What the 2021 elections tell us about race and policing

Washington A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Race Deconstructed newsletter. To get it in your inbox every week, sign up for free here.

Tuesday was a big day for elections. For many people, the day was also tense, unsettling.
All across the country — from Seattle to New York City to Minneapolis to Boston to Atlanta, from Virginia to New Jersey — voters flocked to the polls to cast ballots. The outcomes of some of these contests will likely have important consequences for the way the US grapples with racial discrimination.
    A variety of big-ticket issues took center stage in the elections: policing, the coronavirus, affordable housing, the climate crisis, spikes in violent crime.
      In Minneapolis, voters rejected a policing overhaul measure created following the police murder of George Floyd. Minneapolis City Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham, who championed a similar ballot initiative, referred to the result as “really unfortunate” and “a clear backlash to progress in our city.”
        Meanwhile, Republican Glenn Youngkin narrowly won Virginia’s gubernatorial election. He centered his campaign on education policy, specifically the right-wing racial panic over critical race theory — or at least, what conservatives call critical race theory, since what they’re actually railing against is a deliberately vague and incoherent assortment of things they don’t like: Black Lives Matter, diversity, reparations. The success of this strategy showed the enduring power of White identity politics.
        Here’s a closer look at the stakes of four of Tuesday’s races:
          Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin

          Virginia gubernatorial race

          Winner: Glenn Youngkin, a Republican
          Why you should care: The race for Virginia’s highest office was the most closely watched election on Tuesday. For Democrats — and, really, for anyone concerned about the racial panic that’s swept the Republican Party — the night was a disaster.
          Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin prevailed over his rival, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin animated his campaign around one issue above all else: education policy. In particular: critical race theory, a decades-old legal movement that the Republican agitprop apparatus has turned into a bogeyman to scare voters and censor discussions about race and racism, including in the state that was the home of “massive resistance.”
          “There’s no place for critical race theory in our school system, and why, on day one, I’m going to ban it,” Youngkin promised last weekend, leaving unmentioned that CRT isn’t part of the state’s classroom teaching.
          What to make of Youngkin’s performance?
          It’s crucial not to over-interpret the election, or to draw too many conclusions about what it might mean for the rest of the country. After all, the White House’s party has lost every Virginia gubernatorial race since the 1970s except for one: the 2013 race that McAuliffe won.
          Still, the contest suggested not only that the Democratic Party might be in a bad place right now but also that the tactic of embracing White identity politics can work.
          “The Long Southern Strategy on full display in #VirginiaElection,” the University of Arkansas professor Angie Maxwell noted on Twitter. “Weaponized colorblindness via anti-CRT infused w/ Christian nationalism, anti-feminism, & using old methods of positive polarization, co-opted lang., white victimization, grievance politics, w/ manufactured urgency.”
          Republican candidates seem to have a convincing template for how to run in 2022.
          Mayor Jacob Frey

          Minneapolis mayoral race

          Likely winner: Incumbent Democratic Mayor Jacob Frey
          Why you should care: Maybe more than anything else, the Minneapolis mayoral race was a referendum on policing and public safety in the city. And with good reason: Minneapolis was the site of the 2020 police murder of George Floyd.
          Minneapolis officials have said that Jacob Frey won the contest based on unofficial results. But a number of more progressive voters and activists worry about what his reelection might mean for the city’s handling of policing.
          Frey twice tried to keep off the ballot a question allowing voters to decide whether to remove the Police Department from the city’s charter and create a Department of Public Safety, under which officers would be organized. On Tuesday, voters rejected the move for police reform, a result that Minneapolis City Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham called “really unfortunate” and “a clear backlash to progress in our city.”
          And last year when the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a plan to dismantle the Police Department, Frey opposed the effort.
          This isn’t to suggest that nothing has happened on the policing front since Frey entered office in 2018. During his first term, Minneapolis increased the use of police body cameras; following Floyd’s killing, the city banned police chokeholds and neck restraints, which officers disproportionately use against Black Americans.
          Even so, the deeper source of unease is that Frey, who enjoys executive oversight over the Police Department, hasn’t done enough to reform policing, and it’s uncertain whether he’ll do anything meaningfully different during his second term.
          Frey is aware of this concern, and that calming it won’t be easy.
          “There is not a mayor in this country that is happy with the pace of change, including me,” he told The Washington Post. “There’s so much incentive to spout off a magic wand fix that doesn’t exist. These are issues that are systemic and can’t be solved with a hashtag or a catchphrase or even a single policy because the causes are so deeply rooted. … It takes work and time.”
          Boston Mayor-elect Michelle Wu

