Biden’s approach feels innovative, not so much for the details of his orders (e.g., phasing out for-profit prisons, advancing efforts to root out housing discrimination) but for the rhetoric he deploys to make his case. He talks about the violent insurrectionists as “thugs” and “white supremacists,” but he does not paint all Whites as racist. One can argue that Whites have been advantaged by their race, unconsciously in many cases, but his purpose is not to indict or virtue signal.
Certainly, he called for candor about who we are and how we got here. In that regard, he said, “I’ve rescinded the previous administration’s harmful ban on diversity and sensitivity training, and abolished the offensive, counterfactual 1776 Commission.” But the essence of Biden’s appeal is the practical argument that discrimination is bad for all Americans. He decried the mind-set (fanned by white supremacists who want to instill fear and resentment) that fosters opposition to efforts to address historic inequities. “For too long we’ve allowed a narrow, cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester,” he said. “We bought the view that America is a zero sum game. If you succeed, I fail. . . . Maybe worst of all, if I hold you down, I lift myself up.” If large groups of Americans have worse educational opportunities, do not prosper or cannot buy a home, we all are less prosperous, he argued.
Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) may try to read into this language an indictment against their party. (As Paul said regarding Biden’s inaugural address: “If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book, calling us people who don’t tell the truth.”) But such a reaction would mean Republicans are not listening — or it would reveal an unpleasant truth that the GOP has embraced, coddled and excused the most virulent white supremacists.
Conservatives’ belief in victimhood — that they have been aggrieved and persecuted — is a central element of white supremacy. They characterize every challenge to the status quo and every attempt to rectify racial justice as subversive, even though it is the status quo that has wrought huge disparities in health, wealth, criminal justice, education, income and housing (to name just a few arenas in which systemic racism is evident).
Biden is not going to play that game. He is not accusing Republicans — or any specific group of Americans other than the violent white supremacists — of racism. What he is demanding is that we acknowledge reality and seek to lift up those starved of opportunity so that we can all benefit.
It is noteworthy that he and Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council and head of the administration’s equity effort, often include rural Americans when listing underserved communities. This is more than pandering to red American. The divide between urban and rural America is one of the most dramatic and hobbling schisms we face. There you will find insufficient broadband; health-care deserts, in which hospitals are few and far between; and child-care shortages, in which a lack of quality day care prevents parents from obtaining full-time work.
Perhaps Biden should use the example of rural America to illustrate his approach to inequality. He is not “hurting” urban America when he seeks to make up for deficits in rural hospitals, child-care services and broadband; he is bringing rural America up to the standards that urban and suburban Americans have enjoyed. That is the model for unity and equity: leveling the playing field and putting resources where they will do the most good.
Republicans hostile to any change in the status quo will likely not be swayed. But millions of Americans who, as Biden said, had the “blinders” take off in the wake of the George Floyd killing may be more amenable to efforts to root out systemic racism — especially if they think they might benefit in some fashion.