Joe Biden needs a “Sister Souljah Moment.” At least, that’s according to the quickly congealing conventional wisdom in Washington. That is, Biden and Democrats are in dire danger of losing control of Congress next year, and the one thing that could save them would be by bashing someone to Biden’s left on matters of race.
The latest call came from Max Boot at the Washington Post, but he’s hardly the only columnist to make such a plea. Earlier this month, Kyle Smith at National Review called upon Biden to denounce critical race theory as a Sister Souljah Moment. Jacob Heilbrunn at National Interest made the same request. George Will urged Biden to have a Sister Souljah Moment back in August of 2020 to distance himself and his party from the “Defund the Police” crowd. Mostly, these calls are coming from conservative anti-Trump voices, seeking to make Biden and Democrats more conservative on race and, theoretically, more acceptable to the general population.
It seems to be an article of faith that this sort of tactic is a crucial one for Democrats, particularly as the party appears to find itself on the backfoot in the culture war. But the polling evidence suggests no such thing. In fact, the move could backfire on Biden by alienating a core part of his base.
For those too young to remember, Sister Souljah was briefly a famous hip-hop star and activist who gave an interview shortly after the LA riots of 1992 in which she suggested violence against white people. Rev. Jesse Jackson then invited her to speak at a Rainbow Coalition event. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, then running for president, spoke at the same event the following night, and used the opportunity to harshly criticize both Souljah and Jackson, she for her racism and he for giving her views a platform.
The context of all this was that many Democrats, by 1992, had decided their party had lost the three previous presidential elections in part because of the perception that it was too much in the thrall of “special interests” generally and Jesse Jackson and Black civil rights activists specifically.
The party has a long history of both advocating for civil rights and then blaming that advocacy for its losses; prominent voices within the Democratic coalition have frequently warned that promoting the needs of Black Americans would harm the party’s prospects. Clinton’s maneuver was seen as a way to demonstrate his and his party’s rightward shift in a ploy for electability. As Perry Bacon, Jr. noted recently, Clinton’s speech and later actions “were intended to signal to white voters that Democrats, like Republicans, viewed some of America’s racial inequalities as rooted in self-inflicted problems in Black communities, as opposed to discriminatory policies and systemic racism.”
It is striking the degree to which the Sister Souljah Moment has been accepted as a viable and reliable strategy for white Democratic politicians. As with many electoral narratives, it is rarely tested with hard evidence. But if we actually look at Clinton’s polling surrounding the events as they happened, it’s difficult to perceive a Souljah effect.