ANKENY, Iowa — When Donald Trump was elected, John Olsen felt enraged by the racial tension that fueled his rise, the silence of his white neighbors and the stories of racial discrimination he heard from his nonwhite friends.
Black friends said they were followed around department stores, so Mr. Olsen, who is white, became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He thought that white Americans were scared of the country’s growing Latino population, so he joined the League of United Latin American Citizens. He now registers voters weekly, including with the League of Women Voters, to atone for his “white privilege,” he said.
“I try to have my bases covered,” said Mr. Olsen, 50, who wore a N.A.A.C.P. T-shirt to a campaign rally for Senator Kamala Harris here last week. “It just hurts my heart that white people are afraid of the country’s growing Hispanic population. And I just can’t allow that to continue.”
White liberals — voters like Mr. Olsen — are thinking more explicitly about race than they did even a decade ago, according to new research and polling. In one survey, an overwhelming majority said that racial discrimination affects the lives of black people. They embrace terms like “structural racism” and “white privilege.”
The shift in white liberal attitudes on race might be a permanent one, helped along by a changing media environment and heightened cultural sensitivity, or it could be a more fleeting reaction to the current polarized moment.
Either way, it means that in the Democratic primary, candidates have an incentive to talk to white voters explicitly about race — an incentive that is especially apparent now that a half-dozen Democrats are intensifying their campaigning in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
In Iowa last week, Ms. Harris delivered a revamped stump speech that seemed tailored to these changing attitudes. At an outdoor market in Ankeny, just outside Des Moines, she spoke to the fears some white voters might have about supporting a woman of color. In her pitch, she cast herself as an embodiment of racial progress.
“People are asking, ‘Oh, I don’t know, is America ready for that? Are they ready for a woman of color to be elected president of the United States?’” Ms. Harris told the crowd.
“Look, it’s not a new conversation for me. In fact, it’s a conversation that’s come up every single time in every election that I have — and here’s the operative word — won,” she said. Her largely white audience liked the pitch, responding with rapt silence and then with raucous applause when she talked candidly about her own accomplishments.
For years, prospective Democratic nominees came to Iowa to talk ethanol and pork subsidies and saved any rhetoric about the injustice of racial profiling for crowds in South Carolina and Nevada — the only early voting states where black and Latino voters made up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate.
But in the era of Mr. Trump, and after social movements such as Black Lives Matter pushed racial inequality to the forefront of national politics, it’s white Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire — not black ones in South Carolina — who, to this point, are embracing the candidates who promise to upend society in the name of racial equity.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has held a commanding lead in national polls with nonwhite Democrats, but surveys show that white liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire are less inclined to support him. At events for Mr. Biden, some white voters cite his confounding September debate answer on the legacy of slavery and previous Senate work with segregationists as reasons to support other candidates.
At events for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. — two white candidates who have particularly excelled with college-educated liberals — supporters pointed to policies addressing racial inequalities as part of the candidates’ appeal.
These policies may give cover to those seeking to support a white candidate in a historically diverse Democratic field, which includes Ms. Harris, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and former cabinet secretary Julián Castro — candidates who are themselves racial minorities and who are struggling to gain traction in the polls.
“My daughter is marrying an Asian man and diversity has become very important to me,” said Julie Neff, a 57-year-old Iowa Democrat who attended the Harris rally. Ms. Neff, who is white, said she was embarrassed that she started thinking about race and discrimination only later in life.
“I should’ve been paying attention to this stuff sooner. But when Trump is making these decisions, I just realized it would be bad for my son-in-law and my grandchildren,” she said.
According to research by Zach Goldberg, a Georgia State University doctoral student, the attitudes of white liberals like Ms. Neff have moved dramatically in a short time.
In 2010, about 40 percent of white liberals said “blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Now, that number has dropped to 24 percent, and more than 70 percent of white liberals say “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.”
Mr. Goldberg said he believed that Mr. Trump’s election combined with a digital media environment where race has been covered more explicitly have pushed white liberals into adopting new positions.
“Before, if a black person was shot by police you could read about it in a newspaper, now you see a video,” Mr. Goldberg said. “A video is morally evocative and that has effect on the moral psychology of liberals.”
The result, Mr. Goldberg said, is that white liberals want “to be the exact opposite of racist. They go adopt positions to prove they’re different than the morally tainted collective.”
But this is not a strategy without risk, Mr. Goldberg noted. Voters in a general election, including Republicans and independents, do not share the liberal views about race that white Democrats do. Positions that some leading Democrats have embraced, including reparations for black Americans, could become liabilities.
“When you think about it, this is why blacks may be supporting Biden the way they do,” Mr. Goldberg said. “They know this may not sell to the rest of white America come general election time.”
In the early days of Ms. Warren’s candidacy, the differences among Democratic primary voters were most clear when she discussed low black homeownership rates — a standard portion of her policy-heavy stump speech. Black audiences in Mississippi and Alabama often seemed unmoved, already well aware of the problem Ms. Warren outlined. In Iowa, predominantly white groups reacted dramatically — often with oohs and ahhs and the occasional applause.
At events for Ms. Harris last week, several white voters said that the president’s reliance on white identity politics to motivate his conservative base had forced them to reorganize their own voting priorities.
Ms. Neff’s husband, Bill, wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to the evening rally.
“We had Obama and we thought this racial stuff was over — and then we went backward,” he said. “We’ve seen so many old white guys who are O.K. with the status quo, and that’s not O.K. anymore.”
People like the Neffs and Mr. Olsen could have an outsize effect on the 2020 primary, and the Democratic Party going forward. The largely white voters in the earliest nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire determine which candidates appear viable by the time people in more diverse states head to the voting booth.
Barack Obama famously exploited this playbook in 2008, winning white liberals in Iowa before unlocking his support among black voters. This year’s most prominent black candidates — Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris — are both seeking to repeat that strategy, and have staked their candidacies on a good showing with those same white liberals in the first-in-the-nation caucus.
But the candidate most affected by the attitude shift among white liberals may be Mr. Biden. He has crafted his campaign pitch around replacing Mr. Trump with a steady hand, and in his campaign announcement video featured the president’s waffling response to the racist and anti-Semitic marchers in Charlottesville, Va.,.
Mr. Biden enjoys a significant advantage among black voters, fueled by their pragmatic desire to see Mr. Trump replaced and good feelings carried over from his time as Mr. Obama’s vice president. For white liberal voters, though, the affection for Mr. Biden is not as firm.
Martha Wasmund, 64, said at the Harris event in Ankeny that she preferred the California senator, and was rejecting Mr. Biden’s candidacy because of the fond way he recalled working with segregationist lawmakers. Ms. Wasmund is white.
“That good ol’ boy network doesn’t work,” she said, referring to Mr. Biden’s legislative work with avowed racists in the 1970s and 1980s.
Janelle Turner, 50, brought her 12-year-old daughter to Ms. Harris’s rally. She is white and said she’s seen a change in Democrats in her majority-white community.
“People have realized that this stuff is important and that Trump has made racial division greater,” Ms. Turner said. “I’m a breast cancer survivor and health care is a huge issue for me, but this stuff is too.”
Some black voters see privilege in such responses. Dacia Randolph, a 43-year-old in Reno, Nev., said black voters are sticking with Mr. Biden not because they are unaware of his past, but because they see defeating Mr. Trump as an urgent priority.
She called Mr. Biden a “safe bet,” pointing to polls that show him ahead of Mr. Trump in the general election and the surprising results of the 2016 election.
“Black people go with who we trust,” Ms. Randolph said. “We make people prove themselves.”
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