Allow me a moment of personal reflection as we watch the country once again get torn apart over race.
I’m not Black; I’m Jewish. (There are very very few Black Jews.) I grew up on the history of 2000 years of persecution. I study the history of religion and I’ve written on the causes of Christian anti-Jewish prejudice. But unless I choose to (or am forced to) wear clothing or go to places that identify me as Jewish, I am not likely to experience that prejudice myself these days (I haven’t been able to entirely escape it). Blacks do not have that option; they are marked as targets from the day they are born.
So I can empathize, but in truth (even after the Holocaust) I cannot really comprehend the fear and anxiety that Blacks must experience every day from the moment they wake up in the morning. (I was going to say, “until they go to sleep,” but that’s not true, as Blacks have been terrorized while in bed.)
Slavery didn’t used to be race-based; there have been slaves throughout history, but slaves were those who were captured in war, sold themselves to pay off debts, were caught by pirates. The American experience — the “peculiar institution” — is close to unique in that it has defined slavery by race for 400 years. For a while, the nation did accept the idea of “free Blacks,” those who were never slaves or who had bought their freedom. But in the 1800s, particularly after the invention of the cotton gin made southern slavery profitable, high melanin marked one as a slave. The racial divide was intensified by the white men’s view of slaves as property, not people, and particularly their habit of using slave women for sex — which led to a fear that Black men would look at white women the same way. These views and these fears have never really gone away.
I’m not going to go into the whole sordid history of race in the United States, how slavery led to the Civil War, about the rise of white supremacy, the role of religion both for and against racism (though I might sense a book on the horizon). I want fast-forward to 2008 and the election of Barack Obama.
By that time, there had been enough progress, however slow and grudging, that it was (barely) possible to envision the election of a Black man as president. But even though I supported Obama in the California primary and worked for his election, I could not help being afraid that his election would bring race prejudice out in the open, that his political enemies would seize on his race to inflame opposition to him. I firmly believe that McConnell’s insistence that he wanted to make Obama “a one-term president” came only partly from Obama’s being a Democrat; it was also because he wasn’t white.
There is no doubt that the mere existence of President Obama helped Trump — who is an out-and-out racist, let’s stop pussyfooting about it — play on racial fears to reach the White House. It’s a fear Trump continues to use, his call to shoot the “looters” — by which he really means protestors — being only the latest example.
Which leads me to this observation: I was not a Biden fan in the beginning; my choice was Elizabeth Warren. (That said, I don’t think she is the best choice for VP, because whoever Biden chooses will be or ought to be the standard-bearer for the younger generation.) But given the racial war that is flaring up now, I now believe Biden may in fact be the best choice if we are to have to any hope of moving forward toward racial harmony.
A big reason for that is that Joe Biden served as Barack Obama’s vice president for 8 years. He served: he did not condescend, he did not “whitesplain.” He openly and genuinely acted toward a Black man as his superior. Not only that, the two became friends. When Americans, Black, white, etc., see Joe Biden, they see a man who is genuinely color-blind on race.
By that, I do not mean unaware of race; Biden is thoroughly aware. I mean that he embodies Martin Luther King’s hope that one day we will judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. That is why I think that a President Biden is the best hope we have today of starting to heal the reopened wounds of American racism. (OK, they were never closed, but for a while it seemed like they weren’t gaping as much as before.)
Notice that I said “start.” We had a long way to go before Trump, and he has in 4 years managed to set us back so far that it will take not one, but several generations to get back to where we were at the start of this millennium. With Biden, we do have a chance. Without him, with another 4 years of Trump, I fear we have none.