(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) photo credit Matthew Roth


America is not a racist country,” Republican senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said in his party’s official response to President Biden’s address to the nation on April 28. There are reasons that should have been a laugh line: Biden did not say America was a “racist country,” the Black senator was rebutting the president’s call for racial justice across all ethnicities, and the reality is that America was founded as a country in which owning and selling Black people was justified and legalized on the basis of the racist doctrine that they were part of an inferior race. Scott didn’t get a laugh. He wasn’t trying to be funny. He was being intellectually dishonest and uttering a coded racist call to the white supremacist cohort of the Republican party that he is tolerant of their different, racist point of view. That’s where denial takes you, into crazy-land. That’s where partisanship takes you, invoking unreality to pander to polarization.

Scott’s maneuver is a variation on the same racist denial that’s worked for Republicans at least since Reagan. Countering the “not a racist country” argument is tricky, since it sets a trap for saying “America is a racist country.” There’s no such thing as a “racist country.” Countries contain racists and tolerant people, just as they contain dishonest and honest people.

Vice President Kamala Harris tried to evade the “America is racist” trap by adopting Scott’s framing, then trying to sidestep it and turn it to her own partisan advantage:

I don’t think America is a racist country…. But we also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country, and its existence today…. we know from the intelligence community, one of the greatest threats to our national security is domestic terrorism manifested by white supremacists.

Harris is right about the threat of “domestic terrorism” from the white right, but she’s engaged in threat inflation here. Worse, she uses an inflated threat to distract from the core realities of racism in America. Daily race realities are much less dramatic than “terrorism,” but just as lethal: they keep a crowd at bay watching a police murder, but they don’t protect a teenager with his hands in the air. President Biden talked about racism this way:

We’ve all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans. Now is our opportunity to make some real progress. The vast majority of men and women wearing a uniform and a badge serve our communities and they serve them honorably. I know they want to help meet this moment, as well.

My fellow Americans, we have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system and to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the house already….

The country supports this reform and Congress should act. We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, real justice, and with the plans outlined tonight, we have a real chance to root out systemic racism that plagues America and American lives in other ways….

This is not demagoguery built around some notion of a “racist country,” this is a reality-based appeal to Americans to demonstrate their goodness by addressing the systemic racism that ebbs and flows through American life every day, and always has. The nation has made progress, some progress, but daily justice is a far cry from reality.

Denying this reality, or minimizing it, is a habitual Republican tactic (or possibly a sincere belief, perhaps). Like Scott, Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina doesn’t acknowledge that systemic racism is part of the fabric of American life. On Fox News, Graham denied any racism, arguing that, because the country elected a Black president and a Black vice president, “our systems are not racist. America is not a racist country.” Fox host Chris Wallace did not ask Graham to interpret the country’s election of a white bigot president in between the Black officials. That strikes me as a pretty clear example of systemic racism at work, although it could just be the familiar intellectual laziness of American journalism. Or both.

The day before the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict on April 20, CNN’s Chris Cillizza contributed to a multi-faceted example of the way systemic racism works. In Cillizza’s view, with the country “on knife’s edge” awaiting a verdict, “elected officials … need to urge calm and restraint.” He then falsely accused a congresswoman of inciting violence, with a headline reading:

Maxine Waters just inflamed a very volatile situation

Cillizza chose not to acknowledge that the volatility of the situation, whatever it actually was, was the result of a long history of juries failing to convict guilty cops, possibly even a stone-cold killer like Chauvin. In advance of events he could know know, Cillizza was not only anticipating a racist verdict, he was preparing to scapegoat Maxine Waters for whatever reaction resulted from such a travesty of justice. Actually, he was scapegoating a Black congresswoman in advance on the basis of things she did not say in the way that he reported them:

“I hope we get a verdict that says guilty, guilty, guilty,” she said in response to reporters’ questions. “And if we don’t, we cannot go away. We’ve got to stay on the street. We get more active, we’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

Cillizza went on to editorialize based on his cherry-picked misquote:

… That sort of rhetoric — at a moment of such heightened tensions — is irresponsible coming from anyone. It’s especially irresponsible coming from an elected official like Waters.

By strong implication, Cillizza was accusing Waters of inciting violence. No matter that the violence had not happened (and, as it turned out, would not happen). Cillizza has been around long enough to know that Maxine Waters is constantly demonized by the right, so why is he jumping on that particular lynchwagon with such careless abandon?

