions that create the stable and predictable environment upon which generational advancement has always been predicated. It was a good-hearted mistake, but a mistake, nonetheless. Next Tuesday will give us some understanding of just how big a mistake it was.