There are so many things wrong with Joe Biden’s record player answer, I hardly know where to begin. But I am a trial lawyer. So when I hear a strange answer, my first response is check what was the question. So, here’s the actual question:
“But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”
Again, I’m a trial lawyer. So, there are 4 correct answers to any question:
“I don’t know,”
“I don’t remember.”
Biden did not pick one of those 4 answers. He could easily have said, “Yes, I think Americans need to take responsibility to repair the legacy of slavery and here’s what I think we need to do.” Or “No, I don’t think Americans need to take responsibility to repair the legacy of slavery. And let me tell you why not.” Instead, he started rambling.
This Is What He Said
“Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. From the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining banks, making sure we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from 15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise, the equal raise to getting out – the $60,000 level.
Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need – we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy.
The teachers are – I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have – make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not day care. School.
We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t – they don’t know quite what to do.
Play the radio, make sure the television – excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the – the – make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school – a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”
How Did He Ever Get There?
So, he started with institutional segregation and ended with shaming Black families for not knowing “quite what to do” when it comes to raising children.
Now, I’m the first to acknowledge raising kids is hard, for some of us the hardest thing we’ve ever done. Every gray hair on my head has nothing to do with trying cases for 30 years – I owe them all to raising my own daughter Malika.
I’m also clear, however, that the challenge to raise independent productive and kind children has little to do with your race, class or education. Indeed, suicide rates for young people in America are soaring in recent years. And, how many mass shootings in the last 30 years in America have been carried out by Black teens? To my knowledge, the mass school shooters are almost uniformly white male teenagers. Most of them came from so-called “good homes” which is code for straight white married parents.
But I digress. The point is that Biden’s answer is not even remotely responsive to the question. It sounds like “Black lives are still undermined by the legacy of slavery because they don’t know quite how to raise their kids.” That’s both stupid and insulting.
The question, again, is what responsibility do Americans bear, not Black people. While most commentators focused on “the record player answer,” woke Black folks heard the implicit bias and victim-blaming.
The Legacy of Slavery
News alert Mr. Biden: Black people are not responsible for America’s racism.
Black people are responsible for the incredible wealth that America enjoys today. 250 years of free slave labor, another 100+ years of extreme exploitation of labor, and the last 50 years of second-class citizenship (being locked out of equal access to education, affordable housing, health care, high-paying jobs) has all helped white Americans tremendously. Everything Black people have achieved in America came at a premium. In the last 100 years, we paid more for loans, housing, transportation, food, health insurance, health care, education, you name it.
On the flip side of that same coin, in the past 400 years, whites have enjoyed what we refer to today as “white privilege.” Starting with the Land Act of 1820 which made it possible for settlers to move west and south through the 1950s, whites received massive government subsidies for housing, transportation, health care and education.
Whites enjoy preferential treatment in the enforcement of the law and the administration of justice. This fundamental principle is embedded in the pillars of the justice system. White privilege is reflected in the arrests, charging, prosecution and incarceration of Black people everyday in every state, county and community in America.
Joe Biden either doesn’t know our history or he doesn’t really care to address it. Maybe he really does not understand what is now commonly referred to as “the wealth gap.” The fact that an average white family has 41 times more wealth than the average Black family, that 72% of while familes own their homes compared to just 44% of Black families, and the average white worker earns 30% more than the average Black worker – did not just happen overnight or by happenstance.
The Record Player Answer?
Biden could have at least tried to be consistent. He could have repeated his statement from 1975 (which was the preface to the question):
“I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today for sins of my own generation and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
But it’s no longer “politically correct” to shield oneself with the mantle of white privilege. To be fair, a recurring theme in Barack Obama’s major speeches on race as President was the “moral shortcomings” of the Black family. In his work “The Black Presidency,” author Michael Eric Dyson calls out this message in the few times that Obama talked to the nation on race in America. (See Chapter 6, “Dying to Speak of Race”.)
Perhaps Joe Biden “helped” Obama write those speeches. I don’t know. What I do know is that just like Black people should not tolerate “victim blaming” by Obama or before him, Bill Cosby, we damn sure should not tolerate it from Joe Biden.
It’s also simply not acceptable to equate poverty with Black people. Even Black people who have been financially or professionally successful still experience the demeaning face of racism daily. Black people are disproportionately poor due to America’s racism. But poverty is endemic to capitalism in America. Income inequality between the wealthiest 1% of the country and the rest of us (the 99%) has increased dramatically in recent years. This national crisis was highlighted in the Occupy Movement in 2011 while Joe Biden was Vice President.
Biden’s assumption that the only poor people in this country are Black people is an antiquated view of our current situation, consistent with someone who thinks we still have record players.
The question is “what responsibility do you think Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?” The record player answer does not even come close to looking like an analysis of the problem. Joe Biden needs to study the history of racism in America and the continuing inequities (including those he fostered), then try to answer the question. Until he does that, Black folks in particular would be wise to consider the alternatives.
As Maya Angelou taught us, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”