Racism, bigotry and intolerance: America in the Joe Biden era

As the crowds took to the streets on Saturday to celebrate the demise of Donald Trump’s presidency, it was hard to not be swept along on the tidal wave of euphoria. Many of us, myself included, shed tears of relief for black, Latinx, Muslim, gay and trans Americans who have endured four years of torture at his hands.

A few commentators remarked that the victory party was akin to scenes witnessed in other countries when a dictator is overthrown, and with good reason. Trump ruled by executive order, by diktat, by decree. His rhetoric, whilst largely incoherent, was very deliberately designed to sow division, to endanger the lives of those he despises. He wrought chaos for his own ends, as any dictator would, and his removal from office can only be a cause for celebration.

In the cold light of day, however, as the jubilant masses return to their homes, this election once again reveals the ugly truth about the good ol’ US of A. Despite Biden’s margin of victory in both the popular vote and the electoral college, there’s simply no hiding from the fact that more than 70 million people left their homes on 3 November, headed down to a polling place, and proudly voted for more of the same.

70 million people looked back at the past four years – the division, the hate, the full-throated support for white supremacists, the violence, the unrest, the criminal, wilful mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis – and decided that, yes, they would like to see another four years of this carnage.

And that, for all his ills, cannot be laid at Trump’s door. Donald Trump did not make America racist. He didn’t even make America more racist than it already was. What he did was to embolden the bigots, to validate their hateful views on the largest possible stage, to tell them that it was ok to think terrible thoughts and to express them openly, because their President was with them all the way. And it bears pointing out he didn’t do so without warning. He first rose to power on the back of a promise to give voice to racist ideals, and just under half the country could not have been happier. That his presidency came immediately after eight years of the Obama administration provides a jarring contrast, but it shouldn’t be surprising given how many Americans loathed the idea of a black man in the White House. Donald Trump is the symptom, not the disease.

A look at the breakdown of 2020 voting by demographic tells a sobering tale. It is estimated by the University of California that, nationally, 57% of white people voted for Trump. Just less than 6 out of every 10 white Americans voted for a further four years of a presidency under which black people and other minorities lived in a state of more or less constant fear for their mental wellbeing, their physical safety, and even their lives. Figures from 2016 show that if only white men had been allowed to vote, Trump would have won in all but a couple of states. These statistics reflect badly on all of us, whether we voted for him or not. It’s simply not enough to say, “I didn’t vote for him so my conscience is clear,” and to do so is an abdication of responsibility.

For white liberals, Trump’s divisive language is unconscionable. We don’t like these brash, overt displays of racism because they make us uncomfortable. We rail against such distasteful public celebrations of white supremacy because they might force us to confront some unpalatable truths about ourselves. Like how often do we speak out about the structural, systemic racism from which we all have gained an advantage? How much noise do we make about the barriers faced by black people to education, to housing, to healthcare or to equal employment prospects? How willing are we to overlook racist jokes or comments from our friends and colleagues because we don’t want to have a difficult conversation? How readily do we examine the reasons why US prisons are disproportionately populated by young black men, often on relatively minor charges, while the young white man gets away with the brutal rape of an unconscious teenager because he has a better than average time in the 50m butterfly?

I saw a young black man interviewed on US cable news on Saturday evening, and he made the point that the street in which he stood, surrounded by gleeful revellers, was the same street in which he and his friends had recently protested the extrajudicial murder of people who looked like him. He went on to point out that those protests were considerably less well-attended than the joyful victory party unfolding around him.

Another interviewee, a black woman, made the point that in each of the key states in this election – Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan – the result was swung in Biden’s favour by majority black communities mobilising and voting in record numbers. White people were all too happy to celebrate Trump’s removal from office, but most of the hard work that went into making that happen was someone else’s.

This is, without doubt, the biggest challenge facing President Biden when he eventually takes office. A return to the pre-Trump days solves nothing for black people and other marginalised communities. Throughout the eight-year term of the USA’s first black president, unarmed black men were routinely murdered on America’s streets, often by police, and with near-inevitable impunity. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner – the list of names is virtually endless – young men or children murdered in cold blood for carrying a toy gun, selling cigarettes or being in possession of a faulty tail light.

