The emergence of race as a central issue in recent days, on the presidential campaign as well as in Washington, has underscored the increasingly important role the subject is playing in the Democratic Party in the age of Trump and is pressuring the Democratic candidates to demonstrate their awareness and grasp of racial matters.
Such issues have long played a big role in Democratic politics. But the sense among many black voters that President Trump has been particularly dismissive of their concerns, coming directly after the tenure of the first black president, has put racial matters at the forefront of the political discussion, even as Democrats are more keenly aware of their reliance on the African American electorate.
“People finally recognize the significance of the black vote,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus who visited the former capital of the Confederacy on Saturday to celebrate a landmark event: the renaming of a major thoroughfare here for black tennis champion Arthur Ashe.
Bass and others said that, while several politicians have fumbled the issue in recent days, they welcome the renewed focus on race.
“You have race front-and-center in the presidential campaign,” Bass said. “I find that to be helpful, even if they stumble over it, even if they say things that are not particularly helpful. The fact that people know now they have to talk about race is progress, as far as I’m concerned.”
This is the first presidential contest to feature two major African American candidates, Sens. Kamala D. Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as a lesser-known one, Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla. The current leader in the polls, former vice president Joe Biden, launched his campaign with an attack on Trump’s handling of a white supremacist march in this state, and he has stressed his ties to former president Barack Obama.
Many African Americans have complained for years that Democrats take their support for granted, and that important issues are sidelined once the party is in power.
That dynamic seems to be changing, with candidates eager to woo black voters. Many Democrats attribute Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 in part to her failure to mobilize the African American vote.
Trump’s tenure, too, has inflamed racial tensions, as the president has seized on issues, like black athletes kneeling during the national anthem, that can divide black and white Americans.
Saturday’s ceremony to rename a street after a legendary black athlete featured a racially mixed crowd celebrating the elevation of Ashe, a Richmond native. Several attendees noted that a large statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is on the newly named Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
“I know that some people in America today are saying nothing has changed, but let me tell you, we live in a different America,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon who addressed a crowd gathered at the steps of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
Lewis described the literacy tests once used to block African Americans from voting, saying they no longer exist “because somebody, somewhere, sometime gave a little blood.” Lewis himself was beaten several times as a young activist during the civil rights protests of the 1960s.
He made a plea for voters to take their energy to the ballot box. “During this season that’s coming up, we must turn out and vote like we’ve never voted before,” Lewis said.
It was Biden who ignited the most recent flap over race when he talked at a fundraiser last week about his ability to work across ideological lines. He mentioned former senators James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.), both avid segregationists, saying he deeply disagreed with them but “at least there was some civility. We got things done.”
Referring to Eastland, he said, “He never called me ‘boy.’ He always called me ‘son.’ ”
Booker urged Biden to apologize, saying he should recognize the hurt caused by racists’ use of the term “boy.” Biden shot back that he was the one owed an apology.
Until that back-and-forth, the Democratic primary had been relatively friendly, and some black leaders saw significance in the subject that broke the peace. “This was the first skirmish of the actual election, and it’s over the solid base of the Democratic Party: African Americans,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in an interview.
Stoney said the flap highlighted that the African American community is “not a monolith” and has a generational divide. Biden was welcomed by black voters over the weekend in South Carolina and has the support of a good number of black leaders, the mayor said, while many younger activists and voters “are totally offended by a senator working alongside a segregationist.”
Stoney, who is black, added, “We’ve got to hear somebody speak to what we collectively want, and I don’t think I’ve seen a candidate yet to do that.”
The campaign was also disrupted last week when Mayor Pete Buttigieg left the trail to deal with the fatal shooting of a black resident of his city, South Bend, Ind., by a white police officer. Buttigieg has been criticized by some black activists for his handling of race and crime in the past.
Still, for many African Americans, the Democrats’ stumbles on racial issues are minor compared to Trump’s statements and actions. Last week, the president declined to step back from his calls years ago for the execution of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino youths who were convicted of assaulting a white female jogger in 1989 but have since been exonerated.
Biden held a long-planned meeting with Congressional Black Caucus members last week to discuss his still-unreleased policy on criminal justice, a matter of particular interest to many black voters.
Biden told the black lawmakers about his support for the 1994 crime bill that many activists say contributed to an era mass incarceration damaging to African American communities.
“We talked about how that’s behind us,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.). He recalled his own opposition to the crime bill in 1994, saying there were “a lot of problems” with it and that he was one of a handful of people on the House Judiciary Committee who were “fighting it tooth and nail all the way.”
The climate in the Democratic Party has shifted significantly since then, and Scott said he’s optimistic about Biden’s new crime plan. “I think he will be focused more on evidence and research,” Scott said.
Others said it’s time for the conversation about blacks to move beyond crime, poverty and health care.
“Creating wealth in the African American community, I think, is the next big fight for the 21st century,” said Rep. Donald A. McEachin (D-Va.).
“There are a number of African Americans who make good incomes. There are very few who are wealthy,” he said. “We’ve been talking about jobs. I don’t hear people talking about wealth.”