Last week in the Democratic debates, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) criticized former vice president Joe Biden for his fond memories of “civility” when he worked with Southern segregationists.

Some interpreted Biden’s comments about working with segregationists as an effort to brand himself as a consensus builder — someone who can work across the aisle despite today’s acrimonious politics. For others, his comments were just another of “Uncle Joe’s” gaffes.

But Biden’s “gaffe” may have been more strategic — an example of what my research calls “racial distancing.” Racial distancing is a political strategy whereby politicians try to win over racially moderate and conservative whites by making it clear they will not disrupt the existing racial hierarchy, with white Americans at the top of social, political and economic institutions.

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How does racial distancing work?

Racial distancing helps black politicians and white Democratic politicians disrupt the stereotype that they’re beholden to racial and ethnic minorities. For white Republican politicians, racial distancing helps reinforce their reputation for keeping the racial hierarchy intact.

Those who call Biden “electable” argue that he can win back the support of working-class white Americans who may once have identified as Democrats — and may have even voted for Barack Obama — but who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. The idea is that some white Americans, many of whom have negative attitudes about racial and ethnic minorities, would vote for a Democratic presidential candidate who is not too focused on the plight of people of color.

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Biden may be bringing up his work with segregationists to send the message that he’s not some far-left liberal preoccupied with the racial grievances of people of color. Some observers speculate that Obama chose Biden as his running mate in 2008 precisely because of Biden’s appeal to working-class white Americans, a term that is often code for white Americans who have negative attitudes about African Americans — those who think that blacks are less hard-working than whites or do not try hard enough to “play by the rules.”

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The strategy works. In my forthcoming book, “Race to the Bottom: How Racial Appeals Work in American Politics,” I find that white Democratic politicians who rhetorically (and even visually) distance themselves from African Americans get more votes from white Americans who have negative attitudes about African Americans.

How I did my research

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In a series of experiments, I had nationally diverse samples of white Americans read different political messages about race from fictitious political candidates. I then asked them about their likelihood of voting for these candidates. Racial distancing was particularly effective at galvanizing support from whites with anti-black attitudes.

For example, in an April 2018 YouGov survey experiment, I had 300 white Americans read a paragraph online about a fictional white Democratic politician. Half of them read a version in which he said that “black people need to learn the value of hard work”; the other half read a version in which he said that “people need to learn the value of hard work.” Among respondents with anti-black attitudes (about 25 percent of the sample), the first version, in which the politician invoked a negative stereotype about black people’s work ethic, brought the politician more than 25 percentage points more support than did the second version.

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Biden’s comments about getting along with segregationists — a racially charged issue — may work similarly among white Americans who have negative attitudes about black people.

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Black politicians may have more latitude to use racial distancing without backlash

Racial distancing may increase votes from white Americans who have negative attitudes about African Americans, but it can also alienate African Americans, who are the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party. Thus, racial distancing is a strategy that might work better in a general election than during the Democratic primaries, in which the electorate is increasingly made up of people of color and racially liberal whites. The penalty showed up immediately, with a wide range of Democratic politicians criticizing Biden’s comments.

Meanwhile, during the Democratic debate, Harris not only used her personal experience with busing to attack Biden’s position, but she also claimed authority to speak on race more generally “as the only black person on this stage.” That highlighted how Harris may be able to leverage her racial identity in the Democratic primaries in a way that appeals to different voters than those attracted to Biden’s “electability.”

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This same perception of racial expertise gives black politicians more latitude to use racial distancing without the backlash their white counterparts receive. Obama, for example, routinely criticized black people during his two-term presidency but maintained overwhelming support from African Americans. Black candidates are often presumed to have the best interests of the black community at heart, which enables them to make strategic gestures to racially moderate and conservative whites, often with less scrutiny than their white counterparts.

Apologize for what?

Supporters of Biden argued that his comments were intended to show his ability to work across the aisle. But his comments were also part of a long tradition in which Democrats and Republicans alike show that they are not beholden to their racial- and ethnic-minority constituents. Biden may have been hoping that his comments would give him a “Sista Souljah moment,” named for Bill Clinton’s 1992 critique of a black performer — remarks widely interpreted as showing his independence from the Democratic Party’s base of black voters. But given the demographics of today’s Democratic primary electorate, Biden may face a backlash before he can woo racially biased whites in the general electorate.

LaFleur Stephens-Dougan (@LaFleurPhD) is an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University and the author of “Race to the Bottom: How Racial Appeals Work in American Politics” (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

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