What Joe Biden's comments reveal about an apparent paradox about racism in America

What Joe Biden's comments reveal about an apparent paradox about racism in America

Last Friday, NBC's "Today" asked the president about United States Senator Tim Scott's claim, after the State of the Union, that America is not a racist nation. Joe Biden seemed to agree. "I don't think America's 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." This left many befuddled. Derecka Purnell, author of the forthcoming Becoming Abolitionists, asked succinctly: "How can you promise to root out systemic racism in a country that's not racist and where the people aren't racist? Who runs the systems?"

I can't explain, much less justify, that Democratic leaders like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris seem to speak about race differently when they're facing movement activists or the general public. But perhaps I can offer a little insight into the apparent paradox of a non-racist nation that so consistently produces such racist systems and outcomes.

Biden, like most white Americans who haven't thought very deeply about the subject, conflates racism with race-based chauvinism. At the same time, he overlooks his general involvement in systemic white supremacy. Many white folks can't understand the fact that they participate in racist systems because they don't perceive themselves as "racist," that is, holding overtly bigoted attitudes toward people of different races. (Not beside the point, most people also tend to significantly underrate their own bias.)

While the pervasiveness of white supremacy in American society seems blindingly obvious to those already cued into it, it's actually not easy to spot for those who haven't practiced the habit. It involves shrewd cultural analysis, a relatively skilled enterprise, which is why most white people don't take it up seriously until they reach college.

Moreover, one has to be motivated to understand white supremacy. A white person has to want to see it. Think of this as a process of acquiring enough critical perspective to understand the system correctly. The price of that particular ticket is to fix one's own place in the system, to understand oneself as, in some sense, involved in and responsible for its outcomes. That presents a distinct challenge to the ego that many whites mistake for an accusation, rather than a call to see how they have benefited, even indirectly, from "all the Jim Crow and before that slavery." As John points out in his column, this is an experience of shame—of knowing that you and your society have fallen short of deeply held moral standards—that some people are unable to overcome.

To make a very long story short, Black Americans and others pressured by white supremacy understand racism as participation in the system. Many whites think you can't be racist if you don't intend to be racist! It's a fine piece of denial, but there it is.

It adds up to a perfect illustration of what Reinhold Niebuhr called the human capacity for "partial self-transcendence." White Americans can see in the abstract there is a problem with systemic racism. They can see, often with great reluctance and always imperfectly, they have a role in creating the problem. But it's difficult for them, as individuals and legitimately impossible on a social level, to put all of that together to discern a way to overcome it. There are simply too many moving pieces, too much ambivalence, misperception and investment in the ways things are currently.

Oddly, then, "I don't think America's racist" is neither a cynical statement, nor a happily deluded one. It's intended to be aspirational, an affirmation that there still exists enough goodwill to deal with the costs of systemic racism. Roughly translated, it means, "Because we're not a bunch of bigots, we can tackle the bigger stuff."

Unlike Joe Biden, Niebuhr was never sanguine about the prospects of curing social evils. He thought things could be made better, but not finally solved, without divine intervention. He was skeptical of human motivations and often cautious to a fault, notably so about the civil rights movement. But he knew something critical: that to see our problems clearly is less a matter of factuality than one of moral commitment.

On that score, Biden may be closer to the mark than he seems. As a factual matter, saying "America's not racist" simply doesn't hold up against 400-plus years of history. But as a moral issue, Biden's dead-on. Who runs the systems is white people, mostly, and they've rung up a terrible debt. The president knows that, and he sees clearly the challenge of paying it back. He's still committed to doing the right thing, though, and God willing he can inspire some other folks to see things the same way. It might not solve the problem of systemic white supremacy, but it just might make things better.

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