Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have a messaging problem: They can’t decide whether Americans are a bunch of bigots or people of good will. That ambiguity pervaded the Democratic National Convention (DNC), culminating in Biden’s acceptance speech for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination. Though the targets of the Democrats’ “systemic racism” charge meekly accept the accusation, the charge has consequences for how the country will be governed should the White House change hands in November.
Political tradition requires office-seekers to sing the praises of their fellow countrymen and to declare their love of country. The DNC speakers largely followed that tradition—when they were not gutting it. America is a “great nation,” Biden said on Thursday night, adding also that “we are a good and decent people.” Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris asked God to bless the America that “we love.” Former First Lady Michelle Obama had come to the podium, she said, “because I love this country with all my heart.” She invoked the “goodness and the grace that is out there in households and neighborhoods all across this nation.”
But it turns out that this “good and decent people,” in Biden’s words, has never wiped “the stain of racism from our national character.” America has yet to “do the hard work of rooting out our systemic racism,” Biden declared.
These are serious charges. According to Biden, Americans’ very being—their “national character”—is permeated by racism. Such an accusation is indistinguishable from The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ insistence that the destruction of the “Black body” is the American “heritage.” The “stain of racism” is not confined to our slave-holding and segregated past, and it was not eradicated by far-reaching civil rights laws, racial preferences or billions of dollars in welfare programs. It defines us now.
The phrase “systemic racism,” already ubiquitous during the Democratic primaries, reached peak usage following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. It poured forth from corporate boardrooms and C-suites, college presidents’ offices, banks and Big Tech firms. It thus may have lost some of its sting. But it, too, is a devastating indictment. It means that bias is baked into every American institution. Fairness would not be possible under the existing regime—whether in the administration of the law, in elected government or in the economy. If America is “systemically racist,” then it differs from apartheid South Africa only as a matter of degree, not kind.
How can a “good and decent people” continue denying equal treatment to one group within it, decades after America finally woke up to the glaring contradiction between its ideals and its treatment of Blacks? How can a “great nation” allegedly continue to turn its eyes away from its own vicious injustice? Biden made no effort to reconcile his two contradictory positions about America and Americans.
The other speakers did no better. Kamala Harris reminded the America “we love” that “there is no vaccine for racism.” White Americans, in other words, are permanently infected with bigotry—unless offenders “do the work” to “free” Black Americans from their fellow Americans’ lethal predations. Michelle Obama asserted that in this country she loves with all her heart, “some people” would not hear her message because she is a “Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention.” To be sure, this is a “deeply divided” nation, as she put it. But those Americans who reject the former first lady’s characterization of the Trump presidency as responsible for 150,000 coronavirus deaths, say, do so overwhelmingly because of political disagreement, and not because of Obama’s race. This is the same woman who was welcomed into Princeton, Harvard and an elite Chicago law firm. Penguin Random House paid the former first couple $65 million in a joint book deal, anticipating that millions of Americans would snap up the couple’s memoires. Nevertheless, the country remains hindered by the “horrors of systemic racism,” the former first lady maintains.
This by-now de rigueur accusation contradicts the Democratic trope that it is Donald Trump who divides Americans. A representative New York Times headline on June 24 announced: “With Tweets, Videos and Rhetoric, Trump Pushes Anew to Divide Americans by Race.” The Democrats, by contrast, will unite Americans—so long as the median white American doesn’t object accusations of lethal bias. Before Biden’s acceptance speech, Fox News contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said that Biden will not “pit Americans against each other.” Yet the Democratic primary season consisted of one long string of accusations that various identity-based victim groups—Blacks, Hispanics, women, gays, immigrants and so forth—were oppressed by whites, in general, and white male heterosexuals, in particular.
Identity politics is, by definition, divisive and zero-sum. It has not produced a strong counterreaction from its target, however, because “woke” white Americans in virtually every mainstream institution penitently join in denouncing their own alleged racial sins. Such remorseful self-incrimination is not behavior that one would expect from a group of bigots. This paradox allowed Harris to combine the “Americans-are-racist” and the “Democrats-are-unifiers” conceits in a single formulation. “Joe will bring us together to squarely face and dismantle racial injustice,” she said. Who are the dismantlers and who are the dismantled? They are the same people, in many cases, because so many leftist white Americans agree that they themselves need dismantling.
No country should be exempt from criticism. The great civil rights leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries passionately denounced America’s failure to act on its Founding ideals, while just as passionately expressing their commitment to those ideals. The stridency of the current denunciations of systemic racism, however, is in inverse proportion to the evidence for such bias. Far from discriminating against Blacks, businesses and non-profits, including universities, compete to admit, hire and promote as many “underrepresented minorities” as they can, regularly using racial preferences to do so. An outsize amount of public policy and private philanthropy is aimed at closing the academic achievement gap. A solid body of evidence shows that it is overwhelmingly crime and suspect behavior, not race, that determine criminal justice outcomes, including police shootings. It is taboo in polite circles to notice or speak of vastly disproportionate rates of inner-city crime and victimization; a society full of white supremacists would not feel so constrained. In reality, most Americans yearn to be “post-racial,” but Democratic elites will not let them do so.
The false narrative about systemic racism is tearing apart civil order, leading to riots, rising street crime and attacks on symbols of the nation’s heritage. If the Democrats win the elections this fall, that narrative will become ever-more enshrined in government policy. Expect more mandates to hire and conduct business by race, more diversity requirements in science and medical funding, and more discrediting of color-blind public safety measures in the name of avoiding disparate impact. Because Americans are, in fact, a “good and decent people,” they will accede to such policies. But the further racialization of our national discourse and of our public and private institutions will not make this a stronger and more unified country.