The terroristic actions committed by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia — and our President’s equivocating response to them — have attracted the attention of most of the country in recent weeks. Both were rightfully met with sharp criticism from organizations, leaders, and everyday people from across the political spectrum. Although the current climate’s increase in overt racism has been disheartening, it provides an opportunity to confront and address our long-standing history of oppression and white supremacy.
Rejecting explicitly racist views and policies is not and never has been enough.
Despite our civil rights protections and the fact that explicitly racist expression is generally shunned in mainstream political discourse, we still live in a country in which persistent and deep racial inequality is the rule, not the exception. And this racial inequality lies at the heart of persistent poverty for many.
Racial disparities persist not because we have failed to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis, but because we have lacked the commitment to truly dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate racial inequality.
While the President’s statements in the aftermath of Charlottesville have drawn intense public rebuke, they reinforce a continuing effort to advance an agenda that would sharply exacerbate racial inequities.
Take, for example, the administration’s efforts to abandon and curtail civil rights enforcement in various federal agencies, including the departments of Justice, Education, and Labor, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. This low-profile and systematic effort to abandon the executive branch’s critical role in enforcing the rights of people of color and other marginalized groups presents a clear threat to the quality of life and fair opportunities for upward mobility of millions.
And then there’s President Trump’s proposed federal budget — a heavy attack on key programs that help millions of Americans meet their basic needs and pursue upward mobility. While the Trump Administration’s budget would harm low-income and working class people of all races and ethnicities, the racist undertones of these attacks are not difficult to discern. Efforts to eliminate or reduce access to public benefits often rely on perceptions of laziness, criminality, and general unworthiness that are fundamentally racialized. In this respect, the President is not alone — the social safety net has been under persistent attack at the state and federal levels for years, most recently in the House GOP’s budget, with lawmakers deploying racialized stereotypes and myths to justify painful cuts and sanctions. Then-President Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the “welfare queen” is perhaps the most famous example, but these sorts of stereotypes continue to be an animating force in our politics today.
To fully achieve race equity, we must tackle systemic racism.
A true commitment to eradicating racism and embracing the dignity, value, and equality of others requires more than a reflexive rejection of bigotry in its ugliest expressions. It requires an abiding commitment to dismantling the systems and structures that create and perpetuate racial inequality and a resounding rejection of policies and practices that undermine the well-being of communities of color and deny equality of opportunity. Holding ourselves and our leaders accountable means more than focusing on views and manner of expression — it means focusing on the outcomes and impact of the policies, systems, and institutions that shape our well-being and access to opportunities.