Kai Wright: I'm Kai Wright, host of WNYC's The United States of Anxiety sitting in for Tanzina Vega. You're listening to The Takeaway. Yesterday afternoon, Joe Biden became the first president in US history to denounce white supremacy in an inaugural address on the same Capitol steps that were overrun by a violent white mob just two weeks before.
Joe Biden: A rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront, and we will defeat.
Kai Wright: As he did on the campaign trail, President Biden used this first speech as president to remind people of how race and racism have shaped the US and the very nature of our democracy. US democracy has never been for all people throughout our history. Even into the present, Black, Indigenous and other communities of color have been shut out from full participation in everything from voting to housing to education.
As racial justice movements have grown, we've also never heard a president use that massive bully pulpit to make a sustained argument for why a multiracial society, with shared opportunity is good for everybody in the country. We so rarely heard the affirmative case. Will Joe Biden and Kamala Harris finally be the ones to make that argument the centerpiece of their administration?
To consider that question and more, we're joined now by Sheryll Cashin, Professor at Georgetown University, Contributing Editor to Political Magazine, and author of the forthcoming book, White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality. Sheryll, so glad to have you with us.
Sheryll Cashin: Thank you for having me, Kai.
Kai Wright: Can we start with the premise that I just offered there? We've all been reminded of the remarkable power of the presidential pulpit in shaping the American conversation all the way down to our dinner tables in the Trump era, but I don't think I can say I've ever seen a president use it to make a sustained affirmative case for pluralism in America. Do you agree with that?
Sheryll Cashin: Absolutely. I have never seen it, and I'm a political junkie and I come from a civil-rights family. I've been involved in politics, served in the Clinton administration for three years, watch presidents constrained by American politics, evade discussing race, racism, white supremacy, and here we have Joe Biden, who ran and centered racial justice.
When he announced he said, his battle for the soul of America, this language that was in every major speech he made.
He talked about watching what happened in Charlottesville, and that's really what motivated him to run. At bottom, it was a plea for unity of purpose across boundaries of race. Yes, it's a watershed and it wasn't just language. I'm a policy wonk, and I spent time reading Joe Biden and Kamala Harris's platform. I had never seen before such deep specifics of how they were going to address racial inequity, and racial justice and the racial wealth gap. It was refreshing, and something new.
Kai Wright: I do also don't want to dismiss the language part, because I just wonder about this making the argument for the idea that pluralism and a multiracial society is good for everybody. What is your measure of President Biden and his ability to do that coming-- if he has said that's what he's going to do, what is your measure of his ability to actually do it over the coming years?
Sheryll Cashin: Well, let's stick with language for a second, and let's stick with the idea. In order to get policy done, you do have to build a political majority for what you're trying to do. He was going through education, and refreshingly talking about our history, that's the beginning of setting the precedent for new and inclusive policies.
He was also arguing for this basic radical idea, and it reminds me of the Radical Republicans of Reconstruction, that people of all colors in this country deserve to be participants in democracy. Not just as voters, but also to run for office and be fully actualized citizens that shape policy, that bring all people along. I think he was speaking to political aspirants. Let's be honest, every politician in this country who runs for statewide or national office faces a basic architecture of American politics.
A solid majority of whites tends to vote Republican and a solid majority of people of color, Asian-Americans, Latinx, Native American, Black people, tend to vote democratic. Every politician has to choose how to deal with that basic architecture. Biden was speaking to a lot of people of color to get them to be enthusiastic to vote for him.
Kai Wright: That's a significant shift for the Democrats.
Sheryll Cashin: Right. I'm not being cynical about it, but some of it was he had to compete for those votes. He wanted people to be enthusiastic. It's not just about pluralism for bringing all people along, it's pluralism for allowing people of all backgrounds to be real included participants in this beautiful American project called democracy.
Kai Wright: In just a few seconds we've got before we have to go to break, what about his past?
Sheryll Cashin: Well, what about it? The fact that he has to overcome a past of skepticism is part of what made him compete hard. Compete hard to prove to people of color that he meant it. I'm a forgiving person. I was open to being convinced, and I think many other people were too.
Kai Wright: Perhaps he's got the zeal of a convert.
