By E Ju Ro
It’s been a stressful week for many. The tension was palpable here in Seoul, 6,000 miles from Washington, D.C. I refreshed The New York Times practically out of habit, desperately anxious for the results yet simultaneously too jaded to be feeling much other than tired.
I am not an American citizen, nor am I currently residing in the U.S. But I am a person of color living in a nation shaped by a history of U.S. colonialism, whose identity is inseparable from her solely American education. So when Biden won the presidency, when people collectively let go of the breath they had been holding in, when I saw white Americans posting that their faith in the “goodness of America” had been restored, I was concerned about the aftermath. Because, now what? Marginalized folks have overcome one hurdle in voting out Trump — of course, a significant one — but the obstacle course is still very much alive and well. I worry that the relieved, celebratory sentiment may engender a sense of finality resulting in complacency. It is crucial to recognize that voting leaders in and out of power in an inherently oppressive system is hardly a true victory. Electoral change is not systemic change.
This is not to say that the election was not consequential or worth all of the anxiety and relief. The tangible impact that Trump has had on people of color, with his xenophobic policies reminiscent of 20th century racial despotism and overtly racist rhetoric, is traumatizing to say the least. Most recently, he announced a day of remembrance for Americans killed by “criminal illegal aliens,” solidifying stereotypes of immigrants as perpetually foreign threats to his America — more accurately, to white America. His inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged more denial of science, fewer masks and more disproportionate effects on BIPOC communities. The list of ways he has hurt people could go on forever; by no means should we disregard the effects of his presidency or talk over those who are celebrating his removal from power based on their lived experiences.
However, it is also important for Americans celebrating Biden’s victory to understand that the sans Trump “normal” to which the U.S has returned is deeply rooted in the same problems that gave rise to Trump in the first place. While I am glad and grateful for the voters who made Trump’s removal possible, I am likewise hopeful that Biden supporters will remain critical of Biden as another candidate cut from the same cloth, the same capitalist system. Trump is only an accentuated manifestation of the systemic racism and imperialism that are embedded in the fabric of the U.S. His bigotry was so blatant, so unapologetic that it disrupted the privileged comfort shared by those who believed the US had reached a post-racial era. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in The Atlantic, Trump served as a mirror for America; while people of color have been living through the visceral impacts of racism for centuries, white America was finally forced to acknowledge the reality of its problems. Yet while Biden is not as overtly racist, his presidency was enabled by and is another contributor to the same structural inequities that Trump highlighted.
On a legislative level, Biden’s record of anti-drug and crime legislation in the 1980s and 1990s, most notably, upheld a system of mass incarceration that continues to disproportionately devastate urban BIPOC communities most vulnerable to drug usage and over-policing. While he has admitted to the controversial 1994 crime bill being a mistake, even in this year’s election, his promises to fight racism and anti-Blackness in particular still shy away from embracing protesters’ demands for comprehensive reform.
Most fundamentally, underlying the two candidates’ policies, tweets and legislative records is the fact that the U.S. was and still is a nation built on the backs of POC and especially Black and Indigenous people of color. No electoral politics can disentangle the U.S. today from its living history of exploiting and dehumanizing people of color worldwide. The police force originated in the slave patrol of the 19th century. The military has and continues to expand the nation’s colonialism and violence abroad. The electoral system itself has two parties that are both pro-capitalism, reluctant to call out the root cause of the police state, class inequities and imperialism. At its founding, the U.S. was never intended as a democratic institution or space for free bodies of color to be respected and treated as equals.
These historical injustices will remain intact regardless of electoral politics, especially when they are not sufficiently acknowledged, as the legislation proposed by successful candidates remains within the bounds of systems like capitalism and racism that serve those with power and fall far short of systemic change. Biden increasing funding for anti-bias police training, for one, does not recognize and uproot the structural racism that renders Black people dangerous and disposable. Likewise, celebrating a “restored democracy” without challenging the disproportionate disenfranchisement of BIPOC further cements the flawed, historically white voting system.
On a final note, as a person of color abroad, I am frightened by Biden’s unapologetically imperialist rhetoric: He promises to maintain the world’s strongest military, to protect the U.S. with force when necessary and to end the forever wars in order to build “other instruments of American power.” Biden’s approach to the U.S.’s role as a leader of the free world — his rhetoric that unapologetically prioritizes American interests over the humanity of the people in other nations — echoes the racism enforced by the police state domestically.
Coming from one of the countless nations that has been permanently impacted by U.S. imperialism, I hope voters recognize that domestic racism, colonialism abroad and a history of genocide are all intertwined in the very heart of the U.S. It is complacent and dangerous to believe that such deep wounds can be treated by slapping on the band-aid of voting Trump out.
Contact E Ju Ro at eju.ro ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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