The debacle of the first presidential debate left no real substance to talk about. What little there was got buried under the ninety-minute spectacle of Joe Biden fighting to maintain some composure and dignity under the onslaught of childishness, boorishness, and general Trumpishness of the sitting president.
But one thing Biden said caught my attention. I think it demonstrates a fundamental problem that we have in confronting racism in this country. Nearly an hour into the circus, moderator Chris Wallace (who is getting far more criticism for this disaster than he merits—people are criticizing him, but no one can control a president who is intent on disrupting things. But I digress) asked Trump about his new attack on racial sensitivity training.
When it came time for Biden’s response, he said the following:
“The fact is that there is racial insensitivity. People have to be made aware of what other people feel like, what insults them, what is demeaning to them. It’s important that people know they don’t want to, many people don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. But it makes a big difference. It makes a gigantic difference in the way a child is able to grow up and have a sense of a sense of self-esteem. It’s a little bit like how this guy and his friends looked down on so many people. They look down their nose on people like Irish Catholics like me who grew up in Scranton. They look down on people who don’t have money. They look down on people who are of a different faith. They look down on people who are a different color. In fact, we’re all Americans. The only way we’re going to bring this country together is bring everybody. There’s nothing we cannot do if we do it together. We can take this on and we can defeat racism.”
Biden makes some good points here, and what he said undoubtedly reflects good intentions. But in my view, it also reflects a sense, all too common among liberal White people, that racism is largely about hurt feelings, bad language, and snobbery.
Of course, these are real issues. But this attitude has led to American society developing a sense that politically correct language, affirmative action, and, finally, the election of a Black president meant we had overcome racism. As we can see from the Black Lives Matter protests, this is not the case.
Institutional racism, first and foremost, is about dehumanization, authoritarianism, and violence expressed through racial discrimination. These are big, scary, horrible words, and it is painful for decent White people to think of our Whiteness and our privilege as causing these things. It’s much more comfortable to think in terms of the language we use, the way we, as individuals, treat Black and Brown people. Those are things we can control through our day-to-day actions.
But that’s not the full reality of racism, as more and more White people have come to understand. The ultimate expression of racism in 2020 is the same as it was in 1870: murder. Whether it’s Gilford Coleman in Eutaw, Alabama in 1870 or George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, racism in its worst form culminates in murder, and this reality permeates the lives of Black people everywhere in the United States. This fact hovers over people when they are stopped for a traffic violation, when an unknown group of White people come strolling down their block, and when they walk down an unfamiliar street.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of people of color are not murdered for the color of their skin. But there are many other, very real ways in which racism is expressed. It can be the experience a Black person has of being followed in a store to make sure they are not stealing something. It can be hearing “you’re just not quite the right fit” on a regular basis when job hunting. It can be being disbelieved in a dispute for no discernible reason. It can be losing out on an apartment or a mortgage when you have an excellent credit score. And, indeed, it can also be the sort of insulting, hurtful treatment Biden described.
Racism covers a broad spectrum. And the “racial sensitivity training” that Biden was talking about deals with one part; the part that became an obsession among liberals for many years. As a result, we rightly made uttering the “N-word” one of the highest social crimes. But it’s not sufficient for us to pat ourselves on the back because we will neither say that word ourselves nor tolerate it from others.
Part of the problem with this over-emphasis on the “sensitivity” aspect of anti-racism is that confronting this aspect doesn’t cost us anything. It costs us, as White people, nothing to avoid offensive language and to treat our Black and Brown friends, neighbors, even family members, as equals and with the respect due to any human being. But what happens when being anti-racist comes with a price tag?
More and more, White people are coming out in the streets, supporting our Black comrades and calling for real measures to end White supremacy and to eliminate our privilege. It seems that many of these folks recognize that White privilege needs to be framed in two dimensions.
One dimension consists of those areas that frequently invite self-indulgent debates about the definition of privilege. People argue about whether it is privilege that leads White people to feel safe around police, to feel free to browse in a department store, to be generally confident they will be judged on their personal merit or discrimination that leads people of color to not feel these things.
That debate has some importance when we talk about how to “market” anti-racism work, but otherwise, it is largely pointless. Still, it’s important to understand that this is an area where eliminating White privilege means spreading to people of color the treatment White people get and expect. People of color should be given that same treatment, and that doesn’t mean White people would be treated any differently than they are now.
But there is another dimension, one that does not merely elevate the situation of Black and Brown people but involves real sacrifice by White people: equality of power. It means eliminating the cronyism that leads to more lucrative careers for White people—it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And knowing influencers still mostly means knowing White people.
More than that, equality of power inevitably means equalizing the wealth in this country that is so slanted toward White people. We talk about this in various ways—reparations for one, or the discussion about wealth having been inherited by generations of White people, often rooted in the slave or otherwise exploited labor of Black people. This is a pipeline of power that, through no fault of their own, is much rarer for Black and Brown people.
When those matters are discussed the liberal consensus we have around issues of language disappears, and a great deal more White resistance appears, because that’s where we must sacrifice our privilege, not by simply elevating others but by diminishing our own status and power. Naturally, it doesn’t feel fair to people who are not themselves guilty of the crimes of slavery, of segregation, of violent racism. But this is what it means to be anti-racist, and this is what it will take to truly counter racism.
I want to be clear; I am not knocking Joe Biden here (something that certainly wouldn’t be unusual for me). I believe his words were motivated by kindness and opposition to racism. Nonetheless, those words reduced racism to hurt feelings. And let me emphasize this point as well: hurt feelings matter, especially when they are institutionalized. It is damaging to see casual, thoughtless racism every day of your life, to take in demeaning images and ideas as a child and have them repeatedly triggered all through one’s adulthood. Those things should not, must not be ignored.
But that’s not the immediate danger of racism, and it’s not what needs to be fought against most urgently today. That Biden emphasized this aspect of racism in the context of training for police and other security officers is particularly problematic.
Racial sensitivity training is not going to change the behavior or the attitude of the police who cheered Donald Trump when he encouraged them to use more force against people under arrest. It is not what is needed for the cops who shot wildly and killed Breonna Taylor, who murdered George Floyd, who sexually assaulted Abner Louima. But beyond these famous instances, it’s not going to make a difference with cops who will stop a Black man for being Black, who will bring a Black man into custody when they’d let a White man off with a warning. The cops, the judges, the politicians, the landlords, the bosses, all the people in authority who treat Black people differently.
Biden meant well, and that alone makes the difference between him and Donald Trump greater than the difference between a mosquito and a velociraptor. But if we want to end racism, if we, as White people, want to truly be anti-racist, we must do more than what is easy and what doesn’t cost us. We need to sacrifice, we need to be willing to do what it takes to ensure that, in every way, people with Black, Brown, Red, whatever color skin hold the same respect and power as those of us with White skin.
How that can be brought about, I would argue, is a bigger question than the ones I have raised here. It would require sweeping changes in our economic and political systems as well as an approach that incorporates women’s, indigenous, queer, trans, workers’ rights and the rights of other marginalized groups. But if we want to be anti-racist, a crucial prerequisite is to maintain the good work we’ve done on our language and basic “sensitivity” but recognize that the real task is to equalize power, not language.