“America is not a racist country.” This is quickly becoming a Republican mantra. Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, used it in his rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s address to the Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican weather vane, echoed him, as did Republicans across the country. Scott went on to accuse Democrats of dividing the country by using race as a “political weapon.” This is an old, threadbare rhetorical trick. Racism is not the problem; those protesting discrimination are the problem.
Racist rhetoric and actions like those of Donald Trump aren’t dividing us. Those protesting the hatred are doing the dividing. The upside down, inside out duplicity can be traced back through the history of the Republic. Even when the South seceded from the Union to protect slavery, its leaders argued that it was Lincoln who caused the sedition because he wouldn’t guarantee the spread of slavery into the new states coming into the union. These dog whistle race-bait politics may be old, but it still has force, so politicians deploy it regularly. So, it is worth taking the question of whether America is a racist country seriously.
A racist nation-state is a country that enforces racism as a matter of law. Apartheid South Africa was universally condemned as a racist country because apartheid was the law of the land until Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress and allies forced the change in laws and policy. By that standard, the United States began as a racist country. For 246 years, slavery was the law of the land.
The Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the apportionment. In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans were not and could not ever be citizens of the United States, that blacks were “regarded as beings of an inferior order and…had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Much of the wealth of the country — North and South — was built on the backs of the enslaved. (And the country’s expansion was built on the slaughter of the land’s native peoples.) The Civil War brought an end to slavery and a “second founding” of the Union with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Yet by 1896, the former slave owners in the South had taken back power — propelled by the terrorist campaigns of the Ku Klux Klan and others — and made segregation — legalized apartheid — the law of the land. White immigrants had more rights than African-American soldiers. The Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson ratified the injustice of legally enforced segregation.
America was once more a self-declared racist country. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board ruled segregation unconstitutional. It took the Civil Rights Movement to transform the laws—- winning the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and extending equal rights under the law to all. At that point, America was no longer an apartheid country by law but it was still a country that had to address the legacy of racism. Inevitably, hundreds of years of legalized racism were institutionalized into the very marrow of the society. African Americans have less wealth because they were deprived of any ability to accumulate wealth for decades.
Blacks were zoned into ghettos, urban areas then deprived of private or public investment. Black unemployment remained about double that of White unemployment. Blacks were and are the last hired in an upturn and the first fired in a downturn. Our criminal justice system systematically discriminates against African Americans.
This list can go on. Change — reform of the laws and institutions — doesn’t come easily. Those with privilege generally don’t see the shackles burdening those without. If overt racism is increasingly frowned upon, racist attitudes and assumptions — measuring people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character — die-hard. Dog whistle politics — stoking of racial fears subtlety or brutally — are still a common currency. For decades, Southern Democrats, barons protecting the white privilege in the South blocked reform. Once Lyndon Johnson joined with Dr. King to lead the Civil Rights Revolution — Republicans took advantage by becoming the party of white sanctuary across the South. Now that, too, has become institutionalized, as Republicans in states across the country press reforms designed to suppress the vote of minorities and gerrymander districts to isolate the minority vote.
And not surprisingly, they cynically accuse Democrats and the civil rights movements of our age of using race to divide America. What’s increasingly clear, however, is that the politics of racial division harms working and poor Americans of all races. Race-bait politics is designed to divide working people to limit their power. Donald Trump is a perfect example, enlisting largely white working people in part by racial appeals, and then passing tax cuts for the rich and deregulation for the CEOs once in office.
Great leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois, Cesar Chavez and the Black Lives Matter organizers all understood this. They have organized across lines of race to build alliances to bring about reforms that will benefit working and poor people generally. That is our task today. And we can’t let dog whistle race-bait politics continue to divide us.