The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden speaking about systemic racism is a win. But the battle is just beginning.

President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation with a victory speech in the parking lot of the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7.
President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation with a victory speech in the parking lot of the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

President-elect Joe Biden says he has a mandate to lead several “great battles” on behalf of the American people — against the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, inadequate health care and a rigged economy. But I’ll be tracking the battle where something remarkable has already happened.

Biden said he had a mandate “to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country.”

What’s so remarkable? Biden actually said it, out loud, in his victory speech, just hours after being declared the winner over Republican incumbent Donald Trump.

And many White people did not go berserk.

Not like they did on those few occasions when Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, tried to broach the subject of race. He was pilloried for holding a “beer summit” in the Rose Garden to help reconcile a racial conflict between a White cop and a Black Harvard professor. He was castigated for saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like   Trayvon,”   after   unarmed 17-year-old Black youth Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood vigilante.

The shooter, George Zimmerman, had the gall to say Obama had “overreached” by commenting on the killing.

Obama had selected Biden as his vice president, in part, to help shore up support among the White working class. But that didn’t protect Obama when it came to talking about race. Now Biden is set to become president in January, and he’s declaring holy war on racism, calling out white supremacy, decrying racial disparities in American life and showing support for a study of slavery’s impact on African Americans.

Elsie Scott, founding director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University, reminded me of an age-old social dynamic: “White people helping Black people is sometimes perceived by other White people as being noble, doing the right thing, trying to bring ‘us’ together,” Scott said. “Black people in power advocating for the advancement of other Black people is interpreted by some Whites as Black people trying to get more than they deserve.”

If Biden gets to talk about race without the racial baggage Obama carried, does it mean he might actually be able to get more accomplished on race? Could he use White privilege to dilute White privilege?

Having Kamala D. Harris, who is Black and Asian, as vice president could help. Or hurt. A University of Michigan study published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2011 found that the election of a Black president led many White people to believe that racial bias had lessened to the point that policies to address racial inequity were no longer needed.

A backlash ensued over any policies that could be seen as aiding Black people. That culminated in the 2016 election of President Trump.

It’s also possible that Biden is able to talk more openly about systemic racism than the president he served under because no one believes much will change.

“Joe Biden is no Lyndon Johnson,” Donna Murch, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, told me. Faced with daunting congressional opposition to his proposed civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Johnson adopted an aggressive, muscular lobbying approach, employing a mix of political glad-handing, strong-arming and choke-holding to achieve victory.

He also had a civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. pushing him.

“Biden has Johnson’s longevity but not the power and political mastery of an LBJ,” Murch said. She rated Biden’s chances of getting racial justice legislation passed by today’s GOP-controlled Senate “slim to none.”

Scott said she thinks it’s possible for Biden to advance his racial justice agenda by using his “good guy approach” on influential Catholics and evangelical Christians.

“Tell them, ‘You guys have the Supreme Court, which has been packed to deal with the unborn. So now, let’s talk about the born. What does Jesus say about feeding and clothing and housing them?’ ”

At the very least, Scott said, “Biden could help poor White people realize that if they ever teamed up with poor Blacks, they could overthrow the wealthy forces that are really oppressing them.” She added, however, that “there may be no way to convince them that there are things more important than being White.”

In his plan for Black America, called “Lift Every Voice,” Biden pledged to “rebuild our economy in a way that finally brings everyone along — and that starts by rooting out systemic racism from our laws, our policies, our institutions, and our hearts.”

There is a chance, however slight, that Biden could make significant strides. After all, racial attitudes do change. During the Obama years, most White people did not believe racism was nearly as serious a problem as Black people did. More likely, they thought White people were the ones being discriminated against.

After the death of George Floyd, after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and seeing the disproportionately high numbers of Black people dying from covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, many White people began acknowledging for the first time that systemic racism was a problem.

I asked Mustafa Abdul-Salaam, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the District’s predominantly Black Ward 8, what he thought about the Biden plan. If systemic racism can be measured by a broad spectrum of racially disparate outcomes — in life expectancy, income, housing, health, wealth, education and incarceration, for instance — you’ll find plenty of evidence in that part of town.

“We need to hold Biden accountable, sure, because Black people did save his candidacy,” Abdul-Salaam said. “But the learning experience we need to take away from the past four years is that Black people cannot depend on government to take care of us.”

Ward 8, which has the largest concentration of low-income residents in the city, also has the city’s highest death rates from covid-19 and opioid overdose. As Mustafa-Salaam sees it, any program that Biden manages to create, however welcomed, could be ended or undone in four years by another president.

“What we need to be doing is having some genuine conversations about wealth-building and getting beyond 400 years of abusive policies designed to keep us poor,” he said.

Let’s see how Biden responds. After all, as he boldly told African Americans in his victory speech, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.’

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