In fact, Cillizza has quoted her out of context – whether out of malice or laziness, who’s to say? The full transcript of her remarks offers no evidence that she was calling for any violence. Although Cillizza acknowledges that Waters made her comments in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, in the context of another incident of cop violence, the killing of Daunte Wright in the driver’s seat of his car, Cillizza makes no effort to distinguish between those contexts.

Waters was addressing the Brooklyn Center killing when a reporter change the subject and asked about Derek Chauvin. After some overlap and confusion, Waters answers the question, “What should protestors do?” for which the context is ambiguous, but the only protestors were there in Brooklyn Center, where the case is far from adjudicated or resolved. Waters seems to answer in that context, informed by America’s systemic racism:

Well, we’ve got to stay on the street. And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.

After the Chauvin verdict, variations on this answer became a common response (including Biden’s call for passing the George Floyd Act). There is no call for violence in the call to confront ongoing, systemic racism. But Cillizza in his lily-white political correctness feels free to lecture a victim based on his projection of her nonexistent call for violence. Even so, not a big deal if it stops there, with a casually racist slur from another veteran journalist. But it didn’t stop there, the story had legs. As The Washington Post reported:

Republicans have highlighted Waters’s comments as having the potential to lead to violence, but they have also faced accusations of hypocrisy over their lack of action over former president Donald Trump’s frequent inflammatory comments, or on members of their own party who have been accused of egging on violence.

Eric Nelson, one of Derek Chauvin’s defense lawyers, promptly tried to take advantage of the offending Waters quote. On April 19, with the jury out of the courtroom, he used it as the basis for a motion to declare a mistrial. He claimed that Waters:

… an elected official, a United States Congressperson, was making what I interpreted to be and what I think are reasonably interpreted to be, threats against the sanctity of the jury process, threatening and intimidating a jury, demanding that if there’s not a guilty verdict that there would be further problems….

After a brief colloquy with the judge, Nelson concluded:

And now that we have U.S. Representatives threatening acts of violence in relation to this specific case, it’s mind boggling to me, Judge.

Immediately, Judge Peter Cahill responded with extrajudicial commentary:

Well, I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned. But what’s the state’s position?

The state’s position was that the motion for mistrial was based on “vague statements” and that the basis of the motion was tantamount to hearsay:

If there’s a specific statement that a specific U.S. Representative made, then there needs to be some formal offer of proof with the exact quotes of the exact statement or some kind of a declaration. And I’m sure Mr. Nelson can do that if he thinks that that’s something that’s appropriate. I don’t know that this particular Representative made a specified threat to violence. I don’t know what the context of the statement is….

And so I just don’t think that we can muddy the record with vague allegations as to things that have happened without very specific evidence that’s being offered before the court….

And so without any specific offer of proof or information in the record, without any specific evidence that this particular jury was influenced in any particular way, I believe that the defendant’s motion should be denied.

This is precisely the sort of analysis that Cillizza and others should have made before accusing Maxine Waters of inciting violence. The evidence isn’t there. Attorney Nelson acknowledged that the best case is only interpretation – in other words: speculation, projection, predisposition to think the worst of a demonized Black congresswoman. Prejudiced people tend not to stop and think.

Before denying the motion for mistrial, Judge Cahill took the time to excoriate Rep. Waters and other unnamed elected officials for commenting on the Chauvin case in ways that, he implies, violate their oath of office. He concluded his brief diatribe by saying: “A congresswoman’s opinion really doesn’t matter a whole lot.” But if that’s the case, why rant on about it?

Elsewhere in the jungle of American racism, Republicans in Congress set about once again trying to censure Maxine Waters for the things they wished she’d said. This time, Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy introduced a two-page censure resolution that selectively quotes Rep. Waters out of context. The bulk of the resolution relies on extensive quotes from Jude Cahill’s comments, also selectively and out of context.

On April 20, the House voted 216-210 (4 members not voting) along strict party lines to table McCarthy’s resolution, effectively rendering it moot. The previous motion to censure Rep. Waters was sent to the Ethics Committee, never to be seen again. Following the vote on her censure motion, Rep. Waters said:

I love my colleagues and they love me. I don’t want to do anything to hurt them or hurt their chances for re-election. I will make sure that they are comfortable with my kind of advocacy so that we can all be sure that we can do the right thing.

Even though America is not a “racist country,” far too many Americans, consciously and unconsciously, behave in racist patterns.

And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they convict guilty cops. Sometimes they defend their Congressional colleagues. Sometimes they acknowledge that combatting racism requires endless, nonviolent confrontation.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.


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