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Renée Graham

Don’t back away from the hard truth, Senator Warren

Elizabeth Warren spoke during an event at Dillard University in New Orleans on Aug. 3.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

DURING A RECENT APPEARANCE at Dillard University in New Orleans, Senator Elizabeth Warren offered what she called “the hard truth about our criminal justice system: it’s racist. . . . I mean, all the way, front to back.”

She then detailed the system’s inequities, such as disproportionate arrests and sentencing for African-Americans, and laws that keep convicted felons from voting, even after they have served their time.

No lies detected.

Of course, Warren’s statement got Fox News and other conservatives frothing. Yarmouth Police Chief Frank G. Frederickson called her comments “disrespectful and divisive.” With his sights on reelection in November, Governor Charlie Baker told the Boston Herald that police “absolutely feel like they’ve been on the wrong end of a lot of this rhetoric that’s gone on in this country for quite a while.”


As the backlash reached a boil, Warren did something I found maddening — she sought to clarify comments that needed no clarification. “I spoke about an entire system — not individuals — and I will continue to work on reforms to make the criminal justice system fairer.”

Warren’s detractors know exactly what she meant. The criminal justice system is racist — this isn’t a debatable point. Why, then, is it so hard to call a thing a thing when it comes to racism?

“White anxiety” is racism. “Economic anxiety” is racism. “White nationalism” is racism. Some people wrack their brains searching for euphemisms that allow them to avoid mentioning racism, because saying so would acknowledge its presence; meanwhile, racism, enabled and unchecked, is smothering this nation.

Last June, I participated in a panel about white privilege at Boston University’s School of Public Health. In the audience, a white man said the term “white privilege” was so alienating it kept white people from considering issues of racial inequality. I responded that people of color are done with fretting over the continued comfort of white people; we all need to confront, in no uncertain terms, caustic prejudices that sustain white supremacy and endanger people of color.


I thought of that pointed conversation when I read Warren’s walk-back.

She made her initial comments at a historically black university before a racially mixed audience. From the cases of the Central Park Five to Kalief Browder to Curtis Flowers, they know how corrosive the criminal justice system can be for people of color. Statistics back up Warren’s statements.

Still, in an election year — and with her name still on 2020’s front burner — Warren felt compelled to be mindful in a way that’s never required of Republicans.

Say what you want about President Trump — and I certainly have — but he never backs down from a statement. He tweets and utters blatant lies and spews disgusting insults at perceived adversaries by name, and then he refuses to apologize, clarify, or retract anything.

Compare that to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. She was spot-on when she said: “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call ‘the basket of deplorables.’ The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” Clinton’s comment wasn’t a mistake; the fault came in her apology for a statement whose veracity has been proved time and again.


I don’t have the time or energy to accommodate people who have neither earned it nor deserve it. Conservatives manufacture umbrage to stifle dissent. It’s just another version of the hoary “civility” argument, which I’m sure will be resurrected again when conservatives need another sound-bite distraction.

In discussing racism within our institutions or daily lives, we should be flexing instead of flinching. Nothing can be achieved if we allow those who benefit from its sustainment to bully us out of calling racism by its name.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.