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OPINION

What Joe Biden should say about white supremacy

The start of the Biden-Harris administration would be the ideal time to attempt something that has never been done before: Name, confront, and end white supremacy.

Joe Biden was sworn in as vice president during the official swearing-in ceremony at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2013. What will he say when he's inaugurated Jan. 20, 2021?
Joe Biden was sworn in as vice president during the official swearing-in ceremony at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2013. What will he say when he's inaugurated Jan. 20, 2021?SAUL LOEB

The results of the Nov. 3 election indicate that a small majority of Americans no longer want a white nationalist to run this country. This is a great relief, especially to the millions of people of color who have been the target of some of the worst racial attacks since the Jim Crow era. From profanity-laced diatribes about Black countries, the Muslim ban, and caging children, to the murderous vigilantes Trump has inspired in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Kenosha his administration has been a spectacle of white supremacy. Voting Trump out of office, however, is only one step in confronting America’s ongoing racial crisis.

There are numerous calls for the nation to unify and heal its divisions, but how can that occur without confronting the racial chasm that has been the most consistent source of conflict since the country began?

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The start of the Biden-Harris administration would be the ideal time to attempt something that has never been done before, which is to name, confront, and end white supremacy.

The following is a speech that President-elect Joe Biden could deliver during the first week of his presidency:

“I ultimately made the decision to run for president because of what occurred in Charlottesville in 2017 and how my predecessor characterized both those who oppose racism and those who promote it as ‘very fine people.’ Like many Americans, I was sickened by the divisive direction in which the country was headed. In the past year, with the horrific killing of George Floyd, many other incidents of racial violence, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, I have spoken out against systemic racism and pledged that my administration is committed to challenging it.

“In recent weeks, however, I have become aware that the situation of racial injustice that the nation faces is even more urgent and complex than I had previously believed. I now understand that what we face is not merely racial discrimination or even systemic racism, but institutionalized white supremacy.

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“Although seldom acknowledged and purposefully hidden, systemic white supremacy has shaped America’s economy, politics, social relations, and culture from the very beginning. The nation’s origin story embodies it. This land was stolen from Indigenous people through genocide and removal, and its wealth was built by labor stolen from enslaved Africans. Those events have massive repercussions to this day, especially when we look at the high rates of poverty and unemployment in Indigenous, Black, and brown communities.

“I know that some folks may not like the term systemic white supremacy because they see it as an attack on white people. I wondered about that too, but I found out that it does not primarily refer to individual attitudes or behaviors, but to a powerful, entrenched system that consistently disadvantages people of color and privileges whites.

“When we talk about racism, we usually focus on race relations, how different kinds of people do or do not get along. Challenging individual bigotry is critical, but we have a much larger task. We need to look at the impact of systemic white supremacy on all aspects of American life.

“One of the clearest ways to grasp its impact is to examine statistics. On average a Black family headed by a person with an advanced degree has less wealth than a white family headed by a person with a high school diploma. The net worth of white families is nearly 10 times more than that of Black families. Black women’s maternal mortality rate is three times that of white women. Black and Latinx children are more than 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than white children. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.

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“These are only a few examples of how discriminatory policies and practices make the words ‘land of opportunity’ sound hollow to far too many hard-working people of color. It is time to stop playing around the edges of this problem and to fix it.

“Here are some of the actions my administration will take in the first one hundred days:

▪ I will appoint a racial justice czar who will oversee all governmental actions to address systemic white supremacy. One of their duties will be to determine the feasibility of launching a comprehensive set of interventions on the scale of the Marshall Plan to eradicate white supremacy. My current proposals for advancing racial equity in the economy, criminal justice, and health care could become core components of this larger initiative.

▪ I will engage in open dialogue with leaders who call for defunding or abolishing the police to better understand their recommendations for transforming our criminal justice system.

▪ We will support the passage of a bill before Congress (H. R. 40), the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.”

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▪ We will explore initiating a Truth and Reconciliation process in consultation with countries such as Germany, South Africa, and Rwanda.

▪ We will aggressively investigate and prosecute white supremacist and white nationalist domestic terrorists who currently pose the most significant threats to the nation’s internal security.

▪ We will examine how our foreign policy and military interventions have promoted white supremacist and xenophobic agendas and will develop more just ways to interact with the global community.

“What I have outlined here are only the first steps to righting historic wrongs that have held back this nation for centuries. I will not be able to do any of this without your open-hearted participation and support. It will not be easy, but I believe that when we end racial injustice once and for all, we will become the vibrant, inclusive democracy that America was meant to be.”

This is the kind of speech that I would like Biden to give, but I do not expect that he will. It is possible that his extensive plans for increasing racial equity through economic opportunity could have an impact if fully implemented. I continue to hold onto a larger vision that challenges all of us to look at the reasons we have been stuck in this racial nightmare for more than 400 years and what we finally need to do to change it.

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We can take comfort that during this perilous time we have grown tenacious grass-roots movements in opposition to violent policing, economic inequality, white supremacy, and more. As always, it is the people on the ground speaking out and doing the day-to-day work of organizing that will push America closer to freedom.

Barbara Smith is an author and independent scholar who has been active in movements for social, racial, and economic justice since the 1960s. She is coauthor of “Combahee River Collective Statement.” Follow her on Twitter @thebarbarasmith.