Since when has racial equity been a controversial goal? Sadly, forever

Pushback against Biden administration’s modest steps to address entrenched disparities is not surprising

At her confirmation hearing, HUD Secretary nominee Marcia Fudge suggested racial equity should be a priority given the longtime history of discrimination, an obvious fact a certain senator seemed to ignore, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
At her confirmation hearing, HUD Secretary nominee Marcia Fudge suggested racial equity should be a priority given the longtime history of discrimination, an obvious fact a certain senator seemed to ignore, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 11, 2021 at 6:00am

Somehow, I thought she would live forever.

Cicely Tyson, actress and force of nature, left the world so many heartrending, joyous performances — and much more. She told stories, informed by her 96 years on this earth as an African American and an artist, navigating an industry and a world that sometimes found it difficult to accommodate her own high standards. 

One story in particular haunts. On a press tour publicizing her 1972 film “Sounder,” a white male journalist’s comment shook her and helped her decide to choose roles carefully. As she recalled, he told her that “it was difficult for me to accept the fact that this young boy, who was the elder of your sons, referred to his father as ‘Daddy’ [in the movie].” She said she understood what he was saying: “What he could not come to grips with, is the fact that this little Black boy was calling his Black father ‘Daddy’ as his children were calling him.”  

But that was nearly 50 years ago, wasn’t it?

In January 2021, in Rochester, N.Y., the go-to for police confronting a situation involving a distraught 9-year-old Black girl yelling for her father was to push her down into the snow, handcuff her and, when she refused to sit in a police car, pepper-spray her. “You’re acting like a child,” said an officer sent to protect and serve. “I am a child” was the frightened little girl’s response.

That racial equity was high on the list of policy priorities for the Biden-Harris administration was not surprising. From policing to housing to health care, made explicit by a pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, inequality is on display for all to observe, if not experience. The United States has only sporadically turned its gaze inward when it comes to righting racist wrongs, usually when civil rights activism has forced the issue through protest and sacrifice. And under the leadership of Donald Trump, U.S. policies either put the brakes on any effort to realize America’s lofty promises or tried to drag the country backward into a Make America Great Again past that never was.

Familiar pushback

But it also was no surprise that the new administration’s racial equity agenda met resistance from some quarters. As the saying goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did not wait long to register his complaints. After President Joe Biden, in his inaugural address, spoke of a “rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat,” what Paul heard was “thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists.” I might ask Paul why he saw himself — the “us” in his statement — in the domestic terrorists Biden pledged to defeat.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., grilled Marcia Fudge, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, on the administration’s plans to bring fairness to the nation’s housing policies, enforcing the intent of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, watered down by Trump era HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “It sounds like racial equity means treating people differently based on their race. Is that correct?” Cotton asked.

In her answer, Fudge explained, “It could be based on the history of discrimination that has existed for a long time,” an obvious fact Cotton seemed to ignore. But then, Cotton has expended a lot of energy fighting against the teaching of that history in schools in a complete and complex light. Once, in channeling his interpretation of the Founding Fathers, he called slavery “the necessary evil upon which the union was built.”

What is it exactly that is so objectionable about modest policy initiatives? As the White House acknowledges, “Entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities.” “When one of us is lifted up, we’re all lifted up,” Biden said. “And the corollary is true — when any one of us is held down, we’re all held back.”

Biden, in four executive actions he signed in the first week of his presidency, addressed discriminatory housing policies, directed the Department of Justice to end its use of private prisons, reaffirmed the federal government’s “commitment to tribal sovereignty and consultation” and pledged to combat xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. His administration has also reinstated the diversity training for federal workers and contractors that his predecessor had banned.

The enemy within

The new Defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, the first African American to hold that Cabinet post, is not only trying to support efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, he also has to root out the enemy within, the white supremacists and far-right extremists in the ranks. That military and law enforcement veterans played an outsize role in the Jan. 6 pro-Trump riot at the Capitol should be a bipartisan cause for concern.

That calamitous and historic event did open the eyes of many. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., apologized on the House floor, recalling how he urged representatives to run to the Republican side and “blend in” to escape the wrath of the mob before realizing that for colleagues of color that “was not an option.” You can admire him for his honesty while being infuriated at his ability to walk through the world with blinders on for so very long.

However, it beat Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who voted to overturn the results of the election after she and her colleagues were attacked by rioters armed with nooses and Confederate flags, and still falsely claims that those who stormed the Capitol were not Trump supporters, contradicting the words out of their mouths. Her views on race are well known, including that “the most mistreated group of people in the United States today are white males” and that by trying to appeal to Black voters, Democrats are “trying to keep the Black people in a modern-day form of slavery.”

The legislators who see something sinister in acknowledging systemic racism, much less in trying to do something about it, can pick apart any attempt to level the country’s uneven playing field while ignoring the evidence in front of them. That includes their very own crime scene on the day Trump’s incendiary words directed an amped-up crowd to storm the Capitol in a deadly insurrection in order to invalidate the results of a free and fair election, particularly by calling into question the legitimacy of Black and brown voters who continue to fight for that voice.

Those skeptical lawmakers should be paying more attention to the painful testimony in an impeachment trial. Lessons learned may lead them to appreciate any signs of progress in a country where every American should see every fellow American — and that includes 9-year-old girls crying for Daddy — as human beings.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer, and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. She is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call’s newest podcast, “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis,” examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on AppleSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.