Tim Scott — the only Black Republican senator — caused an uproar during his rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s recent address to Congress. Scott declared, “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.” He even punctuated the word “not.” (Ironically, he made the statement right after sharing some of his experiences with racism.) I confess no hyperbole when I declare that I could literally hear millions of Black folks groan in response.
Tim Scott is no fool. He knew full well how most Black folks would receive his comment. Further, those who know Scott say that he would not make that statement in, well, different company. Still, a politician’s first job is to be honest with his or her constituents, right? Just kidding! A politician’s first job is to get reelected. If Scott had said, “America is a racist country,” his odds of being reelected would be as good as someone hitting a billion-dollar jackpot — without buying a ticket.
For understandable — yet unacceptable — reasons, Scott plays into the narrative that individual acts of bigotry (no matter how recent and numerous) do not add up to a systemic problem. (Imagine making the following argument: “We have more potholes in our streets than any other city, but our streets are great!”) In effect, that’s what Scott is saying. Yet, the vast majority of his supporters are white, and he can’t afford to alienate them.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Is America a racist country? The venerable Pew Research Center — and every other credible research organization — demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Blacks believe that it is. Not surprisingly, views among white Americans are more complicated. For example, one’s political leanings play a crucial role: White Democrats are much more likely to argue that America is racist than are white Republicans.
Interestingly, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris each made assertions that somewhat mirrored Scott’s. Biden said, “I don’t think America is racist, but I think the overhang from all of the Jim Crow and before that, slavery, have had a cost and we have to deal with it.” Similarly, Harris said, “No, I don’t think America is a racist country.” Harris’ answer, in particular, upset African Americans, even though she acknowledged that racism still exists in America. (Biden and Harris also fear white people’s response.)
To be clear, America is not a racist country. Why? Countries cannot be racist. However, America is a country in which a lot of racists live. And by “a lot” I mean millions of people, including business leaders, politicians, police officers, judges and others who control the levers of power in America. Collectively, they perpetuate systemic racism, which has an even greater impact than do individual acts of bigotry.
Most Black folks (including me) reject the notion that we measure “progress” by comparing where Black folks were 50 years ago versus today; the true measure is comparing where Black folks are today relative to where white folks are today. Sadly, Indianapolis — like every other city — has its share of Black apologists who deny the objective reality that systemic racism is not a relic of the past.
When one considers virtually every contemporary socioeconomic metric, it is clear that systemic racism is very much alive in America. Add to that the sobering racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the health care system, the educational system, etc. When we control for every conceivable variable, intellectually honest people must conclude that racism still pervades our nation; there is no other plausible explanation.
Thus, instead of asking whether America is a racist nation, let’s reframe the discussion. Instead, let’s ask what each and every individual can and should do to identify and to challenge racism. There are at least two advantages to this approach. First, it helps to keep us from engaging in a back-and-forth about a question whose answer is self-evident. (Besides, even answering “yes” doesn’t lead to change.) Second, it keeps people like Biden and Harris from getting into rhetorical trouble with Black folks — whose support they must have to stay in power.
Finally, it is useless to have a proverbial “seat at the table” if the price that one must pay is the denial of reality, especially when such denials have major implications for people’s lives. We need less rhetoric and more courage.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.