As if his condemnation of the know-nothings who seek to airbrush American history had not been clear enough, he added, “We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know.” Those are fighting words to those in the MAGA crowd who want to wallow in a made-up history devoid of racism. Biden was emphatic: “I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence, wounds deepen. As painful as it is, only in remembrance do wounds heal.”
Second, Biden actually explained to those who cared to listen what systemic racism is. The results of Tulsa’s violence — and events similar to it — reverberate through history. Millions of dollars in family wealth was eliminated; the wealth gap persists to this day. The indifference (if not complicity) of police to Black victims, and their attempt to cast Black men as dangerous, became an enduring facet of our criminal justice system. If the country doesn’t grapple with historical events such as these, it cannot understand the intentional government policies that divided neighborhoods, segregated public housing and kept Blacks from attaining parity with Whites. As Biden put it, “Great nations … come to terms with their dark side.”
Third, he explained to White Americans that this is not a zero-sum game. Unlike the Republicans’ cult leader, who plays on Whites’ resentment and sense of loss, Biden admonished those who adopt a view that if someone wins, someone else must lose. Instead, he urged us to consider the collective opportunities, innovation, creativity and wealth that have been sacrificed when Americans were not allowed to reach their full potential. (“Just imagine, if instead of denying millions of entrepreneurs the ability to access capital and contracting, we made it possible to take their dreams to the marketplace to create jobs and invest in our communities. . . . Does anyone doubt this whole nation would be better off from the investments those people make?”)
And finally, he made the connection between our reckoning with race and the defense of voting rights. He designated June as a month of legislative action on Capitol Hill and tapped Vice President Harris — the first woman and first woman of color to hold the job — as the point person for the efforts. He also singled out “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends” (that would be Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona), effectively putting them on notice that evasion and empty odes to the filibuster are unacceptable. In saying he will “use every tool” at his disposal, he heightened the stakes for himself and his party.
In a written statement after the speech, Harris declared, “President Joe Biden asked me to help lead our Administration’s effort to protect the fundamental right to vote for all Americans.” She said, “In the days and weeks ahead, I will engage the American people, and I will work with voting rights organizations, community organizations, and the private sector to help strengthen and uplift efforts on voting rights nationwide. And we will also work with members of Congress to help advance these bills.”
Perhaps the complaints, frustrations and sheer panic among civil rights and voting rights advocates — as well as the heinous legislation nearly passed in Texas — have lit a fire under this president. For the first time, there is a sense that he and Harris are viscerally engaged on the issue and understand the stakes of failure.
Biden’s remarks were a potent reminder of the power of the bully pulpit. When used for good, it can expand empathy, broaden a person’s outlook, compel them to improve and provide hope. (“Let’s not give up, man. Let’s not give up,” he said.) We should pray that, at the very least, Democrats understand how devoted he is to addressing racism and defending the fundamental right to vote.
Jennifer Rubin is getting her own weekly live chat, where she’ll answer questions and respond to comments from readers on the news of the week every Friday at noon. Submit yours to her first chat, launching on June 11, here.