What’s at stake in the U.S. election: The Globe and Mail has asked a group of writers to offer their opinions. Scroll to the bottom for links to the full series.
If we’re being generous, the United States of America can be described as a great experiment in the formation of a multiracial democracy. It is not something that existed before, and very few countries have attempted it since, unless they have been forced by their colonial subjects.
If we’re being honest, that experiment didn’t actually begin in earnest until 1965, with the passage of the the Voting Rights Act, which enshrined Black people’s right to vote that was supposed to have been established by the 15th amendment. We’ve only been at this for 55 years, and even during that time the experiment has looked less than earnest and more like a rigged system insistent on keeping the embers of white supremacy burning.
What we face with the presidential election of 2020 is a choice that determines which of those descriptions is most apt. Donald Trump was elected four years ago while running on an explicitly racist campaign that has delivered on its promises to make life unbearable for non-white people. Not only did his administration proceed with building portions of the infamous wall on the southern border, it undertook a gruesome policy to separate migrant children from their parents at the border, detaining them in cages. Hundreds of those children are still separated from their families, going on nearly two years.
On the 2016 campaign trail, Mr. Trump asked Black Americans, “What do you have to lose?” During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the answer has been clear: everything. Black people have not only contracted the coronavirus at higher rates than whites but also died at disproportionately higher rates as well. And as this past summer showed, even a global pandemic would not be enough to stop the onslaught of police violence against Black communities, as the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor urged people to take to the streets in protest. Police violence is something that predates Mr. Trump, obviously, but it’s also true that the President has publicly encouraged police toward more violence, in the same way that he has, not so subtly, endorsed white supremacist vigilante violence.
Joe Biden is not necessarily a corrective to the centuries long issue of American racism. Indeed, he has spent most of his public career helping to build the very systems that he now finds himself in the position of having to rebuke. He is the architect of the 1994 Crime Bill, which helped to accelerate the era of mass incarceration by bolstering local police budgets, expanding the number of prisons and implementing harsher penalties for lower level crimes, all of which have had a disproportionate impact on non-white people. Mr. Biden also served as vice-president under Barack Obama, known to some as the “deporter-in-chief” for the record number of migrant and undocumented people his administration pushed out of the country.
Which is all to say: Mr. Biden is no saviour. But what he – along with running mate Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to be a vice-presidential candidate for a major party – represents is a direct rebuke of the open bigotry displayed by Mr. Trump and the band of white supremacists he brought into the White House with him. A Biden presidency would be about steering the country off the path toward full-on white supremacist authoritarianism and, hopefully, toward a place where the great experiment in multiracial democracy can begin in earnest.
That the country is still here, repeating the mistakes of its founding, learning the same lessons of equality and justice that its subjected classes have taught over and over, does not bode well for the prospects of this experiment bearing fruit, under either Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden. But what we have to keep in mind is that it has never been the presidents that shift us toward a “more perfect union.” Not alone. It is the will of the people, acting together, with fierce determination, righteous cause, bold imagination and unwavering faith in one another that frees us. We can be free of the injustice of our past, the only question is whether we truly want to be.
Mychal Denzel Smith’s latest book is Stakes is High: Life After the American Dream.