Joe Biden’s first speech as president elect is being hailed as a long-overdue call to overcome division. “President-elect Joe Biden seeks to unite nation with victory speech,” read the CNN headline the next day. The New York Times summed up: “Mr. Biden renewed his promise to be a president for all Americans in a polarized time.”
It is not just the left-leaning press taking at face value Biden’s calls to “put away the harsh rhetoric.” Conservative pundits are doing so as well. Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn called the speech “Lincolnesque.” Biden’s unity message was “exactly what the country needed to hear,” McGurn wrote. Daily Wire podcast host Ben Shapiro found the speech so pollyannish in its call for reconciliation as to be risible.
And yet Biden’s actual remarks were anything but unifying. Among the “great battles of our time” that Biden has now been called to fight, he said, was the still unaccomplished goal of “root[ing] out systemic racism in this country.” That “systemic racism” is presumably underwritten by millions of white Americans who continue to prevent “racial justice,” in Biden’s words. They are the ones who represent what Biden called “our darkest impulses,” locked in “constant battle” with our “better angels.” It was time—finally—for those better angels to prevail, Biden said.
This indictment of white Americans was a constant theme during the Democratic presidential primaries. In an August 2019 press briefing, Biden claimed that racism was a “white man’s problem visited on people of color.” “White folks are the reason we have institutional racism,” he said. In a January 2019 speech, Biden announced: “We have a lot to root out, but most of all the systematic racism that most of us whites don’t like to acknowledge even exists.” On Friday, November 6, the day before the press declared Biden the president elect, he was still hammering the racism theme. He had a “mandate” to eliminate “systemic racism,” he announced, prefiguring his victory speech the next day.
Throughout the election season, the Democratic contenders and mainstream media paired denunciations of white Americans’ racism with the claim that Donald Trump was the racially divisive candidate. But in those now-iconic examples of Trump’s alleged racism, the president was referring to attitudes and behaviors that he deemed anti-social or anti-American. The few times Trump used explicit racial categories were dwarfed by the constant and unapologetically anti-white statements coming from the press, the Democratic field and academic opinion writers.
And yet they got away with it. Calling whites racist is not racially divisive; referring to “law and order” apparently is. This conundrum is possible because elite whites have internalized the idea of their own racism. Decades of ever more exacting civil rights legislation and litigation, billions of dollars of transfer payments and the deployment of racial preferences throughout business and academia matter little to this conceit. It is now simply assumed that whites will be accused of racism and that they will meekly hang their heads and pack themselves off to white privilege remediations. If the tables were turned, if there were routine denunciations of black racism, there would be an uproar.
Perhaps the targets of the racism accusation don’t take it personally. If the problem is “systemic,” then any given individual seems absolved from responsibility for the fact that racial justice in America allegedly remains so unrealized. After all, the very term “systemic racism” was coined to overcome the fact that it is hard to find actual individuals in positions of even moderate power who discriminate on the basis of race. The reality is the opposite. It is hard to find an institution today that does not go out of its way to prefer minority groups, if at all possible.
But while the “systemic racism” conceit may seem to take individuals out of the equation, they are in fact essential to the idea. The character of our institutions does not arise in a vacuum; those institutions are sustained by individuals. And in any case, the connection between the system and the individuals within it is made often and explicitly enough (“White people…were the only group in which a majority voted for Trump…. Many of our fellow countrymen and women are either racists or accommodate racists or acquiesce to racists”; the fact that 71 million people voted for Donald Trump despite his “racism” should be a “cause for profound and pervasive grief“).
The Trump vote in part represented a rebellion against this double standard: accusing whites of racial sins they no longer commit is not “divisive,” but criticizing actual behavior like rioting or drive-by shootings is. That rebellion was inarticulate and inchoate, and has been sidelined for now. The operating principle of the next administration will be America’s systemic racism, a “dark impulse” that will require ever more robust government measures to counteract. And if history is any guide, there will be little pushback.