Biden Cannot Seek Racial Justice Without Mentioning Black People

The president must take a lesson from Abraham Lincoln in how to address a grieving, divided nation

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

One hundred and sixty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address to a nation on the verge of civil war. Understanding that his speech could very well be the nation’s final attempt at peace, he called for unity between the North and slaveholding South. “We are not enemies,” he pleaded, “but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Less than a month after Lincoln spoke, the Confederacy rained cannon fire on Fort Sumter.

Four years and hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers slain later, Lincoln rose to give his second inaugural address. Only grief outstrips hindsight in the clarity of vision it bestows. Such massive death forced Lincoln to be honest with the people who placed him in power and explain why he ordered their husbands, brothers, uncles, nephews, and cousins to lay down their lives to preserve the Union.

Americans are subpar at mastering their history. We do not grasp the revolutionary importance of Lincoln using the word “colored” in an address to a nation at war.

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” he stated, plainly moving the American understanding of the Civil War from a theoretical quarrel on states’ rights to a liberatory war — which was always at the center of the debate on states’ rights.

Americans are subpar at mastering their history. We do not grasp the revolutionary importance of Lincoln using the word “colored” in an address to a nation at war. No president before had linked the destiny of the nation to a non-white people and professed that he sent men — white and colored both — off to war to get shot and die in Southern battlefields in order to ensure the nation paid its debt, “the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.” He dared to name the people in which he ordered his citizens to die for. He used his bully pulpit to recast the Civil War as a war of freedom and named those he ordered the government to protect.

President Joe Biden’s inaugural address was filled with allusions and parallels to Lincoln’s words. “Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our ‘better angels’ have always prevailed,” he said, echoing Lincoln’s plea for the North and South in his first inaugural address to hear “the better angels of our nature.” Biden’s speech also paralleled Lincoln’s call for unity. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” he spoke as he took an oath to lead a nation through pandemic and insane, irrational conspiracy, saying “unity is the path forward.” Indeed, we must not be enemies.

Kevin Seefried carries a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Biden’s call for unity by confronting “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism” was surely couched in what I found to be the most frightening image from the sack of the Capitol a week ago. Kevin Seefried, an insurrectionist hailing from Biden’s adopted home state of Delaware, walked the halls of our legislative seat with the flag of the enemy in hand. Through those halls he stalked, waving the banner of sedition and slavery of Black people. He knew what he was doing and what outcomes of the American experiment he was demanding when he desecrated the Capitol halls with the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.

How do Black people live and love in the West, a civilization that did not have us living and loving in mind when it created itself through the triangle trade and slavery? This is the question that has been at the center of Black life and culture since 1619, the Promethean spark at the center of slave spirituals and narratives; Black Union soldiers using their freedom to lay down their lives for their skinfolk; ragtime, blues, jazz, R&B, and rock birthing themselves under the shadow of Jim Crow; Ida B. Wells and Walter White risking their lives to expose lynching; Black veterans coming back home from fighting fascism to then demanding their rights at home; the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement that COINTELPRO crushed; how hip-hop emerged anyway from the ashes of the crack era and mass incarceration; the election of the nation’s first Black president; the movement for Black lives; the booting out of an authoritarian and the donning of Chucks and pearls in celebration.

Perhaps the Trump regime has taken any political optimism I had held and cast it into a black hole.

For white people, the question is shorter: What to do with Black people? Men like Seefried have a clear answer: The domination of my people. That is why I was disappointed that Biden, while mentioning racial justice and white supremacy, failed to mention in his address who he intended to protect. Not once did he say the word “Black” or the polite way white people say it — “African American” — throughout his inaugural address. To pursue unity with the 78 million Americans who supported Mar-a-Lago’s newest permanent resident, Biden did not directly mention that the path to doing so was by seeking justice for Black people and thus recast his administration in racial language.

Again — it took four years of bloodshed for Lincoln, many years ago, to recast the Civil War as a struggle to liberate Black folk from the vice of Southern slavery. He had to mention colored slaves. He had to use his world-historic platform to mention why he activated his nation’s military; otherwise, he would have given permission for the nation to continue having theoretical debates about states’ rights and taxation.

I did not see similar wisdom from Biden’s address and am hoping that it won’t take a second inauguration, with a four-year interregnum of violence and unrest, for whoever the Democratic leader is to explicitly center the protection and justice of Black people as central to their administration.

Perhaps the Trump regime has taken any political optimism I had held and cast it into a black hole. Maybe I am cranky after four years of unrelenting anxiety and should focus more on the presence of Black and Brown bodies throughout Biden’s ceremonies.

But if you see me, say so.

I write for me and us, not y’all. The founder of Established in 1865, a platform dedicated to exploring Black personhood. I Tweet @Established1865. #weoc

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store