America's at a new turning point. Bigotry — once whispered, shameful and kept undercover — is now boldly branded and marketed as political philosophy, legitimized by a former racist-in-chief and his radicalized following. Now, with President Biden at the helm, can the stench of racism be legislated away? Certainly addressing discrimination through effective legislation is the next best step, but perhaps the answer has more to do with the cultural evolution of a system born in white supremacy.
Charged with the logistics of implementing youth education and volunteerism for the '72 Biden Senate campaign (and as the son of Delaware State Party Chairman, Henry Topel, who helped usher a young Joe Biden onto the national stage), I had a front row seat to observe and engage with the traits and beliefs that continue to define Joe Biden’s character. Even before his days in public office, the grief, rage and civil unrest that enveloped our hometown of Wilmington, Del., following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shaped Biden's sense of justice and zeal for racial equality.
In his inaugural address, President Biden proclaimed, "A cry for racial justice some four hundred years in the making moves us — the dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer." With four executive orders addressing racial inequality in his first week in office and an aggressive criminal justice and police reform agenda, a new chapter has begun to eliminate systemic racism. The president's urgent call to restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, (now more possible with a Democratic Senate majority) is a hopeful sign that oversight by the Department of Justice might stem further voter suppression efforts by states through congressional redistricting. But does legislative progress impact bigotry on an individual level — and if so, in what time frame?
Many see the crux of our nation’s current divide as white nationalism versus everyone else. The virus of bigotry that has infested susceptible Americans, often entwined with family identity, enables the acceptance of unimaginable conspiracies and lies — each new strain dehumanizing some group perceived to be a threat. Immigrants, Muslim Americans, and transgender military service members have all been demonized as a threat to one's God-given slice of American pie.
From the civil rights acts of 1866 and 1964 to the proclamation by our new president that racial justice be deferred no longer, the glacial pace at which cultural behaviors follow legal advances for equality is excruciating. Like a changing tide, every four or eight years we experience a flurry of executive orders and legislation reflecting the morality of the (electoral college) majority — a tug of war between left and right, dictating the quality of life and liberties for millions. This dance of power, deceptively random and repetitive, is neither. The evolution of American justice filters through a worthy, living constitution, moving us toward an ever-evolving "more perfect union." If that system breaks, should the tenants of our Constitution be circumvented and our system of checks and balances upended, dire consequences will follow. With a near slide into totalitarianism, our system of governance recently came as close to breaking as it can withstand.
America dodged a bullet. We are long overdue for a system free of voter suppression and discrimination. We are long overdue for sane campaign finance reform that returns the power of each vote to everyday Americans. Justice, equality, human rights, and our safeguard of checks and balances cannot be auctioned off to the highest bidder. And we are long overdue for a breakthrough in embracing the true meaning of, "... liberty and justice for all."
For now, we will continue to hear the voices of hate and exclusion, masked as freedom of expression, patriotism, and family values. Consider that desperate cry, whether loud and vulgar or soft and articulate, the dying off of bigotry, reeking of self-interest and the last gasp effort of a dinosaur no longer viable in the slowly evolving atmosphere of acceptance and equality. We’ve entered a period of awakening that will drag our country from its admirably idealistic, yet decidedly shameful, adolescence into the maturity and awareness of young adulthood. An ice age for bigots has commenced. It will be painful. It will be messy. It will be worth it.
David Topel is the author of The Heart of a Leader: The '72 Biden Senate Campaign: Lessons from a Youth-Driven Upset.