But the point of Scott’s words wasn’t to engage with history. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, was offering deceptive absolution intended to provide affirmation and comfort to those who prefer to sugarcoat both the nation’s past and its present. The South Carolina senator offers blanket permission to ignore Vice President Harris’s reality-based rejoinder: “It does not help to heal our country — to unify us as a people — to ignore the realities” of historic and present-day racism.
It’s Harris who speaks the truth.
Scott’s rhetorical trick is to define racism so narrowly that many people — or nations — can deny the word applies to them. Of course it is not true that every individual and every institution in the country can be described as intrinsically and irredeemably racist. Harris, of Black and South Asian descent, acknowledged as much Thursday during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
In most cases, it is meaningless to debate whether any given person — let alone a whole country — “is” or “is not” racist. Aside from Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis, few advertise their racism with pride. Who can ever be absolutely certain about anyone else’s deepest, truest nature? How many of us have even done an honest inventory of our own unconscious biases?
What we can do, however, is judge words and deeds. For example, I cannot say that all of the individuals who stormed the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection were racists. But I know that Black police officers trying to defend the citadel of our democracy were taunted with the vilest racist epithets. I know that the mob hung a noose, an enduring and noxious symbol of racist violence, on the Capitol grounds. And I know that the whole point was to stop Congress from certifying votes, many of which were cast by African Americans. On that basis, I conclude that racism played a major role in what President Biden called “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
It is necessary “to speak truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today,” Harris said. “We want to unify the country, but not without speaking truth and requiring accountability, as appropriate.”
That kind of reckoning is something today’s Republican Party resists as a matter of principle. Not all Republicans go so far as the Louisiana state legislator who demanded the state’s public schools teach students about “the good” of slavery as well as “the bad and the ugly.” But it is standard GOP doctrine to portray slavery as some kind of evil sideshow rather than an essential institution of the nation at its founding; to see the passage of the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s as the end of racial discrimination; and to see race-conscious policies such as affirmative action not as corrective but as “divisive” and discriminatory.
“A hundred years ago, kids in classrooms were taught the color of their skin was their most important characteristic — and if they looked a certain way, they were inferior,” Scott said. “Today, kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them — and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor.”
Those feel like deliberate distortions. A century ago, most Black kids were attending segregated schools. Their Black teachers told them they were as smart and capable as anyone else, but would be denied opportunities because of their race. Today, some schools are teaching students about the concept of white privilege and trying to illustrate how it works.
I accuse Scott of being disingenuous because in the same speech, he spoke of discrimination he has personally experienced as a Black man in America — being pulled over by police for no reason, being followed in department stores as though he were a potential thief. He is making what I take to be a serious attempt to craft a police reform bill that can get through both the Senate and the House.
I won’t insult Scott’s intelligence by suggesting that he’s being cynically used by his party. But I assume he must know the truth that Harris speaks: We’ll never solve the problem of racism in this country until we fully acknowledge it.
Yet he offers soothing words to GOP voters who want to believe that racial discrimination is a thing of the distant past and that systemic racism does not even exist. When he says “America is not a racist country” he’s telling his audience — the Republican base — what it wants to hear. Not what it needs to hear.