Are We a Racist Nation?


[Note: The following is a reprint of the weekend edition of the Braver Angels Newsletter, originally published May 2, 2021. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.]

There are a couple of items from Braver Angels Media that I’d like to share with you before getting to my thoughts for the week.

The first is a podcast featuring my colleague and Braver Angels co-founder David Lapp, director of the Working People’s Project at Braver Angels.

The conversation features two working class men in Ohio: Jason, who has a background in manufacturing and home remodeling, and Lance who works as a utility locator.

Jason is a Black progressive and Bernie Sanders supporter who believed Donald Trump used racism as a means of dividing America. Lance is a supporter of Donald Trump who believes that our recent racial divisions were first inflamed by President Obama.

Their differences are strong. But each shares experiences, concerns and commonalities born from a life spent in the working class.

Do they believe there could be a working class revolution across party and race? Find out in this episode of the Braver Angels Podcast:

A Multiracial Working-Class Revolution? | Lance Nikol & Jason Clark with David Lapp
“I think a [working class] revolution is needed, because these politicians are not listening to us. They don’t care…something drastic will have to happen eventually if we’re gonna stop the path that we’re on.” -Jason Clark

“You see it on the Republican side, you see it on the Democratic side: the social unrest is real. It’s just manifested in two different ways because of all the lies in between” -Lance Nikol

This conversation was a radical one. It was radically honest.

Lance’s and Jason’s political beliefs do not align. But they are united on the need for fundamental change in America. They believe it may be possible for working class people to come together. Yet even in coming together, they fear and believe that an America that is fair to the working class may require violent change to occur.

This is not what we wish to see at Braver Angels. Still it highlights the need for us to come to terms with the ways in which Americans across color and party lines may feel themselves marginalized by our status-quo.

That is why I wrote the essay below. Originally published at, I sought to challenge our conventional understanding of “unity” as a social value in America as well as our understanding of the path to getting there.

Unity requires recognizing the struggles and pains of all Americans, as well as requiring candor in our acknowledgement of our own power and privilege relative to others.

Race will matter in this analysis. And yet both the spectrums of privilege and pain in America well transcend color.

The Painful Path to Unity by John Wood, Jr.
“When poor whites hear liberal politicians, pundits and professors talk about ‘white privilege’ and the ignorance of Trump voters, they feel the same revulsion Black Americans feel when confronted with the chidings of elite conservatives who say that Black people’s problems would be solved if they would simply stop shooting each other and find a job.

Our empathy with America’s marginalized becomes divided. We are forced to cherry-pick which of the disenfranchised are worthy of our understanding. We obliterate the common cause that ought to exist between all people who are shut out of the American dream.” -John Wood, Jr.

There is common cause to be found between the American people, working class and otherwise. Much of what divides us, as you can further observe in the conversation between Jason and Lance, is our understanding of racism.

“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Joe Biden declared, in an address to both houses of congress and in support of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. This is a time, according to President Biden, “To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system.” It is also a moment in which “the most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland today is White supremacist terrorism.”

President Biden was followed by Senator Tim Scott, the only Republican African-American member of the United States Senate.

“Race is not a political weapon to settle every issue the way one side wants,” Scott proclaimed. He later added, with great emphasis: “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”

Racism is a complex subject, made far more complicated by the idiosyncrasies of language itself. We define racism, essentially, in two ways today.

For some, racism is (primarily) a state of prejudice or hatred between people as a function of racial difference. For others, racism is (primarily) the systemic functioning of our institutions marginalizing people of color, whether the individuals working in these institutions are personally racist or not.

The other day I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a leader in Black Lives Matter and a popular local activist. I told him jokingly that he was “the people’s champ,” like Muhammad Ali. Coincidentally my father, who supported president Trump and, like my friend and I, a lifelong admirer of Muhammad Ali (in fact I inherit that admiration from my father) said to me “Black Lives Matter loves Muhammad Ali. So next time you talk to your friends in Black Lives Matter, make sure they know that without the police there would be no Muhammad Ali.”

Dad was referencing the story of a young Cassius Clay (Ali’s name before converting to Islam) and a White Kentucky sheriff named Joe Smith. A young Clay had had his bike stolen by bullies in the neighborhood. He went to the gym to learn to fight so that he might get revenge. Smith, a boxing trainer, saw Clay’s potential and took him under his wing. He helped take the future Muhammad Ali’s mind off of revenge and towards self-creation. He helped set Cassius Clay on the road to becoming Muhammad Ali.

My father’s point in referencing this story is to show that people are individuals and that no one is racist because they wear a badge. My father is correct.

I’ll likely share the story with my friend in BLM. But I don’t expect it to shift his view of police as racist. That is because it is his view of the police system, primarily at least, that shapes his view of racism more than that of any individual officer.

But adjusting our individual definitions so that they align is not as simple. For generations the term “racism” was largely associated with the horrors of lynching, the cruelty of violent bigots, the unkindness of those who would not share a table with a Black man or see their children marry across racial lines. There is ample evidence to show that blatant racism has declined in America today.

Yet the horrors of mass incarceration that serve as the historical backdrop for today’s push for police reform occurred during much of the same period in which Michael Jordan became the international ambassador of American culture, Oprah Winfrey one of the most popular women on Earth, and millions of White people found themselves receiving African-Americans and other people of color onto university campuses and into middle class suburban neighborhoods, often with open arms.

Senator Tim Scott is a Black from the American South who has experienced racism. Yet he does not view racism as deeply defining today’s America. President Biden is a White man who made common cause with politicians who once were ardent segregationists. Yet today President Biden takes up the core cause of Black Lives Matter from the most powerful office in the world.

I do not make these points to suggest that either man is disingenuous because of these histories. To the contrary, it is to show how complicated life, people and the circumstances through which we grow to understand race and race relations in American life really are.

I will not attempt to resolve the definition of racism in this letter. But I will say that America is both its people and its institutions. Equal justice in our society is a question of what we feel in our hearts as well as the institutions we build with our brains and our hands.

May goodwill towards each other embolden our hearts. And may wiser hearts purify the work of our hands. Only then will the revolution to come bring us to union in the beloved community.

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2 thoughts on “Are We a Racist Nation?”

  1. Marsha Williams

    I had not heard the idea of a working class revolution before. I hope we can make the big changes that are needed without resorting to violence. Personally I think Biden’s plans could bring a great deal of support for the working class if they can be enacted.

  2. Vicki Trujillo

    The author mentioned Biden’s speech to congress and repeated Biden’s message about systemic racism and white supremacy being the #1 terrorist problem for America today, but failed to mention Biden and Kamala’s responses the very next day when they were both asked, “Do you believe America is a racist country?” and they both said “No”, which side of their mouths do they plan on speaking out of tomorrow

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