Pundits across the political spectrum are pushing similar advice on Joe Biden: In the words of Washington Post columnist George Will, “He needs a Sister Souljah moment.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Bret Stephens in The New York Times, conservative Amanda Carpenter, liberal George Packer, and more urge the same tactic. Packer warned that the upheaval in Kenosha could be fatal to Biden’s chances in November. “In the crude terms of a presidential campaign, voters know that the Democrat means it when he denounces police brutality, but less so when he denounces riots. To reach the public…Biden has to go beyond boilerplate and make it personal, memorable.”
A “Sister Souljah moment” is now a political meme, shorthand for a candidate’s forcefully calling out and condemning the extremes of his or her own base, and making it “personal, memorable.” It dates back to a Bill Clinton campaign ploy in the 1992 Democratic primaries. Sister Souljah was a young rap singer who, in the wake of the Los Angeles riots that erupted after the acquittal of police officers for the beating of Rodney King, was quoted in The Washington Post saying, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”
Weeks later, having already clinched the nomination, Clinton traveled to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition convention and publicly denounced her presence there. “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them,” the Arkansas governor said, “you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” He received editorial plaudits across the country, while reassuring conservative Democrats that he’d be willing to stand up to African Americans and leftists in the party.
Before Biden drinks from this cup, he might take a look at the poison in its depths. Clinton’s appearance at the Rainbow came after Jackson and Clinton’s aides (I was working with Jesse Jackson at the time) talked through the possibility of a Jackson endorsement. Clinton kept his intention secret, even as his campaign gave a heads-up to the press corps following him. Seated next to him at the head table, Machinist representative Barbara Shailor reported that Clinton’s hands shook and his voice quavered as he called out Sister Souljah. Jackson and his allies were taken by surprise and were, understandably, furious.
In reality, Sister Souljah was at the conventio n because Jackson reached out to her and talked to her about nonviolence. She always claimed the quote was misleading, that she was trying to explain the mindset of those doing the burning, not urging more violence. She came to the convention to announce her decision to help spearhead a new effort to register young African Americans to vote and to get them engaged in political action. She and Jackson deserved praise, not condemnation, for her commitment.
Clinton, in turn, was a far remove from a principled leader. His campaign was focused on the racial backlash that had soured suburban working- and middle-class voters on supporting Democrats. Clinton’s pollster, Stanley Greenberg, had done pathbreaking research on the white working-class voters in Macomb County, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, that highlighted how strong the backlash was.
Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment was merely one in a long train of infamous ploys that Clinton used to reassure white voters that he was a “different sort of Democrat.” Beleaguered by revelations of his dalliances with Gennifer Flowers, he flew back to Arkansas in January 1992 to carry out the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a prisoner so mentally incompetent that he asked his guard to save the pecan pie of his last meal for “later.” Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” and to get tough on crime. His campaign staged a photo op with conservative Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, standing in front of a line of black inmates from a Georgia boot camp. That was so egregious that California Governor Jerry Brown, a late entrant into the primaries, called him out for pulling “almost a Willie Horton” in the next debate. These campaign postures may have helped Clinton in the campaign, although Jackson and other progressives never forgot the cynical insult. In taking these stances, Clinton was blaming the victims of America’s racism, not the perpetrators. And that set the stage for Clinton’s embrace of truly deplorable policies as president, from repealing aid to dependent children to embracing harsh sentencing, leading to the mass incarceration rightfully denounced as the new Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Biden would be wise to ignore those urging a rerun. The unprecedented—and overwhelmingly peaceful—demonstrations that have spread across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd have roused record support across lines of race, particularly among the young. Biden was wise to stand with them as he did at the Democratic Convention. This is a time when a moral voice is needed, not a cynical one. In a parallel circumstance in 1960, John F. Kennedy reached out to call Coretta Scott King when Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed in Reidsville, Ga. That call contributed directly to an outpouring of black votes that contributed directly to Kennedy’s razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon.
Moreover, the vandalism and violence—which Biden has rightfully condemned—is increasingly driven by armed white agitators, often loosely organized into right-wing militia groups. If Biden were to call out the excesses of those protesting injustice, as the pundits suggest, he would demonstrate not independence but weakness in standing up against the forces of intolerance, the very forces that Trump’s divisive rhetoric enflame.
Happily, to date, Biden has ignored the advice. He has denounced the “deadly violence” in Portland and elsewhere as “unacceptable”: “I condemn violence of every kind,” he said in a statement, “by anyone, whether on the left or the right. And I challenge Donald Trump to do the same.” When he traveled to Kenosha after the shooting of Jacob Blake by police, he spoke with the family and with Blake himself, and pledged to redress the “systemic racism” that scars our criminal justice system. The contrast with Trump, who used the visit to call for law and order and refused to talk with Blake’s mother, was clear.
Biden campaign ads have taken the case to Trump, laying out the chaos and disorder and calamities of Trump’s misrule and asking people if they feel safe in Trump’s America. While rejecting calls to defund the police, Biden has continued to call for police reform. That may not satisfy the demands of either the demonstrators or those reacting to them. But it does show Biden to be more courageous and a far straighter shooter than Clinton was when he pulled the Sister Souljah stunt in 1992.