To unite America, Biden administration must brace for hate
The FBI is digging deeper into the motivations and leadership who may have driven and organized the Jan. 6th insurrectionists. Our national realization of the increasing levels of hate and division in the U.S. has got me thinking about the tightrope walk that President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are now traversing. Hate lives on one side of that rope. On the other, our constant and painful efforts toward creating a more fair, equal and diverse nation.
This balancing act reminds us of the historic walk of Hank Aaron, a baseball and civil rights giant we recently lost. The young Biden administration can learn from his example.
Aaron understood this tightrope better than anyone. Of all his feats, he is best remembered for his historic campaign to best Babe Ruth’s record of 714 lifetime home runs. As Aaron biographer Sandy Tolen writes, “During his chase of the Babe, Hank received 929,000 letters — at an ounce a piece, 29 tons of mail. Some of it cheered Hank on, but much of it was filled with racist hate and violent threats.” Among the sentiments received were “threat(s) to murder him unless he gave up his chase for the home-run record.” The truer his swing at home plate, the worse he was treated by a too large portion of the American public — right up until the day he finally broke Ruth’s record in 1974.
Our country is struggling with a more modern version of hate and racism. Decentralized and networked, but with the same ugliness and force. The Jan. 6th insurrection — with its accompanying symbols of anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny and anti-immigrant fervor — was beyond shocking to most Americans. We want to believe that these hate groups are marginalized and confined to the shadows. They are not.
For the past five years, the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups have been continually alerting us to a different set of facts on the ground. After Charlottesville, SPLC has reported a steady rise in hate crimes around the country and racial slurs being thrown around in schools. They also recorded a 55 percent spike of groups focused on suppressing the rights of almost every person that is not a white man. ADL has been monitoring the consistent rise of threats toward public officials, with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories sitting at the core of these groups’ ideologies.
This makes Biden’s next actions — alongside his pledge to create “the most diverse Cabinet anyone in American history has ever announced” — even more vital and important. The elevation of Harris and appointment of Austin are immediate proof of the president’s seriousness. The vice president and secretary of defense are the “stern pair” on Biden’s national security team helping to guide a post-isolationist America.
They are also perfectly positioned to inform our country’s response to the threat of domestic hate. Harris and Austin personally understand discrimination, misogyny and racism from direct career experience walking the tightrope. Tightly correlated with the barriers they broke rising to high office, is an increase in direct threats and intimidation to them personally and to their families. President Obama experienced it. So did a guy I once worked for, Deval Patrick, the first Black governor of Massachusetts. And Colin Powell. So do countless others who awaken the worst in extremists and terrorists simply for standing up, doing their jobs and doing the right thing.
Just as former presidents fought the KKK in the height of the Civil Rights movement, Biden must now also unleash the full power of his Justice Department, FBI and Department of Homeland Security to destroy a more distributed group of far right hate organizations — like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters.
The fix is hard, but this moment provides a unique opportunity for change. Biden already has a jump. He’s signed executive orders focused on ending racial discrimination and issued a memo focusing on global human rights for the LGBTQ community. Biden is fixing the DHS’ turrets toward eliminating the scourge of domestic terrorism by white nationalists, neo-Confederates and right-wing extremists. Austin’s Defense Department is poised to root out and expel members of these groups from its ranks.
Only a united country can defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, revive the economy and conquer white supremacy. Biden, Harris and Austin are balancing on the tightrope together. All know full well; the more successful they are, the more hate is coming at them from too many corners of America.
Like Hank Aaron, this reality should not slow them down one bit.
Kahlil Byrd is CEO of Invest America.