Joe Biden isn’t the only Democrat who has blamed black America for its problemsRoundup
tags: Race, Joe Biden, election, 2020, Democratic primary
Marcia Chatelain is a Provost’s distinguished associate professor of history at Georgetown University.
Former vice president Joe Biden spent Sunday at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., speaking on the anniversary of a bombing there that killed four black girls in the middle of the civil rights movement. The candidate has had some trouble handling issues involving race during the presidential campaign, as his response during Thursday’s debate to a question about reparations showed.
After conceding that “institutional segregation” and “redlining banks” exist, Biden veered away from a logic that might have called for some strands of reparative justice. Instead, he turned to the old liberal playbook: Castigate black families. “Look,” he started, “you talk about education …” After rightly suggesting higher wages for teachers and more funding for schools with the Title I designation, Biden reminded listeners that teachers — a profession that is majority white in the United States — cannot do it alone. They have, he said, “every problem coming to them.” And the way to improve outcomes in segregated schools would be simply to send social workers to visit black families to teach them how to raise their children better, complete with “the record player on at night” to expose kids to more words.
But while Biden was criticized, roundly, for that answer, it fit quite neatly into the grand American political tradition of evading serious conversation about the legacy of slavery by expressing displeasure with the victims of it.
Even former president Jimmy Carter, who has spent more than four decades reflecting on the racial wounds of the nation before and after his presidency, followed suit in his own illogical reasoning about inequality. Although he promised that his administration would address the scourge of housing discrimination, he assured nervous whites on the campaign trail that he did think “it’s good to maintain the homogeneity of neighborhoods if they’ve been established that way.” Like Biden, Carter didn’t understand why anyone expected a more nuanced answer to questions about his support for federal policy to stop discrimination. He didn’t see any contradictions in his assertion that it was wrong for the government “to try to break down an ethnically oriented community — deliberately by injecting into it a member of another race.” Carter believed that a mountain was being made of a molehill, explaining further that he wasn’t supporting exclusion but simply didn’t want the might of the federal branch to be used on the “intrusion of alien groups into a neighborhood.” The logic that supports all these policy questions is that the home is a private domain that should be respected — unless it’s a black one.
In Biden’s assessment, the question of reparations is a matter of black families who “don’t know quite what to do.” He isn’t as out of step with his party as his comments about record players might have made it seem, either. Old-guard Democrats have no idea how to address the nation’s history honestly and with courage. Fortunately, as the Democratic base is challenged by a more left-leaning — and more courageous — leadership willing to imagine reparations as an act of justice rather than an idea to jump over, we may retire the broken record of racial innocence that has been played for voters every four years.
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