During his address at Howard University’s commencement on Saturday (May 13), President Biden used the podium to assert that white supremacy is “the most dangerous terrorist threat” to America. Biden also recalled the story of how he decided to run for president in 2017 after seeing white supremacists march in Charlottesville.
“I don’t have to tell you that progress towards justice often meets ferocious pushback from the oldest and most sinister of forces,” Biden stated. “That’s because hate never goes away.” The President also acknowledged the disturbing nature of American history and how even though the right is working hard to erase it, its consequences are indelible.
Conservatives have accused Biden of using this moment at the HBCU to pander to Black folks and divide Americans but historian and educator Dr. Walter Greason tells The Root that the president’s commentary about racism is both vital and substantial in a broader historical context—especially considering the alarming number of hate crimes that happen in this country annually.
“For more than a decade the federal government has tracked the threat of racial terrorists—people who seek out to attack Jewish, African American, Asian American communities—because they perceive that white nationalism is the only legitimate culture in the United States,” Greason explains. “That [belief] predates the founding of the United States and holds the assumption that if you’re not white and Christian, you cannot be a citizen.
“Though white supremacy is deeply embedded in the idea of American society and state and federal policy, this is really new ground for a president to be vocal in condemning it and saying ‘that is not the path we’re on.’ It reflects a commitment that stretches back to the Civil Rights movement.” Biden isn’t simply reiterating a biased reality Black people are painfully familiar with—he is addressing racial injustice on a national stage.
Greason doubles down on its significance. “This speech at Howard University puts a spotlight on the way African Americans have understood the contradictions of freedom in the United States from the very beginning. We need this to be highlighted because people don’t often think very much about the sacrifices and the struggles to make freedom for all people possible; that lesson isn’t taught very clearly and emphatically despite almost 40 years of historians increasingly writing and publishing this research.”
He also tells The Root how history has become largely distorted, making Biden’s remarks more important and timely than ever. “The public as a whole remains in a very romantic view of the American past. This is the time when the president is really leading the country to open their minds to learn things that they hadn’t ever seen or heard as they grew up. Particularly folks who are over the age of 50.”
Although the GOP has distorted Biden’s words and intentions to fit their own nefarious agenda, Dr. Greason insists that the president’s truthfulness is downright honorable. “There’s a sense that if you criticize the United States or discuss painful moments in history, somehow this is unpatriotic. But in fact, the highest form of patriotism is to recognize the cost and the pain of achieving our highest ideals.”
Biden has been criticized for things he hasn’t achieved during his presidency in terms of his plans for racial justice, including voting rights and police reform. However, Greason says the president has still achieved positive change. “The hardest thing for any president is to move quickly with the Congress when they have the opportunity. So in those first two years where I felt Biden had the greatest chance to make an impact, he did extraordinary work to make the country stronger, both in terms of our economy and in terms of our defense.”
Biden’s stint has succeeded Trump’s tumultuous presidency, which hasn’t been an easy feat. “[Biden] did work to bring people to the table after four years of very divisive language and policy under the Trump administration. The calm that the country has enjoyed for the last two, two and a half years is Biden’s greatest accomplishment. No do we want more in terms of policy? Yes. But we need a Congress that actually will work with the president in order to have that.”