Words Matter: How “Unity” Became A Scapegoat for Accountability on Racial Justice

February 16, 2021

Light blue background with text that says: Accountability leads to justice. Only justice can deliver unity.

When President Biden delivered his inaugural address, it was clear that he was trying to heal our nation in the aftermath of a failed coup against our government. He talked about American resilience, but didn’t hold back in laying out the challenges that confront us as a nation. His solution for overcoming these challenges? Unity.

Words matter. President Biden invoked unity nine times throughout his speech—but he never once mentioned accountability, and he never spoke about the need to hold the mostly white mob that attacked the US Capitol, as well as those who incited it, responsible for their actions.

After so many years of divisiveness and demonization, we certainly welcome a return to civil discourse in Washington, DC. But words really do matter. And if we want to heal this country, we need to focus on accountability and justice.


A Commitment to Justice for All

It’s difficult for Black and Brown people in America to embrace calls for unity when there’s such a clear double standard when it comes to how they’re treated by the criminal legal system. Accountability has never looked the same for everyone in America. It’s just a fact that white people are less likely than Black and Brown people to face consequences for their actions, even when they are accused of committing similar crimes.

Consider how, in 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was locked up in Rikers Island jail for three years, two of them in solitary confinement, for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never convicted of anything. There was never any trial. Because of the trauma he experienced at Rikers, he attempted suicide several times in jail before tragically succeeding not very long after he was released. Then there’s the young white woman who is accused of stealing Nancy Pelosi’s laptop after breaking into the Capitol on January 6. She was arrested and immediately released into her mother’s custody. 

This is the reason civil rights groups are decrying the difference in how law enforcement responded to Black Live Matters protesters across from the White House last summer and the rioters inside the Capitol in January. There are two Americas, and calls for unity won’t change that. What we need is action, rooted in justice and accountability.


Lessons from Our Past

Throughout history, America has paid a price when our leaders put some ill-defined idea of national unity ahead of boldly addressing the problem of white supremacy and prioritizing justice. Two big examples jump to mind: The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1877.

When you boil it down, the Missouri Compromise was a compromise of values. For the sake of “unity,” Congress brokered a deal in 1820 to allow slavery in Missouri and Arkansas, while prohibiting it in the North. As a result, slavery continued as a legally recognized institution in certain parts of the country for another 30 years, until the US Supreme Court invalidated the Missouri Compromise in the Dred Scott decision. The court’s ruling added controversy to an already hotly debated issue and was part of the final push that led to the Civil War.

You’d think that seeing how calls for unity—without addressing any of the underlying issues— ultimately led to a war would have been enough to keep politicians from making the same mistake twice, right? Well... it wasn’t. A little more than a decade after the Civil War ended, Congress again prioritized the need to "ease tensions" between white lawmakers to resolve a disputed presidential election. The Compromise of 1877 led to the collapse of Reconstruction (aimed at helping formerly enslaved people integrate into society) and replaced it with Jim Crow—nearly 100 years of codified racial hatred and white terrorism directed at Black Americans.

We can’t afford to placate white supremacists or subvert justice in the interest of achieving unity. We’ve seen what happens when we do—and it never ends well. We need leaders who are committed to justice, which means holding everyone accountable the same way under the law. That’s why it's important for both the rioters who stormed the Capitol and the elected officials who incited them to be held accountable for their actions. Former President Trump, who has been impeached by the House for his role in the riot, should be convicted by the Senate and barred from running again for office. Elected officials like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Laura Boebert should resign or be expelled from Congress. It’s a matter of justice.


The Importance of Accountability

The good news is that Republicans and Democrats alike are calling for Trump to be held accountable for inciting the January 6 insurrection. When speaking of the former president's second impeachment trial, Republican Senator Mitt Romney said, “If we’re going to have unity in our country, I think it’s important to recognize the need for accountability, for truth and justice.”

After four long years of divisive rhetoric under the last administration, we welcome President Biden’s attempt to break DC gridlock and restore civility so policymakers can focus on making life better for people. We get it. But it’s also pretty clear that some politicians currently calling for unity have less altruistic intentions. They want to thwart the new administration's efforts to undo racist policies and they want to shield former President Trump from facing any consequences for his actions. Every time President Biden speaks about unity, he should also promote accountability. It’s only by grappling with our problems head-on that we can ensure America lives up to its promise of liberty and justice for all.