Harvard Newspaper: Politicians Have Balancing Act Of Racial Distancing, 3 Things To Know How It Works

Harvard Newspaper: Politicians Have Balancing Act Of Racial Distancing, 3 Things To Know How It Works

racial distancing
Harvard Newspaper: Politicians Have Balancing Act Of Racial Distancing: 3 Things To Know How It Works. Image by Autumn Keiko

Many politicians walk a tightrope when they must address or support the concerns of Black America. They don’t want to forfeit the valuable Black voter bloc but they also don’t want to alienate white voters. 

So they practice something called “racial distancing,” according to LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. Stephens-Dougan wrote the book, “Race to the Bottom: How Racial Appeals Work in American Politics.”

Republicans and Democrats alike participate in racial distancing, Stephens-Dougan said during a recent discussion at Harvard University sponsored by HutchinsCenter for African & African American Research.

She showed how racial appeals are used in political speech, The Harvard Gazette reported.

The nationwide protests this summer brought out the practice of racial distancing big-time by pubic officials when demonstrations and rioting followed the police killing of George Floyd.

“I’d argue that this year that we’ve seen a racial reckoning that’s made it more difficult for Democratic candidates in particular to engage in racial distancing,” Stephens-Dougan said. “There is a groundswell among young people against anything that is seen as perpetrating racism. So Democrats are more constrained in some ways.

“We see this borne out in the Joe Biden campaign, where there was a lot of push for him to have an African American running mate, even if that might be largely symbolic.”

Biden has had to maintain a balance, she added, “admitting that systemic racism is a thing, while being clear that he is not especially liberal.”

Politicians have to walk a tightrope, simultaneously voicing support for policies, positions, and attitudes widely held by African-American voters without offending white supporters. Here are three things to know about how racial distancing works.

1. Tempered response 

In her book, Stephens-Dougan discusses moments in recent racial history when politicians had to do racial distancing. One was when protests broke out in Baltimore in 2015. Freddie Gray had been fatally injured while in police custody. President Barack Obama was in the White House. The riots that followed, she said, “placed a national spotlight on race, justice, police brutality, and the distrust between African-American communities and their local government. The nation was looking to the first Black president to address the racial tension. How would (President Obama) respond?”

Obama engaged in racial distancing by using extremely tempered responses. “He denounced racism while also sympathizing with police and assailing acts by protesters that seemed violent or destructive,” The Gazette reported.

Obama was criticized in conservative circles for being anti-police and he eventually denounced rioters as “criminals and thugs” who damaged their own communities.

2. Playing to the audience

Even when they are racially distancing, politicians find ways to play to their audience. 

When Obama denounced the Baltimore rioters, it seemed he was playing to the white, pro-police voter.

Stephens-Dougan said during her speech that Obama’s use of the racially-charged word “thugs” was then repeated by Baltimore’s Democratic, African-American mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (who later walked it back), and by the state’s white Republican governor Larry Hogan.

“All three politicians were united in their use of racially inflammatory language despite the diversity of their racial and political backgrounds,” she said. 

The use of the word “thug” served a purpose for both sides, according to Stephens-Dougan. 

“Hogan was reinforcing his party’s reputation for being tough on crime, while Obama and Rawlings-Blake were distancing themselves from their party’s reputation for being soft on crime.” 

When trying to reach majority-white jurisdictions, politicians try to show that they are not trying to “cater to Black interests,” but they must also prove that they are not racially insensitive. To do so, Stephens-Dougan said, Democratic and African-American politicians are increasingly talking about race in a way that distances them from a racially liberal agenda, The Harvard Gazette reported.

3. Black Americans and racial distancing

Black Americans have been practicing physical racial distancing for years, way before social distancing became a must, The Brookings Institution reported.

Due to racism, Black people have been forced into racial distancing through such policies as redlining, segregation in housing and educational institutions, even the wealth gap which has kept Black people out of social and financial circles dominated by whites.

Black people have learned to social distance when dealing with the police and white people in general. 

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 73: Jamarlin Martin Jamarlin makes the case for why this is a multi-factor rebellion vs. just protests about George Floyd. He discusses the Democratic Party’s sneaky relationship with the police in cities and states under Dem control, and why Joe Biden is a cop and the Steve Jobs of mass incarceration.

The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how Black people in the U.S. have been socially distancing for years.

“The proliferation of the coronavirus forces us to see the inherent connections we share in a way that our public policy has not always recognized,” the Brookings Institution reported. “Individual recovery is contingent upon how much we collectively live by the principle of being ‘all in this together.’”