On July 22, former Vice President Joe Biden stated that President Donald Trump is the first racist that was elected president.
Since then, Biden’s campaign has attempted to reframe his damaging rhetoric by stating that “there have been a number of racist American presidents, but Trump stands out — especially in modern history.” While Trump has certainly proven to be a racist and divisive figure, implying that he is unique among U.S. presidents in his racist actions neglects the sufferings of minorities under previous presidents’ administrations. The U.S. was built and shaped by racism and we cannot pretend otherwise.
Trump has been a blatantly racist figure long before he was elected president. In the 1970s, federal agents found evidence that Trump refused rent to Black tenants and lied to them about available housing. Trump kicked off his 2016 presidential campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” Trump’s immigration policies have caused great harm to migrant communities who illegally cross the border, including separating children from their parents and placing them in horrific living conditions. Most recently, he has repeatedly called COVID-19 the “China virus” and the “kung flu.” His xenophobic and divisive rhetoric threatens not only the safety of our nation in these trying times, but also what little semblance of unity we have left. Biden is accurate in asserting that Trump won the presidency with a platform rooted in racism, but he was wrong to state he was the first to do so.
While Trump’s actions deserve condemnation, we also must consider the nature of the majority of U.S. presidents throughout history. In fact, 27% of U.S. presidents have enslaved individuals, and Thomas Jefferson even fathered several children with enslaved Sally Hemings. Such blatant racism was not only ubiquitous during the country’s founding, but even modern presidents have held questionable records, such as former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s racist conversation comparing African Americans to monkeys.
Even Biden, although his record pales next to previous presidents’ racism, has hurt communities of color throughout his career. Whether we elect Biden or Trump in November, both will contribute to the trend of presidents with racist histories. As a senator, he authored the 1994 crime bill responsible for mass incarceration and heavy policing that disproportionately affected communities of color and voted for anti-busing amendments. We must recognize the racist actions by our presidential candidates and not sweep it under the rug.
Some diminish such racism as an unfortunate byproduct of a bygone era, but racism has no statute of limitations. Owning another human being or promoting segregation is not something that we should ever excuse. Instead of idolizing these historical figures, we must hold them accountable and condemn them for their blatant racism.
Amplifying these presidents despite their immoral actions is a travesty. Whatever their intellectual prowess or contributions to the U.S., no reason is sufficiently valid to justify overlooking enslavement or perpetration of other racist atrocities. If you disagree, I ask you this: why are you so willing to make excuses for racists? If these deplorable actions are not enough to condemn these figures, what revelations would you need to stop idolizing them?
Going forward, we must recognize the racist roots of our history and not accept glorification from our leaders. We need Biden to do better — not just through his policy, but in his rhetoric. He cannot erase the harm he has done to minority communities in the past, but he can make a conscious effort to realize his complacency and change. This includes not only revamping his rhetoric, but also acknowledging our founders and leaders’ deep-rooted flaws.
Biden has a long and damaging record to make up for. His history of gaffes is a long one — his botched statement that “poor kids” were just as bright and talented as “white kids” is just one of many truly despicable examples. While his rhetoric primarily consists of what seems to be unintentional blunders and pales in comparison to Trump’s willful invective, it has nevertheless been damaging and divisive. It undermines the equity he claims to strive for. We have all seen the damage Trump has caused with words and actions alike, but the problem extends beyond him. The glorification of our presidents is fervent in the very roots of the U.S. We see it in the warped history we learn in classrooms that exclude minority contributions, and monuments and buildings that honor slave owners. We must not attempt to rewrite history or overlook the atrocities on which this nation was founded.
Brammhi Balarajan (23C) is from Las Vegas, Nevada.