When Exactly Did America Stop Being Racist?
By refusing to cop to ingrained oppression in the U.S., political leaders are living in denial
Many Americans have been mulling over Republican of South Carolina, Senator Tim Scott’s wildly fantastic rebuttal to President Biden’s address to Congress earlier this week.
These remarks, delivered Wednesday night, found Scott offering jaw-dropping observations about the Republican party that the last four years of American life have proven patently false: that the GOP had a Covid-19 relief plan; that GOP changes to Georgia voting laws will somehow make it easier for more people to vote; that the GOP opposes Supreme Court-packing. It was a fun house mirror of appraisals.
Being a Black person in America, there was one line from the bizarre oration that stuck out. “Hear me clearly,” Scott said, “America is not a racist country.” Mind you, this is after Scott recounted a litany of racist acts that he’s experienced over the course of his life, presumably to show that he understands what racism is.
If Scott were the only high-ranking politician to make such a claim, I wouldn’t care. There’s nothing that Scott can say on the matter of racism that would surprise me, given his voting record and who writes his scripts. But when Vice President Kamala Harris responded to Scott’s claim (“I don’t think America is a racist country but we also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today”), I took note. Not because I agree, but because she and Scott actually agree on something.
President Biden offered his two cents on the matter, as well: “I don’t think America is racist, but I think the overhang from all of the Jim Crow and before that, slavery, have had a cost and we have to deal with it.”
What’s confounding about their collective conclusion is that they don’t deny that racism exists so much as it isn’t nearly as broad or ingrained as to be considered a way of life. Scott doesn’t provide any evidence that this is true (and, in fact, provides evidence that it isn’t), but Harris, at least, references White supremacists as domestic terrorists, which is a reasonable enough platform. That said, I’m left to assume she might come down differently than most people who believe racism in this country is systemic and not just comprised of tiki torch-wielding mobs.
The question I have for Scott, Harris, Biden, and anyone else who thinks America isn’t racist is: When did that stop being the case?
I think we can all agree that America has been a racist country at some point. Slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation were all orders of the day in American life. These were laws whose outcomes helped build this country from its inception. Without slavery, you don’t have America as you know it — and I don’t just mean in some butterfly effect kind of way. I mean you have no Washington, D.C. or White House. Without segregation, you have no traffic light or pacemaker. And while those may appear at first glance to be nifty dividends, these are blues inventions; things that exist because Black people had to make do in the face of unrelenting racial assault on every level. In short, at some point in the past, America was genuinely and legally racist.
I’d like to know when that stopped. What magical moment in the past baptized America and washed away its bigotry? Which rights were activated on behalf of Black people that absolved America of its original sin?
Tim Scott and Kamala Harris should both, especially as Black Americans, have been able to say that America still struggles with its racism problem. It’s not something America used to be or fixed or voted out of office.
Perhaps the answer is a legal one. When legislation like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) or the Civil Rights Act (1964) were passed, America was obligated to adjust its reality. It could no longer legally discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, and several other personal identities that, oddly, people are still contending with today. Except that America didn’t meet that obligation so much as pivot into more subtle and efficient ways of discrimination. Schools attended by predominantly Black students were and remain routinely under-resourced. You can still see the crimson ink where housing discrimination hasn’t changed since redlining was legal. Disparities in health care, law enforcement, political representation, and living wages persist almost unabated by civil intervention across the board.
All of which begs several questions. If the net result of living in America while Black exposes the same disparities and injustices as it did several generations ago, how is racism not a strain of America’s DNA? How does drawing out daily examples of inarguable and systemic bias not serve as evidence of racism’s existence in American life? How is it that certain Americans can continue to benefit from the ancient and White-facing machine of privilege born of hundreds of years of free Black labor — privilege that Black people consistently cannot access — and the country not be racist by default?
There’s a difference between not being a racist society and being a society that at least tries to get it right most of the time. Despite what most citizens (who, as it turns out, are predominantly White) think of themselves, America is neither of these countries. It turns out that America’s favorite pastime is in fact not baseball but denial. It’s a pervasive and insidious strain of identity that refuses to not see itself as great, even in the face of profound horrors.
The January 6 storming of the Capitol earlier this year was shocking to much of America, but not enough to claim its hands are clean. That tsunami of animus came from somewhere, and it certainly hasn’t felt like the representation of a minority opinion since then. Scott essentially came out as every conservative’s best Black friend and told them they’re not wrong — that somehow, all of the people still accessing America’s privilege conveyor belt are the underdogs here — even though the insurrection lies at the feet of Republican flame-fanning.
What most of America doesn’t get about racism is that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. That faux-philosophical chestnut has never been true a single day in the history of America (or anywhere else for that matter). Consider a hypothetical in which a White employee is iffy on the prospect of the new Black hire. In such a scenario, said White person has lunch with their new colleague and realizes they’re an okay person after all. This wouldn’t be an example of race becoming invisible or transcending race or any other diversity fable; this is a person recognizing that there’s more to Blackness than skin color.
The White person never forgets that the Black person is Black, they simply realize that there’s more to the person than what they see. And just like a person can never get to that lunchtime promised land by ignoring someone’s race, a society can never reckon with or resolve that which it cannot admit.
Tim Scott and Kamala Harris should both, especially as Black Americans, have been able to say that America still struggles with its racism problem. It’s not something America used to be or fixed or voted out of office. It is something that plagues us, much like the pandemic with which we’re now wrestling. It’s a condition of the American existence, and conversely a weed its citizens have to keep pulling out of the ground. But we’ll never get hold of it unless we grab it by the root.