Joe Biden, pilloried in some circles for his conciliatory tendencies, especially with hard-line racists, won an upset Democratic Party nomination through the Black electorate of South Carolina. Now, alongside Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black or Indian person to win that office, he has secured a record-breaking presidential tally of more than 77 million American votes. He has promised to guide the nation by addressing the key areas of the COVID pandemic, economic recovery, climate change and systemic racism.
Here’s how we will know on the basis of the appointments he makes if he is serious about the last category.
What makes the labor exploitation and injury of racism systemic in a nutshell is the erasure from the foundations of the American democracy genocide and slavery. Instead of this reprehensible past, systemic racism fosters the myth that America was a blank canvas awaiting immigrants of exceptional promise.
For the anti-racist health of the democracy, Mr. Biden must have his thinking informed by people who have as their own mandate the care of Jim Clyburn’s district in South Carolina, the parts of Black America that have not been destinations for immigrants in a long time. When most politicians address “racism,” they approach it as an isolated phenomenon, one that involves promoting discussion and airing grievances, important, yes, but disconnected from their main work of providing services and large-scale solutions to immediate problems. Instead of splitting apart the dire problems that Americans face, if Mr. Biden is serious about his promises, you will see it in every task force decision he makes.
In other words, if serious, Mr. Biden will address systematic racism in everything that he does.
He has made moves to address the COVID pandemic with the selections of Drs. David Kessler, Ezekiel Emmanuel, two white men, and Vivek Murthy, who is of Indian descent, for his coronavirus task force, along with Yale School of Medicine professor Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Black woman from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and an expert on diversity and medical inequality. These are all highly lauded doctors and researchers. But the COVID deaths are disproportionately made up of African Americans, many of whom were, for many reasons, beyond the “normal” range on the body mass index scale (like myself and virtually every one of my peers that I grew up with on Dolfield Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, and like the two college-educated Black men I know who died from COVID last spring). So Mr. Biden will need to have many more African American physicians and public health experts making managerial decisions. While there are many to choose from, someone like the writer and medical ethics issues expert Dorothy Roberts, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and Morehouse School of Medicine’s Camara Jones, who has explained racism in medicine, could make an important difference.
Economic recovery that has the eradication of the “wealth gap” at its center will rely on new relationships between education and job creation, new paths for entrepreneurship and reincorporation of formerly incarcerated persons. Mr. Biden will need to rely upon people like Bridget Terry Long, the dean of Harvard’s graduate school in education, a trained economist who focuses her research on the transition from high school to college.
His climate change team has to have people speaking directly to the biochemical hazards that have been faced by minority communities for multiple generations. Climate change is a geopolitical phenomenon and, like COVID, its effects are disproportionate. We cannot ignore Black and Latino communities along America’s fossil-fuel refinery polluted waterways. We will need to see the expertise of marine biologist Ayanna Elisabeth Johnson affecting the personnel chosen to lead the new way. And West Africa, the “homeland” of so many Black Americans, needs to have a prominent position in the global discussion, and U.S. might needs to be devoted to that.
So, we will know by the earliest staff selections he makes to address the pandemic, economic recovery and climate change if he is serious about “systematic racism.” In fact, instead of using the term, he should just talk about “police reform,” which is connected to a return to diplomacy and arms reduction in our foreign policy. If we can back away from Endless War, we can downsize our police state. But it will require empowering remarkable people like the crime, citizenship and policy expert Vesla Weaver here at Johns Hopkins to get us there.
Highly regarded Black women visibly working on the issues is what Mr. Biden living up to his promises will look like, before he is inaugurated.
Lawrence Jackson is the director of the Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts at Johns Hopkins where he teaches English, history and Africana studies. He can be reached on Twitter: @chesterb_himes.