When President Biden gave the commencement address at Howard University this weekend, he called out white supremacy as a particularly dangerous threat to the country.
“We know that American history has not always been a fairy tale,” Biden said. “From the start, it’s been a constant push and pull for more than 240 years between the best of us, the American ideal that we’re all created equal — and the worst of us, the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart. It’s a battle that’s never really over.”
He said that, on America’s best days, Americans stood up “for the best in us,” like “stand[ing] up against the poison of white supremacy, as I did in my inaugural address — to single it out as the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland is white supremacy.”
“I’m not saying this because I’m at a Black HBCU,” he added, referring to Howard’s status as a historically Black university. “I say it wherever I go.”
To which Fox News hosts have two responses: America isn’t racist and Biden is divisive.
“He said ‘the battle is never over.’ We’re never going to get there because this is clearly a battle that helps him politically,” “Fox & Friends Weekend” host Rachel Campos-Duffy said on Sunday. “I think it’s so cynical. I think it’s actually evil to lie about America. That is not America. America is not racist.” Instead, she said, it’s the “least racist country in the world.”
Her co-hosts agreed.
“Where we’ve come compared to where we are on race,” Pete Hegseth said. “And then what the left wants to do to restart race challenges in our country?” He went on to criticize DEI efforts — an abbreviation that stands for “diversity, equity and inclusion” but which he said stood for “divide, exclude and indoctrinate.”
“Our default right now as Americans is to want to love each other!” he added.
Campos-Duffy and Hegseth — who, ironically, appears on the “Inclusion” page of Fox’s website as it attempts to hire veterans — are themselves reflecting minority opinions.
In August 2021, Ipsos conducted polling for Axios that posed a question that speaks to that directly. Respondents were asked whether they agreed that America is not a racist country.
Only a quarter of people said they agreed strongly or somewhat, meaning they felt America was not a racist country. More than half disagreed, including just under half of White Americans. Among Black Americans, 7 in 10 said they disagreed.
A related question explored why people felt that way. Asked if they felt that Black and Brown people didn’t have the same opportunities as White Americans, nearly half agreed — 13 percentage points more than said they disagreed. Among White respondents, views were split. Among Hispanic and Black respondents, more than half agreed.
You’ll notice some indications here that the Fox News hosts, already out of touch with the sentiment of most Americans, are probably getting things backward. It’s not that the left “wants to restart race challenges.” It’s that the political left — a group to which most Black and Hispanic Americans belong — reflects the views of Black and Hispanic Americans.
Before making that more obvious, let’s take a moment to parse Hegseth’s phrasing there: restart race challenges. This comports with the emergence, particularly since the election of Barack Obama, with the idea that America had achieved the color-blind society of which Martin Luther King Jr. briefly spoke in his most famous speech. It’s a kindergartner’s understanding of race: the burning crosses and separate drinking fountains are (mostly) gone and we elected a Black president! Racism is solved, so why are you resuscitating it?
The reality, obvious to about half the country, is that racism often manifests in less overt ways. One of the best, most tangible examples is that job applicants with names that scan as Black are less likely to be interviewed for positions. That’s simply one quiet way in which racism persists.
Unlike “race challenges,” the national conversation about race did restart — or at least re-form — about a decade ago. A series of deaths of Black men at the hands of police spurred the Black Lives Matter moment, which expanded Americans’ understanding of how race is baked into systems. Polling from the biannual General Social Survey shows a surge in the percentage of Americans ascribing differences in Black employment and housing to discrimination in the past decade. Other purported explanations — like a presumed inherent inferiority of Black people or that Black people have less “will power” — have sagged.
Notice the graph at lower left. There’s a huge, widening gap between White Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents (who embraced the idea that discrimination is the root of disparity) and White Republicans and independent leaners. There’s been no shift among White Republicans, nearly half of whom still say (as of 2021) that the reason for economic disparity is a lack of motivation or willpower by Black people.
Instead, many White Republicans see discrimination affecting them. Last year, YouGov asked Americans how much discrimination different groups experience. Republicans were more likely to say Whites faced discrimination than they were to say the same of Black people.
This helps explain the Fox News response. Consider the argument from host Greg Gutfeld on Monday evening. He presented figures on the number of violent attacks linked to white supremacist activity, dismissing it as minute.
“Why do you lie to Black people? Why do you lie to Black people? Why do liberals feel that they have to do that? Because they need to keep Blacks angry,” he continued. “They need to keep Blacks close to them. Right? This does not serve Black people. If it doesn’t serve Black people, it doesn’t serve White people either, because it creates conflict. The people who need to cleave Blacks from Whites do so because they realize there is profit in discontent.”
“You need a consistent crisis in order to keep your job,” he added a bit later.
To his credit Gutfeld at least drew the distinction that Biden was making: that white supremacist extremism is the most significant terrorist threat. This was the estimation not of his administration, mind you, but of Trump’s. And while the number of deaths is indeed relatively small, it is neither zero nor something that only affects Black Americans.
But Gutfeld’s larger argument — that the left hypes nonexistent race-based threats to play to its base — very obviously applies to his own channel. It, along with other right-wing media, explicitly plays up the sense of white aggrievement that’s reflected in that YouGov poll. They downplay the idea that discrimination is at the root of inequality, as evidenced by, well, all the quotes above.
It goes further, of course. Fox News aired a heavy rotation of clips showing Black people committing crimes in the months before the 2022 midterms, insisting to their viewership that, despite a lack of supporting data, crime was soaring across the country. They still regularly air similar footage, suggesting a crisis that is unsubtly presented in racial terms in order to keep their viewership engaged and on edge.
There is profit in discontent, indeed. But perhaps should look closer to home to find the culprit.