          Boston mayoral race

          Winner: Michelle Wu, a Democrat
          Why you should care: Until Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, won Boston’s mayoral race, the city had for two centuries elected only White men to the position.
          Compared with her moderate rival Annissa Essaibi George, Wu is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive. Her promises are many, and noble: shrink the power of the police union, redirect nonviolent 911 calls to alternative response teams, make public transportation more accessible (“Free the T”), bring back a form of rent control (not an uncontroversial goal), help families traverse the byzantine Boston Public Schools system.
          It’s no surprise that Wu is decidedly on the political left. After all, she’s a protégée of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who taught Wu at Harvard Law School and was one of the most progressive candidates in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary field. Yet it’s this lefty vision that makes some critics think that Wu is chasing will-o’-the-wisps.
          “Michelle talks, day in and day out, about things that are not real,” Essaibi George told The New York Times in the run-up to the election. “My style is to be accurate in the things I say out loud, and to make promises I can truly keep.”
          Still, there are a number of goals that Wu can reasonably achieve. One of them: injecting transparency into police union contracts, a move that could go a long way toward repairing the frayed relationship between the police and the marginalized communities they serve.
          “Since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, citizens have become far more aware of how seemingly arcane details in union contracts can protect abusive officers and hinder accountability,” The Boston Globe noted in its endorsement of Wu.
          If there’s anyone who can make good on the promise of police reform and address the many other issues beleaguering Boston, it may very well be Wu.
          New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams

          New York City mayoral race

          Winner: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a Democrat
          Why you should care: Eric Adams, a retired former captain in the New York Police Department, will be New York City’s second Black mayor (following the late David Dinkins, who was in office from 1990 to 1993).
          Among other things, Adams has vowed to address rising violent crime and reform the police department — two aims that appear to be at odds with each other. But Adams has long embraced his status as an inscrutable figure.
          “People want to classify me, but because I’m complicated, it’s difficult to put me in a box,” he told CNN’s Gregory Krieg earlier this year. “I support closing Rikers (Island jail) but also support closing the pipeline that feeds Rikers.”
          Adams insists that he’s uniquely capable of pulling off this balancing act. He often points out that he’s challenged racism in the NYPD for decades, including when he was an officer. What’s more, Adams believes that his career as a cop has given him insight into how the police undermine civilian leaders.
          “The police department would run rings around (the other candidates). They are masters. If you’re a good mayor, you’re only here for eight years. I’ve been here for 30-something years in the department. Police departments will wait you out,” Adams told Krieg. “And they know that whatever you hand down, they have to implement. But if you know the system, if you know the crevices, you know how to go and ensure you’re getting what you want.”
          Even so, many people question whether Adams will be able to achieve some of his loftier ambitions. For one, this isn’t the first time that someone has promised to reform the NYPD and introduce a new approach to policing, an approach that isn’t a menace to Black Americans and other people of color. For another, Adams was, well, a cop.
            “People assume that Black mayors are super progressive, even if they’re not,” Andrea Benjamin, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of Oklahoma, recently told Governing. “They elected a Black cop. There’s not going to be police reform.”
            New Yorkers will have to wait and see if that prophecy comes to pass.




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