Sheryll Cashin: [laughs]
Kai Wright: I'm thinking about your book and your book subtitle, and I want to ask you, the subtitle includes the phrase "opportunity hoarding." What does that mean? What do you mean by that?
Sheryll Cashin: Opportunity hoarding is in-group sanctioned processes that have the effect of excluding out-groups. Having high-stakes tests for the best and most prized high schools in New York City. The people who know about those tests and prepare for them forever and have the money to give tutors for them. They sanction that as merit, and people who don't have resources, or aren't in the know about them are excluded.
That's just one example. I'm not here to promote a book, and that book won't come out till next September, though.
Kai Wright: Well, I just think it's an interesting idea, particularly in this conversation because it feels like one of the challenges is getting people to understand that if new rights for somebody else doesn't mean less for me. Getting white people specifically to understand that, and I wonder about what you think the Biden administration, either in policy are, but also in this messaging, and in this using the bully pulpit needs to do to challenge that thought process?
Sheryll Cashin: Well, yes, you hit the nail on the head. Post civil rights in America, we had five decades of dog whistling, where Democrats and Republicans did it but the Republicans Party, realigned the south from the Democrats to the Republicans on a lot of messaging that stoked fear and resentment about people who were allegedly getting ahead of them.
Well, I don't want to get into the long history, but Reagan's Welfare, Korean, et cetera. The refreshing thing, if you look at the coalition that Biden has built. The coalition in Georgia, the new democratic senators from Georgia heavily on the work of Stacey Abrams, and many, many women, Black women in particular, they have built what is referred to by political scientists as [00:09:24] incentive coalitions.
Critical mass of whites who like diversity, or at least open to it don't fear it and want to be part of a coalition with people of color to pursue saner, inclusive policies that bring all people along, the opposite of opportunity hoarding. Not all white people are the same, and I use the term culturally dexterous. Some people are more dexterous than others. What is cultural dexterity. At bottom, it's the ability to accept the loss of centrality of whiteness in politics and culture, in demographics without fear and even potentially seeing the assets of that. Even potentially loving across lines. I think that there is a growing swath of culture dexterous white who's open to this new and diverse America and Biden has done a wonderful job of speaking to those folks.
Kai: Well, and part of that, speaking to those folks might be his unity message that has been such a central part of his political life, certainly this campaign, and certainly his inauguration. That also for some folks in the racial justice space and Black people in general, and those of us who feel like we were harmed in some way by the Trump era and the centrality of white supremacy in it, hear that and also think, "Oh goodness, you're telling we got unify with insurrectionists." How does that part of his message fit into this project?
Sheryll: Well, I think a lot of voters of all colors were pragmatic in voting for Biden. Frankly, living under Trump as president was just exhausting for everyone, exhausting and dangerous. I think there are a lot of people who particularly very left-leaning progressive's of color and Black people who Biden what was not their first candidate, but they were willing to give him a chance and a lot of people just want it to get Trump out and begin something different.
Now, that flight is going to hold him accountable. He spoke of racial justice and racial equity. He beautifully invoked the language of Langston Hughes and MLK and saying, "The dream of Justice will no longer be deferred." They'll try to hold him accountable, but it was a pragmatic decision. A lot of people appreciated that Biden could bring some white independence, and white working-class people to the fold. It's a big tent.
Kai: In our last bit here, what does that accountability going to look like you think? We have such a groundswell of activism and particularly around racial justice over the past year. Where does that energy go now?
Sheryll: Well, it's hard to say. One thing that's nice is we have accountability built into the system in terms of the plethora of people of color who serve in Congress. Jim Clyburn who saved Biden in many ways is going to hold him accountable. Kamala Harris and Susan Rice and this wonderfully diverse cabinet, these folks, he's nominated the most diverse cabinet in American history. Half of them are people of color.
There's representation built into the system, built into Congress, but then, I encourage people who are skeptical about Biden or who want to see him deliver just to keep up the pressure in terms of all of the ways that people do, whether it's calling up your congressmen or holding press conferences, or using Twitter, using voice.
Kai: We'll have to stop there. Sheryll Cashin is professor at Georgetown University and contributing editor to the Politico Magazine. Thanks for joining us, Sheryll.
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