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In Wednesday's Speeches To Congress, Divergent Perspectives On Race In America


President Biden once again put racial equity among his top priorities when he spoke last night to Congress and the country.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, real justice. And with the plans outlined tonight, we have a real chance to root out systemic racism that plagues Americans and American lives in other ways.

KELLY: The Republican response to his speech came from the Senate's only Black Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina. And he offered a vastly different view of race in America. Here to explain, NPR political reporter Juana Summers, who covers race and justice. Hey, Juana.


KELLY: So let's walk through both speeches, and we'll start with the president because he's the president. How did he approach issues around race?

SUMMERS: Well, these issues were woven throughout his speech in nearly every priority that he brought up. But about two-thirds of the way through the speech, he talked more explicitly about these issues. We heard him name white supremacy as terrorism. And he talked about efforts to dismantle systemic racism as well as the murder of George Floyd and legislation to overhaul policing. The president said that we have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans and that now was the time for progress.

KELLY: Time for progress, which would seem to be a hard thing for Senator Scott to come out swinging against. How'd he do it?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So it was really interesting to me that the major theme of Senator Scott's remarks was race, including topics like policing and voting rights that we've heard so much about in this country in recent weeks. Scott called for common ground in discussions of race, and he talked at some length about his personal experiences as a Black man from the South. And he accused Democrats of using race as a political weapon. Take a listen to what he had to say.


TIM SCOTT: Hear me clearly. America is not a racist country. It's backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination. And it's wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.

SUMMERS: Now, that statement was raised in an interview that Vice President Harris did with ABC News this morning. She said that she did not believe the country to be racist but that it was important to speak truth about the role that racism has played in the country's history.

KELLY: Juana, Senator Scott is negotiating with Democrats on the policing bill. Did we hear any evidence of common ground last night?

SUMMERS: Yeah. I spoke with Leah Wright Rigueur, who is a historian who's written a book about Black Republicans. She said in the speech, she heard a good amount of overlap in the way that President Biden and Senator Scott talked about race and the experiences of Black people in this country with law enforcement. Biden talked about this broadly, and Scott, from his own life experience. Here is Wright Rigueur.

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: But the clear difference came at the end, where Tim Scott was unwilling to say that we're talking about white supremacy. We're talking about a racism that goes deep in this country and that we have to address head-on. And I think the juxtaposition of a white man calling out white supremacy and a Black man unwilling to do so is actually quite striking.

SUMMERS: She told me that Scott's walking a bit of a tightrope between the instincts of his party to not engage in conversations about systemic racism and his own impulse to find a solution on policing.

KELLY: And just briefly, is the president also walking a tightrope? What are his political considerations?

SUMMERS: Democrats would not be in power without Black voters, who elected Biden in part because he promised to address these issues forcefully. And there are some signs of impatience about - among that part of his coalition. But he's also being mindful of another group he has longstanding relationships with - the law enforcement community. You heard him say last night that he believes that most are serving honorably, and they want to be a part of the solution here.

KELLY: NPR's Juana Summers.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.