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The Politics of White Amnesia


Kimberlé Crenshaw has an excellent essay that unites several of our recent themes:

Biden’s selective—and at times flatly deceptive—invocation of his history of course mirrors the countless ways in which American political culture at large relies on robustly denying the truth about our own collective past. His very candidacy, pitched on a vice presidential tenure under the glorious “post-racial” interregnum of the Obama years, elides much of his public career. American leaders can indulge in such self-exculpating flights of fancy via a stolid ideological refusal to deny the true implications of a state built on racial power. However much we love to pretend otherwise, the legitimacy of segregation and chattel slavery is inscribed in many of our most hallowed rhetorical and constitutional traditions—and extend right up into the present, as the Trump White House and the rise of the alt-right remind us nearly every day.

Biden’s difficulties are not personal; rather, like many of our white leaders, he’s inherited them from institutional, societal, and cultural patterns of denial. In our near-schizophrenic consensus view of racial progress, this legacy of denial operates to celebrate the nation’s preferred self-image as a clearinghouse of equal individual opportunity, open to all, while obsessively rationalizing away slavery, colonialism, and extermination as the singular, hermetically contained responsibility of the individual bad actors long ago who perpetrated these harms. This very denial is what has set the stage for the riotous resurrection of white entitlement and scapegoat politics.

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