Much has been made of the word unity in the past year. After the Capitol attack on January 6, many Republican legislators called for unity, responding to the righteous ire from their fellow lawmakers who demanded investigations, arrests, and impeachment. The unity theme was also a main pillar of the Biden-Harris campaign, messaging intended to implore the nation to fight for a new future. Unity, for some, is pure sentiment. A quick, uncomplicated cure-all that is achieved merely by being summoned. For others, however, unity calls for hard work and accountability, or it risks granting unearned forgiveness for harmful transgressions, papering over deep injustices.
To his credit, Biden acknowledged the daunting challenge of achieving unity in a nation that hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War: “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” he said on the Capitol steps. “I know that the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial, and victory is never assured.” The inauguration backdrop of an abnormally empty Washington, D.C., fortified by 25,000 National Guard troops, dramatized that battle, showing the enormous distance between the unity ideal and the country’s stark reality.
Biden called white supremacy by its name and rejected euphemistic language that obscures meaning. Although these were welcome acknowledgments, questing for unity without executable ways to hold bad actors accountable will render the pursuit useless. Disunion was a cornerstone of the previous administration: family separation at the border; the banning of immigrants from Muslim-majority nations; the telegraphing of support for white supremacists; and the political weaponization of the coronavirus pandemic, to name a few examples. To achieve unity moving forward requires swift and decisive steps from lawmakers to correct these wrongs and stamp out their effects through clear policy initiatives.
Read: Joe Biden’s looming war on white supremacy
When Frederick Douglass addressed the American Anti-Slavery Society in December 1863, he named concrete terms for what unity would necessitate—“making every slave free, and every free man a voter.” Douglass imagined an America that integrated 4 million African Americans into the body politic, and emphasized that solidarity would mean nothing unless backed by action. These principles were embodied in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments introduced after the Civil War, but still needed forceful implementation and support from the federal government. President Andrew Johnson’s lax approach to the enforcement of these reunification provisos led to the re-entrenchment of slavocracy’s tenets and the continued disenfranchisement of Black Americans. It is a prime example of what happens when calls for unity are unaccompanied by action: a return to the status quo.