By Jill Richardson
President Biden recently became the first president to condemn white supremacy by name in an inaugural address. Then some Republicans got mad because, they say, it’s an attack on them.
He’s “calling us racists,” Rand Paul complained. “According to the left, supporting border security and celebrating July 4 could make you a white supremacist,” Tucker Carlson claimed. “I was offended” by “the racism thing,” Karl Rove added.
These complaints are disingenuous.
First, consider President Biden’s exact words. After alluding to the racial justice protests over the summer, Biden turned to warn of “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
It seems clear that Biden was referring to the people who recently attempted a coup at the U.S. Capitol, where the presence of white supremacists has been well documented.
“Members of Several Well-Known Hate Groups Identified at Capitol Riot,” read a ProPublica headline. A New York Times headline offered help “Decoding the Hate Symbols Seen at the Capitol Insurrection.”
Biden was not talking about rank-and-file Republicans who voted for Trump but are not members of hate groups. That’s not at all consistent with his message of unity. These talking heads are just stoking outrage among Republicans to gain cheap political points.
However, I think this issue is worth breaking down a little more.
Historically, racists almost never see themselves as racists. And actual racists often hide their racism to attract more followers to their cause.
For example, former Klan leader David Duke once explicitly said that he was moving from a message of hating non-white people to a message of love and pride for white heritage in order to attract more followers. He combined this tactic with accusations of “reverse racism” to anyone who disagreed with him.
Racism rebranded to sound less racist in order to recruit more racists is still racism.
In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon introduced the “Southern strategy” to bring white Southerners and others upset by Democrats embracing civil rights legislation over to the Republican Party. However, because it was no longer publicly acceptable to openly espouse racism, they employed “racial dog whistles.”
“By 1968 you can’t say [the N-word] — that hurts you, backfires,” Republican strategist Lee Atwater later explained. “So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff…. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Today, alt-right personality Jordan Peterson takes an even trickier approach. He says he is in favor of individual autonomy. Where’s the bigotry in that?
“The collective doesn’t suffer,” he says. “Individuals suffer.” Therefore the only type of injustice that is wrong is injustice perpetrated against individuals, not entire groups. Peterson is essentially arguing that the very thing Atwater described — policies that benefit white people over other groups, or hurt people of color disproportionately — is fine.
Republicans’ response to Biden appears to be a newer tactic: stoking resentment about the mere accusation of racism.
Paul, Rove, and Carlson all know the difference between a Trump voter who opposes abortion and wants tax cuts and coup plotters with white supremacist tattoos. But they’re telling Republicans that Biden’s condemnation of the latter group meant the entire Republican Party.
Meanwhile, someone put two pipe bombs in the U.S. Capitol. I would like to assume that most Americans in both parties oppose hate groups and violence. Working against both could be an easy bipartisan win when we agree on little else.
To do that, we’ll need a lot less resentment theater.
Jill Richardson is the author of “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.” She is a columnist for OtherWords.org.