Daniel Schultz

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.

The only thing keeping Republicans from electoral oblivion

United States Rep. Glenn Grothman was kind enough to send his thoughts on DC statehood in an e-newsletter last weekend, as he does for his constituents. If you haven't had the fortune to know the congressman from Wisconsin's Sixth, well, bless you. I first encountered him at a pancake breakfast, where he was picking fights with constituents. He has a long history of making ill-informed, inflammatory statements as a state senator and now as a member of the United States Congress.

Recently, Grothman found himself embroiled in controversy when he accused Black Lives Matter of disliking "the old-fashioned family." He defended that statement on-camera while wearing a jaunty hat he'd worn for in a local St. Patrick's Day parade.

More recently, Grothman garnered negative attention by speaking on the House floor about Cardi B's performance at the Grammys. He said his state office received numerous complaints about the show, and he scolded the FCC for, in his view, not doing its job: "The moral decline of America is partly due to your utter complacency."

If you're guessing by now that Grothman's views on DC's bid to become the 51st state are not exactly advanced, you're right. They're as terrible as you'd expect.

In the interest of space, I'll skip the errors of logic and fact. His anti-statehood argument can be summarized in three points: first, the government is a corrupt force to be kept in check, and its city-seat is not made up of good decent farmers, factory workers, and quarry operators like us. Yes, he really argues that DC is undeserving, because it has only "minimal agriculture, manufacturing and natural resources."

Second, not only is the seat of government a city, it's a city run by greedy incompetent people who'd be satisfied living off the government's teat. Let's break this one down a bit. On the one hand, Grothman says DC is filled with rich, entitled government workers (only about 25 percent of residents work for the feds). On the other hand, he's saying DC is run by Black people, who are therefore terrible at governing. The proof, Grothman says, are negative aspects associated with big cities and their minority populations: failing schools, budget mismanagement, homelessness and crime.

Grothman conveniently omits DC's unique challenges. It's deprived of a tax base due to having government and nonprofit buildings. It's hamstrung by Congressional interference and disinterest in investment. It's divided sharply by race lines with a privileged elite in the Northwest and a ghettoized underclass in the Southeast. But, of course, Grothman is playing to the stands here, allowing his mostly rural audience to indulge their fixed ideas about the evils of big cities. (Grothman himself lives in the hamlet of Glenbeulah. There are 463 residents, 98.7 percent of whom are white.)

Third, again according to Grothman, making a majority Black and brown city the 51st state is a political decision, whereas making states out of small majority white and rural areas like Wyoming or Vermont is a matter of natural law. Never mind that each of these states has fewer residents than Washington, or that Wyoming, like several other states, was admitted in a rushed process in order to give 19th-century Republicans more votes in the Senate. What matters, evidently, is they have abundant agriculture, manufacturing and natural resources, and coincidentally, they're overwhelmingly white.

Grothman is far from the only Republican making such nonsense arguments. United States Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas noted that Wyoming has "three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing."

"In other words," Tom Cotton said, "Wyoming is a well-rounded, working-class state." United States Representative Mondaire Jones of New York later responded dryly, "I had no idea there were so many syllables in the word "white.'"

It's trendy for Republicans to cling ever tighter to their aging, rural and white base, and to their desire to bake-in as much electoral advantage that that base's wide-ranging geography allows. If you split Los Angeles County into states equal in population to Wyoming, for example, you'd bring 17 states into the union and 34 Senators into Congress, most of which would be Democrats. Fetishizing the virtuous rural dweller over and against the profligate and depraved urbanites isn't just to the Republican advantage—it's the only thing keeping them from electoral oblivion.

The newest battle lines in America's ongoing culture war are increasingly drawn around race, education and residence. But like any conflict, culture wars only work when people fight them. No one is obliged to read Grothman. No one is obliged to listen to Cotton's nativism. Neither offers anything resembling serious thought. So no one is obliged to wage a cultural war with them by dismissing the country folk as somehow less deserving of representation than their cousins in the city. We're all Americans, like it or not, though I suspect the "not" is getting bigger by the day.

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