There’s been a lot of talk over recent days about ‘reaching out’ to Trump voters and listening to their concerns, and honestly, this frightens me. Pete Buttigieg tweeted yesterday that we should call those people in our lives who voted for Trump and ‘remind them why we love and care about them’, as though it’s the responsibility of those affected by Trump’s evil policies to ease the pain of those who enabled their oppression. Others on both sides of the aisle have called for a new era of ‘bipartisanship’, even as Trump’s minions and acolytes are refusing to accept Biden as the legitimate President, straining every sinew to make evidence-free claims of large scale voter fraud, sowing distrust in American democracy that will last for a generation. Putting aside the fact that ‘fuck your feelings’ has been their mantra for the past four years, and would undoubtedly have been their mantra for the next four had he been elected, the idea that future policy decisions should be taken with consideration for the concerns of racists is fundamentally repugnant.

Of course, there are those who argue that not every Trump voter is racist, but on that, I would have to call bullshit. Even if we were to take a ridiculously generous view of events and accept that a proportion of 2016 Trump voters didn’t know what they were getting, attempts to make a similar argument about 2020 voters are utterly preposterous after witnessing the unremitting horror show that has been his presidency. Anyone who voted for the man who spent nearly half a decade stoking racial divisions, characterising Mexicans as ‘rapists’, referring to literal Nazis as ‘very fine people’, inciting violence against black Americans, and using the police as his own private militia to savagely quell protests, is a racist. It’s an act of intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice to state otherwise.

The way to deal with bigots is not to ‘meet them halfway’. It is not a noble act to tolerate intolerance. I’ve lost count of the number of straight, cis, white ‘progressives’ who have replied to me on Twitter saying that we need to listen to people with abhorrent views, seek to understand them, work to find a mutual understanding. It’s a position that’s much easier to adopt if you’re not the one facing oppression, and it invariably betrays the blind privilege of those making the argument. And in reality, how the fuck is this even supposed to work?

“I notice that you wholeheartedly support the systemic abuse of black people, but have you maybe considered not doing that?”

“I see you just referred to trans people as ‘mentally ill sex pests’. I have an alternative view that you might find really interesting.”

The fact is, it’s nigh-on impossible to reason away any opinion reached without reason. It is incumbent on those holding hateful views to give ground, not on the rest of us to compromise our morals so they feel included. I just hope that doesn’t get lost in all the talk of ‘bipartisanship’ from the Biden/Harris administration.

For those of us who do find racism repellent, we now have a moral duty to examine our own behaviours, our friendships and our complacency to ensure we’re doing everything we can to eradicate intolerance in all its forms. If you have friends or relatives who say racist things, challenge them, rebuke them, and if necessary, cut them out of your lives. If you employ someone who makes bigoted statements, discipline them, sack them, make your company a safe place for everyone, regardless of colour, gender, gender identity or sexuality. If you look around and see that your own workplace or friendship circle lacks diversity, examine why that might be, and what you can do to change it. If you see laws or policies being suggested that serve to promote inequality, write to your representative in the appropriate legislative body and tell them ‘not in my name’.

There’s no doubt that the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is an important step back from the precipice, but it’s really not the end of anything other than the perpetual horror of having to call a vicious, perma-tanned rapist ‘President’. All the problems that brought him to power still remain, and if we raise the ‘Job Done’ banner now, we’ll end up back in exactly the same position at the end of the new administration’s term in office.

Black people don’t get to take four years off from racism. It pervades every minute of every day of their lives. A simple trip to the grocery store could result in verbal or physical abuse, a routine traffic stop in death. It’s time for us as left-leaning white people to recognise that this cancer doesn’t cease to exist just because it’s no longer being belched in our faces from a podium in the White House briefing room.

4 thoughts on “Racism, bigotry and intolerance: America in the Joe Biden era

  1. Excellent piece, Max, and spot on in your analysis. The difficulty I have, is, where to go next? I place my x on the ballot paper, I marched twice in London (against Brexit, but I think it was wider than that), but the problem you describe that is in the US of A, (and the’us’ is apposite) is as prevalent here and as horrible.
    I feel something of the resigned sentiment of Wilfred Owen in this all: “my subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” Don’t know if I have got the quote right, but you can look it up. Keep writing and tweeting, you’re a beacon of hope.

    Like

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