Column: Tim Scott and Kamala Harris agree the US isn’t racist. That’s not true, and they know it.

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Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read
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There is at least one issue on which Republican Sen. Tim Scott and Vice President Kamala Harris seem to agree. Both say that America isn’t a racist country.

They are wrong, and they know it.

Giving the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s address to Congress on Wednesday night, Scott — the GOP’s only African American senator — angered some viewers when he said, “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”

In an interview Thursday on “Good Morning America,” Harris, who is Black and South Asian, said the same thing when asked to respond to Scott’s statement.

“No, I don’t think America is a racist country,” she said.

The statement is as hurtful coming from a Democrat as it is from a Republican.

When discussing race, some politicians don’t have the guts to tell the truth, regardless of how liberal they are. For conservatives such as Scott, however, it’s more comfortable to live in denial.

It’s much easier to pander to white America than speak honestly about the way most Black people view this country. Harris’ and Scott’s refusal to acknowledge that America is racist makes Black people’s struggle to overcome racism harder.

Most Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity, know that we live in a racist country. What we disagree on is whether anything should be done about it. The question never has been whether America is racist; rather, do we need laws, government programs and other protections to help targeted groups thrive in spite of it?

Republicans have seized an opportunity to use this loaded question as a wedge issue. It pushes Democrats into a corner and forces them to either deny it or acknowledge aloud that America is racist for the rest of the world to hear.

When Democrats deny that America is racist, it empowers Republicans to oppose legislation that would alter the social landscape of the country, including economic subsidies, policing reforms, gun restrictions and other actions that would immensely benefit African Americans.

Unlike Scott, who suggested that white people these days are more unfairly judged by their skin color than Blacks, Harris, at least, acknowledged the historical role of racism.

“We also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today,” she said. “These are issues that we must confront, and it doesn’t help to heal our country, to unify us as people, to ignore the realities of that.”

As vice president, Harris must walk a fine line. After campaigning on a platform to bring the country together, she and Biden cannot afford to alienate large swaths of the population. Race has long been the most divisive issue in America.

“The idea is that we want to unify the country, but not without speaking the truth and requiring accountability as appropriate,” she added.

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Columns are opinion content that reflect the views of the writers.

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There is an obvious reason Republicans chose Scott, of South Carolina, to give the rebuttal. In addition to dutifully toeing the party line, he gave Republicans the cover they needed to oppose every social program the president proposed.

The point of Biden’s speech was to get the country behind his American Families Plan, which would direct $1.8 trillion toward child tax credits, family support programs and education. Republicans hate the idea.

If a Black man who rose from poverty on his own to become a U.S. senator says that poor and working-class people don’t need help with child care costs, college tuition or securing more nontaxable income, then Republicans can’t be called racist for opposing it.

Saying America is not racist relieves the GOP of any responsibility for the institutional racism this country was built upon or fixing the systemic racism that still exists.

Scott is the latest in a string of Republicans who have promoted the notion that systemic racism does not exist. On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the senior Republican from South Carolina, said, “America is not a racist country” on Fox News.

Graham suggested that the elections of President Barack Obama and Harris were proof that “our systems are not racist.” He added, “Within every society, you have bad actors.”

Today’s Republican Party loves Black people like Scott, who have a “bootstrap” story to tell. Scott said he lost his way while being raised by a single mother and was rescued by the white owner of a Chick-fil-A franchise, who taught him conservative values.

He said he knows what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason and followed around a store while shopping. He talked about his grandfather, who used to sit at the kitchen table every morning with a newspaper in his hands, though he could not read. Liberals and progressives have called him the N-word, he said.

Yet he does not believe that America is a racist country. He doesn’t understand that institutional racism kept his grandfather from being able to go to school and get a good education and that systemic racism creates subpar schools that impede the education of Black children still.

He won’t admit that racist attitudes cause some salespeople to suspect that every Black person is there to steal. He ignored the fact that in South Carolina, Blacks are 63% more likely than whites to be stopped by police. Nationwide, Blacks are three times more likely to be killed by police.

Apparently, he does not understand that whenever a white person who calls a Black person the N-word, it is racist, regardless of their political party affiliation.

This is the America we live in. Regardless of what Scott and Harris say, it is racist.

dglanton@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @dahleeng