President Biden on Saturday declared white supremacy “the most dangerous terrorist threat” to the American homeland, using a speech to graduating students at a historically Black university to elevate a debate that has already become central to his campaign for a second term.
“I don’t have to tell you that progress towards justice often meets ferocious pushback from the oldest and most sinister of forces,” Biden said, after quoting former president Donald Trump’s equivocating response to the 2017 rally. “That’s because hate never goes away.”
The president avoided calling out Trump or his other Republican rivals by name, but the subtext of his remarks to the students of Howard University was unmistakable. His address came as many leading Republicans, including those currently vying for the GOP presidential nomination, argue that the nation’s focus on racial injustice has gone too far.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and others have attacked critical race theory, which examines how race is embedded in society, and criticized the push for diversity, equity and inclusion embraced by many institutions. They argue that such initiatives portray America as evil and tar all White people as racist.
Biden appeared to take on this sentiment directly Saturday, saying: “We know that American history has not always been a fairy tale. From the start, it’s been a constant push-and-pull for more than 240 years between the best of us — the American ideal that we’re all created equal — and the worst of us — the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart. It’s a battle that’s never really over.”
Trump, who is leading the Republican presidential field, repeatedly made racially provocative divisive comments when he was in the White House, such as telling four congresswomen of color in 2019 to go back to “the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
Biden has long attacked racism in American society, but Saturday’s setting made his remarks especially notable. The 80-year-old president, after recently launching what could be a tough reelection campaign, is aiming to appeal to young voters of color, who were key to his 2020 victory but have softened in their support for him over the past two years, according to public opinion polls.
In recent weeks, he has leaned into rhetoric and imagery aimed at shoring up his support among Black voters, declaring that he has made good on his promises to a community that in many ways saved his political prospects and propelled him into office. His reelection announcement video included several images of Vice President Harris and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black women to serve in those positions after they were selected by Biden.
Biden reiterated those and other accomplishments during his speech Saturday, while also presenting himself as a defender of Black Americans against the actions of Republican politicians. The result was a highly political commencement speech that helped clarify the vividly different America seen by the two parties: Republicans portray a country that has contorted itself with showy guilt and political correctness, while Biden depicts a nation that has made big strides but must remain vigilant against tenacious racism.
Biden criticized opponents who he says have embraced banning books about Black history, sought to undo the student debt relief his administration bills as key to racial equity, and failed to combat “political violence that has been unleashed and emboldened.” He pledged “to stand up against the poison of white supremacy, as I did in my inaugural address — to single it out as the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland is white supremacy.”
The audience of thousands of mostly Black students and their families broke out into applause, before Biden added: “And I’m not saying this because I’m at a Black HBCU. I say it wherever I go.” Biden was referring to historically Black colleges and universities.
Republicans argue that such comments do more to stir up racial division than to heal it, and GOP leaders were quick to blast the president for Saturday’s comments. The Republican National Committee took to Twitter to share a video titled “Joe Biden’s Racism Problem” that featured Biden making a number of gaffes while talking about race over the years.
“Nobody stokes more division than Joe Biden,” tweeted Jake Schneider, a researcher for the RNC.
Biden’s remarks come as racial issues have become even more fraught in the race for the presidency.
Trump told a CNN town hall Thursday that he would consider pardoning many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, if he is reelected, describing the mostly White insurrectionists as policemen, carpenters, electricians and “great people.” He called the Black police officer who shot and killed one of the rioters a “thug.”
DeSantis, who has rolled back diversity initiatives in Florida and rejected an Advanced Placement course on African American history, is also leaning into race issues as he prepares to mount a presidential bid.
Republicans have bristled at being associated with the “white supremacy” label, with some downplaying the threat posed by extremists and claiming Democrats’ concerns over the issue are little more than a political attack against Trump-supporting Republicans.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) sparked controversy last week by appearing to defend white supremacists in the military, telling radio station WBHM, “I call them Americans.” Tuberville, who endorsed Trump’s 2024 bid last year, later accused Democrats of equating Trump supporters with white supremacists.
Amid this turbulent landscape, it is unclear if Biden’s heightened focus on calling out white supremacy will be enough to shore up his numbers among young voters of color.
He used his speech at Howard to tout his administration’s historic diversity and key victories on racial equity, including combating climate change and expanding funding for historically Black colleges and universities. But he also acknowledged areas where his administration has not been able to deliver on key components of his racial justice agenda, including police reform and voting rights.
“I know you’re frustrated that there are so many elected officials who refuse to pass a law that will do something,” he said of Congress’s failure to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Biden pledged to continue working on those and other issues, making his case for a second term without saying as much.
Still, he has pivoted to more moderate positions on crime and immigration as the campaign approaches, giving him more work to do to win back young voters who have soured on his presidency, said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster.
“Young people view the Biden-Harris administration cautiously,” Woodbury said last week, before Biden’s commencement speech. “We have to correct for that in 2024.”