False GOP mantra, by Jesse L. Jackson Sr.

5/13/2021, 6 p.m.
“America is not a racist country.” This is quickly becoming a Republican mantra.
Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

“America is not a racist country.”

This is quickly becoming a Republican mantra.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Repub- lican in the U.S. Senate, used it in his rebuttal to President Biden’s recent address to the Congress. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican weather vane also from South Carolina, echoed him, as did Republicans across the country. Sen. Scott went on to accuse Democrats of dividing the country by using race as a “political weapon.”

This is an old, threadbare rhetorical trick. Racism is not the problem, they say; those protesting discrimination are the problem. Racist rhetoric and actions like those of Donald Trump aren’t dividing us, they say; those protesting the hatred are doing the dividing.

The upside-down, inside-out duplicity can be traced back through the history of the republic. Even when the South seceded from the Union to protect slavery, its leaders argued that it was President Lincoln who caused the sedition because he wouldn’t guarantee the spread of slavery into the new states coming into the Union.

This dog whistle, race-bait politics may be old, but it still has force, so politicians deploy it regularly. So it is worth taking he question of whether America is a racist country seriously.

A racist nation-state is a country that enforces racism as a matter of law. Apartheid South Africa was universally condemned as a racist country because apartheid was the law of the land until Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress and allies forced the change in laws and policy.

By that standard, the United States began as a racist country. For 246 years, slavery was the law of the land. The U.S. Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the apportionment. In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that African-Americans were not and could not ever be citizens of the United States, that Blak people were “regarded as beings of an inferior order and ... had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The Civil War brought an end to slavery and a “second founding” of the Union with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Yet by 1896, the former slave owners in the South had taken back power — propelled by the terrorist campaigns of the Ku Klux Klan and others — and made segregation — legalized apartheid — the law of the land.

America was once more a self-declared racist country. It wasn’t until 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregation unconstitutional. It took the Civil Rights Movement to transform the laws — winning the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and extending equal rights under the law to all.

At that point, America was no longer an apartheid country by law, but it was still a country that had to address the legacy of racism.

Change — reform of the laws and institutions — doesn’t come easily. Those with privilege generally don’t see the shackles burdening those without. If overt racism is increasingly frowned upon, racist attitudes and assumptions — measuring people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character — die-hard. Dog-whistle politics — stoking of racial fears subtlety or brutally — are still a common currency.

For decades, Southern Democrats, barons protecting the white privilege in the South, blocked reform. Once President Lyndon B. Johnson joined with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the Civil Rights revolution, Republicans took advantage by becoming the party of white sanctuary across the South. Now that, too, has become institutionalized, as Republicans in states across the country press reforms designed to suppress the vote of minori- ties and gerrymander districts to isolate the minority vote.

And not surprisingly, they cynically accuse Democrats and the Civil Rights Movements of our age of using race to divide America. What’s increasingly clear, however, is that this politics of racial division harms working and poor Americans of all races. Race-bait politics is designed to divide working people to limit their power. Donald Trump is a perfect example, enlisting largely white working people in part by racial appeals and then passing tax cuts for the rich and deregulation for the CEOs once in office.

Great leaders like Dr. King, W.E.B. DuBois, Cesar Chavez and the Black Lives Matter organizers all understood this. They have organized across lines of race to build alliances to bring about reforms that will benefit working and poor people generally. That is our task today. And we can’t let dog whistle race-bait politics continue to divide us.

The writer is founder and president of the national Rainbow PUSH Coalition.