A statement from Eric K. Ward, Executive Director, Western States Center
Joe Biden was in high school when he heard the nation’s first Irish Catholic president utter the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” That call to action led a working class kid mocked by his classmates for his stutter into the library to research the path that would make him one of the youngest ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
Sixty years later, Joe Biden has been sworn in as our oldest president ever, his willingness to serve motivated by a very different set of words uttered by a very different president, words of praise for the “good people” who had organized the deadly white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally. “Charlottesville, Virginia” were the first words Joe Biden spoke as he launched his presidential campaign.
Today, in his historic inaugural address, President Biden led with this clear-eyed and strong-voiced enumeration of our country’s top four challenges “in this winter of peril and significant possibilities.”
First and second: the intertwined crises of the pandemic and systemic racism. He spoke of the virus that’s “taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost, hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.” Third, he named our climate emergency: “A cry for survival from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.”
Fourth and final on his short list of crises to illuminate on this world stage, in this historic moment: “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
Like many in the Black community, I feel a personal connection to the man I call by the honorary title Old Man Joe. That doesn’t mean I won’t work hard to hold him and his party accountable. But this is a day to pause and reflect on the significance of America having elected a white man of Biden’s generation who unblinkingly names systemic racism and white supremacy as part of our nation’s struggle — a man who goes further than that to name and to challenge white nationalism as a political movement.
I returned to the Pacific Northwest to lead Western States Center three years and three months ago because I believed that, as in the 1990s, this region would once again be a proving ground. I wrote then of white nationalist organizing on the rise, of the surge in hate crimes. In the 1990s, I remembered, white nationalist rallies drew dozens of people. In 2017, I observed, they turned out thousands. In the 1990s, I remembered, politicians on both sides of the aisle condemned outright bigotry. In 2017, I observed, elected officials actively courted white nationalists and tweeted their messages — including from the highest office in the land.
In 1987, those committed to an inclusive democracy joined forces in the West to build a moral barrier against hate — Western States Center was a leader in that response. In 2017, we recognized that our challenge would now be to combine that moral stance with real political power.
I thank Joe Biden for stepping back into service as the leader who will bring the political power of the presidency to bear behind the moral imperative of rejecting white nationalism. President Biden, we stand with you, shoulder to shoulder, to do the work of inclusive democracy.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
“The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman, U.S. Youth Poet Laureate