So it was Wednesday night, with Sen. Tim Scott's (R-S.C.) response to President Biden's first speech to Congress. He began by tying his speech to Biden's — “we just heard President Biden's first address to Congress … his speech was full of good words” — and then just moved forward rebutting Biden's agenda broadly.
It seems pretty clear that Scott expected Biden to focus more heavily on race in his speech. Biden spoke briefly about the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last year and about his desire “to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve” and “to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system,” but not much beyond that.
Scott mentioned his efforts to introduce police reforms, then transitioned into a broader condemnation of the left’s approach to race — at least as he sees it.
“Today, kids are being taught that the color of their skin defines them again. And if you look a certain way, they're an oppressor,” he said. “From colleges, to corporations, to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven't made any progress at all.”
“Hear me clearly,” he added: “America is not a racist country. It's backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination. And it's wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”
That these words came from a Black Republican obviously added some heft to his argument and to his later arguments about how his party wasn’t actively trying to keep non-Whites from voting. But it is nonetheless the case that Scott’s rhetoric was focused on a straw man.
Most Americans are in agreement about the existence of racism and racial discrimination at the individual level. We all know that there are people out there who view people of other races as inferior, and most of us disdain the people who hold those views. Instead, the debate centers on the extent to which systems within the country — business, government, law enforcement — reflect biases that disadvantage non-Whites. That’s not the same as the country itself being racist, a position that it seems safe to assume most Americans wouldn’t agree with — which is why it’s how Scott frames the Democratic position.
During the past 60 years, much of the open, individual, explicit racism in the United States has been rooted out. Nearly all of the obvious systemic racism has been, too: no more segregated lunch counters or bathrooms. The debate, then, is over the pervasiveness of non-obvious racism within systems. On that point, the parties are increasingly in disagreement.
In 2014, the country saw the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of several Black men at the hands of police. The movement was and is contentious, but it had an obvious correlation with a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans, particularly non-Black Democrats, who saw racial differences in the country being a function of discrimination. Data from the biennial General Social Survey makes that clear.
The argument at the heart of the BLM movement is that there are systemic problems in law enforcement that disproportionately lead to the deaths of Black suspects. It is a very specific claim and one that has come to dominate discussions of systemic racism.
Evidence for racism in other systems is readily apparent. Take homeownership. For decades, mortgage lenders sectioned off heavily Black communities as being too risky for home loans, a process known as redlining. But it remains the case that Blacks seeking a mortgage are rejected at a rate 80 percent higher than Whites. Since owning a house is a central part of building wealth, this has broad ramifications.
Does this happen because all mortgage lenders are explicitly racist? No. But does the system still demonstrate apparent discrimination against non-Whites? Yes.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to view racial discrepancies as being a function of a lack of will on the part of Black Americans; 4 in 10 Republicans hold that position, compared with a quarter of Democrats. Republicans are also more likely to say Blacks should overcome prejudice without receiving any favors — a view that nearly three-quarters of Republicans hold.
That gets at the heart of the debate much better than Scott’s “is America racist” question. If there are systemic, structural ways in which Blacks are disadvantaged, such as low historic familial wealth or being less likely to be called for job interviews when their names are perceived as Black, it becomes much harder for the individuals themselves to combat the effects. Shunting the problem of racism off to the individual level makes it easier to ignore systemic problems — and it probably leads to a sense that the individual can simply overcome racism, as well.
Scott’s argument about discussions of race centered on education because of the right’s current focus on “cancel culture,” on the idea that there is a concerted effort to silence people who aren’t adhering to certain cultural standards. The General Social Survey has an interesting bit of data speaking to that issue, as it turns out. The survey asks Americans if racists should be allowed to teach — in other words, if individuals who are racist should be teachers. About 37 percent of Democrats say they should be allowed to teach, while about half of Republicans hold that position.
This is admittedly an unusual scenario, but it does speak to the broader debate. This is an individual embedded in the educational system. Half of Republicans don't take issue with that person being there.
Vice President Harris spoke to Scott's argument in an appearance on “Good Morning America” on Thursday.
“No, I don’t believe America is a racist country,” she said, “but we also do have to speak truth about racism in this country and its existence today.”
The challenge is that the truth to which Harris refers is not viewed as clear-cut across the political spectrum. Democrats see structural racism as obvious, and in some circumstances probably see racial discrimination where some other cause is at play. Republicans, on the other hand, prefer to see racism as an outlier, a function of explicit racists and not of systems that at times offer disproportionate benefits to White Americans — a group into which nearly all Republicans fit.
That’s the subtext here. Many Republicans see discussions of racial discrimination as accusations that Whites — and they themselves — are racist. Polling shows White Republicans generally see Whites, Blacks and Hispanics as all facing equivalent levels of discrimination. A 2019 poll found only a bare majority of Republicans viewed racism as a serious problem in the country — and among supporters of former president Donald Trump, less than half said it was.
This is a complicated, nuanced issue. It is not as simple as “Democrats say that America is racist,” though it’s easy to see the value in presenting the discussion in that way for an audience primed to elevate patriotism. In the context of Wednesday night, there’s another important point to make: Scott was ostensibly responding to Biden. But Biden came nowhere near making the claim Scott was rebutting.
In other words, it was Scott, not Biden, raising this as a subject of critical urgency.