Wednesday’s inauguration was a breath of fresh air in many ways. We saw the swearing-in of the first woman, Black person, and South-Asian to be this country’s vice president. We saw a young and brilliant poet, Amanda Gorman, state undeniable truths about this country’s harrowing and recent past and declare powerful hopes for this country’s future. And we saw the promise of the return to a baseline expectation of executive leadership in the Oval Office, with a president who can complete articulate sentences, seems to actually care for the well-being of Americans and is able to call out the rise of white supremacy and domestic terrorism that was eagerly spurred on in the nation by his predecessor.
It would have been starkly obvious if President Biden failed to speak to the kind of racist dog-whistling and outright hostility we’ve all been pummeled with in the past few years courtesy of Trump, his enabling Republican Party, supporting conservative media outlets, bigoted evangelists, social media platforms that coddle extremists and so many other culprits that have helped foment the notoriously divided United States of America we now live in.
“To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: unity,” Biden said impassionately from the Capitol this week, where on the first Wednesday of the year, a mass of mad and entitled racists broke in with intent to kill elected officials—but settled for burglarizing the place and reportedly spreading their feces on walls.
It was a beautiful speech, one in which Biden referenced the words of Abraham Lincoln to underscore his own commitment to leading America towards that elusive state of true unity, which in actuality has yet to be achieved in the centuries since the Civil War ended.
“My whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause,” said Biden.
It was a worthy and, indeed, necessary exhortation for the new president to make given the campaign he ran on and the chaos he has inherited. As a commander-in-chief who doesn’t outright abhor the concept of decency, he had to make the effort of calling on those who would literally burn this country’s democracy down rather than share it with a multiracial electorate to reject “anger, resentment, hatred,” as well ask for all of us to listen to one another.
And Biden isn’t only using words, his first actions as president were to repeal some of the clearest evidence of the former administration’s work to further embed bigotry and discrimination in America’s laws, policies, and even in the official story about this country’s history. He repealed the ban on travelers from countries in Africa and the Middle East that are majority-Muslim, canceled the ridiculous 1776 Commission and scrubbed its whitewashing report from the White House’s website, reinstated anti-discrimination protections for members of the LGBT community, and more.
But executive orders and encouraging, progressive speeches won’t be enough to tame the beast that was fully loosed by Trump and his presidency—though it had already been steadily walking this country in the form of police killings of Black people, unsolved suspicious deaths of Black people, and the persisting economic disadvantages facing African Americans. Even the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol hasn’t killed that beast.
Case in point: though Biden only generally and briefly spoke to the obvious in his inauguration speech—that there has been a clearly observable rise in open white supremacy and domestic terrorism—the acknowledgement of reality was enough to spur Republicans like Kentucky’s Rand Paul into feigned outrage, who claimed Biden was referring to them specifically.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), meanwhile, took the tack of bashing Biden’s policy plans and actions as evidence of a “radical leftist agenda” that is Trump voters’ “biggest fears.”
We’ve seen what legitimizing the bullshittery of white supremacists and listening to the unproven and free-wheeling fears of people who voted for Trump leads to: violence, insurrection, death. And that’s on top of the spread of antagonizing racist behavior and assault over the past few years, like the many Karens who’ve proudly classed Black Americans with the n-word, in full view of cameras, or the white people who started deliberately coughing in the faces of their fellow citizens because a pandemic became a culture war, or the well-to-do couple who pulled weapons on a group of Americans marching for racial justice.
Facts and entreaties to be better people, better Americans, may work on a good deal of us. But the Trump presidency showed us, more than anything, that a significant faction of this country is actively opposed to facts that do not confirm their worldview and like the taste of cruelty and perceived supremacy more than the bonhomie of caring about people they think don’t deserve to be treated like people who are equal to them.
“The idea of equality in the context of a multiracial America is a fundamental threat to white feelings of self-worth, belonging, and status,” Heather McGee, author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together told Anand Giridharadas in an interview recently.
The long-fought battle of America has been one between truly embracing liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, or violent white backlash out at the merest indications that this may actually become a reality. The line that Biden will have to thread is a shaky one, but the success of those vaunted American ideals becoming a reality requires a firm acknowledgement of all that is beneath the uglier truths, as well as an unwillingness to let off the hook those who are committed to the comforts of racism and cruelty.