Joe Biden’s toughest 2020 opponent is Joe Biden

The third approach is both the most direct and the most difficult: to try to show voters what was happening years, even decades ago, that explains your actions. Busing school kids to achieve racial balance, for example, was a lot more complicated than a struggle to overcome the hostility of racist whites to integration—though that was surely part of the story. (This lengthy essay lays out some of those complexities, as well as some of the baleful consequences of the policy.)

Crime, like desegregation, looked very different decades ago. The rate began to rise in the 1960s, and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” message in 1968 made it a major national issue for the first time since the 1920s. Two decades later, George H.W. Bush turned Michael Dukakis into the emblematic “soft on crime” candidate by making the crime spree of a furloughed Massachusetts prisoner a top campaign issue. It was in response to this framework that Bill Clinton, four years after Dukakis lost, embraced a pro-death penalty, tough-on-crime agenda as a candidate—an agenda that he also enacted as president.

But beyond the politics, crime was a genuine concern; and nowhere more so than in inner-city black neighborhoods. When I worked in City Hall in New York City at the end of the 1960s, one of the more persistent demands of black civic leaders was for more cops to stem a tide of violence that had mothers putting their small children to bed in bathtubs, the better to protect them from random gunfire.