Earlier this week, Sen. Tim Scott, a Black Republican from South Carolina, stated in his rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s congressional address that “America is not a racist country.” The very next morning Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black, Indian, and woman to hold the position, echoed Scott’s sentiments by stating “No. I don’t think America is a racist country.”
Ah, a rare moment of bipartisanship–based upon a falsity!
Now, in a few weeks I will turn 49 years old, so Scott (55) and Harris (56) are in my generation and close in age to my older siblings. Which means that while Scott, Harris, and I just missed the Jim Crow era of overt racism in custom and law, we all were reared by parents and grandparents whose memories were fresh about such horrors, while experiencing our own horrors of Jim Crow’s legacy, namely the more covert aspects of racism in the 70s and 80s when “forced busing” to foster school integration was a caustic issue that led to political and physical fights between the races. Not to mention the slights, big and small, from white teachers who graded Black papers more harshly, or snubbed honor society inductions for Black students, or white parents who did not want their children inviting Black children over for parties and sleepovers.
Indeed, Scott and Harris know this recent racist history, and there is ample evidence that both know the still racist present. Within the same speech in which Scott says America is not racist, he recounts his own brushes with, well, racism. Sir, as a rhetorical device you shouldn’t in one breath declare boldly that America is not racist, and then highlight being followed and harassed by the police based on your race! Ditto for Harris who backed up Scott’s premise that “America is not racist” only to recount her and President Biden’s record in blasting modern day racism in policing, prosecuting, education and economics.
So with Scott and Harris both giving diametrically opposite viewpoints within the same series of breaths, the question that begs asking is simple: what gives? Well, the even simpler answer is that both are politicians–Black politicians at that–who have aspirations to become President of the United States. The sad truth for both is that their aspirations require a type of two-step with jingoists that activists like yours truly can shun by holding up a mirror and saying, “This is America.”
My issue with Harris and Scott’s word play is that in an era when attention spans are short and sound-bytes and screen captures are Tweeted and Re-Tweeted millions of times, “America is not racist” becomes the rallying cry for those whites across the ideological spectrum who are in denial about what America was–and what it still is in many ways. A clear example of this was on display when Louisiana Republican Sen. John Neely Kennedy, a staunch Scott supporter, said: “Clearly we have people in America who feel contempt for our country. They should feel gratitude, but they feel contempt. There are people who believe that America was wicked in its origins and it’s even more wicked today. They believe that most Americans — at least White Americans — are racist and misogynistic and ignorant.”
My consternation is that Sen. Kennedy, a white man, can deny racism past and present in his comments while demanding that those victimized by racism should be grateful, while Sen. Scott and VP Harris have to dance around the subject so as to appease those willfully blind or obtuse whites from which they wish to curry political favor.
The simple truth is that America was a racist nation; from slavery and the 3/5th Clause in the Constitution that counted my enslaved Black ancestors as 3/5th of a whole white person, to slavery by another name, a/k/a “Jim Crow” laws that remained on the books through the 1960s and litigated into the 70s, racism is in this nation’s DNA. The same holds true for “Manifest Destiny,” the systematic taking of Native American lives and land by whites to the point of near extinction for some tribes, and yet just this month, CNN contributor and former Republican Senator Rick Santorum said, “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
The simple truth also is that America is still a racist nation, as evidenced by the lingering vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow in 2021 where financial lending remains skewed against Black businesses and individuals, the legacy of restrictive covenants still haunts Black wealth creation and access to land, Black farmers are still discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; health care disparities and mistreatment by doctors who believe that Blacks are exaggerating their sicknesses or pain levels remains problematic; punishment in criminal courts remains harsher for people of color while unarmed Black and Brown people are slain by the police at wildly disproportionate rates. Pointing these facts out does not mean that the pointer is a hater of America or a racist, rather, the truth teller is a realist showing love by pointing out the problems–and challenging the racists to shun their racism to foment a more equal and just future.