Joe Biden’s Answer to Slavery’s Legacy: Phonographs for the Poor

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The corporate media talking-head commentary on the third Democratic presidential debate last Thursday night focused on two things: Beto O’Rourke’s call for a federal confiscation of the nation’s assault weapons and Julian Castro’s attempt to humiliate Joe Biden by suggesting that the former vice president had forgotten what he said about his health care reform program two minutes before.

The talking-head consensus on the first episode was that O’Rourke’s gun position was wildly outside mainstream sentiment – this while 57 percent of the nation supports an assault weapon sales ban and the country is evenly split on a mandatory buy-back program..

How depressing. When a common-sense call to mandate the removal of military-style assault weapons from civil society is considered radical and controversial you know a nation’s reigning media-politics system has lost its moral bearings and undergone spiritual death. The presence of millions of these mass killing machines (estimates range from 15 to 20 million assault weapons loose in the U.S.) in American life is socio-pathological lunacy. Assault weapons exist for one reason: to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time. They are weapons of war.

The talking-head consensus on the second matter was that Castro had been rudely disrespectful and factually wrong. (Here the talking heads were right on the specific incident [Castro was being a creep and Biden had not in fact contradicted himself] but wrong on the basic point: the 77-year old Biden is in fact a gaffe machine who is mentally challenged on matters of memory and truth.)

What was most remarkable in the official debate post-mortems, though, was the lack of attention to a strange and disturbing Biden riff that showed him to be the very definition of an old white pseudo-liberal objective racist. A Black female ABC debate moderator asked the former vice president the following question about segregated schools, the legacy of slavery, and Biden’s onetime cold dismissal of the notion of reparations for slavery:

“Mr. Vice President, I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race [at this point Biden sneered and laughed – see link below]. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, ‘I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago..’ You said that some 40 years ago. But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”

Here is a remarkable fact no talking head felt compelled to mention after the debate: Biden quite visibly and audibly sneered and laughed yes, sneered (or smirked, if you prefer) and laughed (go here to 2:06:49-53) – as the moderator began her question.

That was really bad. Even worse, however, and this too escaped attention from the talking heads (which at ABC included the sneering neoliberal and former mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel, who had to leave office after completing his alienation of the city’s Black community by trying to cover-up the Laquan McDonald kill tape), was Biden’s pathetic, jumbled, evasive, and racist verbal response (see here at 2:07:23-2:08:44) to the question:

“Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red-lining banks, making sure that 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 daycare. School. We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.

It’s not want 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.”

Moderator: “Thank you, Mr. Vice President.”

Biden: “There’s so much we — no, I’m going to go like the rest of them do, twice over, okay? Because here’s the deal. The deal is that we’ve got this a little backwards. And by the way, in Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela. I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro. Number two, you talk about the need to do something in Latin America. I’m the guy that came up with $740 million to see to it those three countries, in fact, changed their system so people don’t have to chance to leave. You’re all acting like we just discovered this yesterday. Thank you very much.” (emphasis added)

Where to begin in attempting to untangle and understand this ugly mess of convoluted nonsense, (much of which was expressed in a raving manner, especially at the end)?

Notice that Biden opened by mentioning the problem of “institutional segregation” and then said essentially nothing about how to attack it.

Notice the broken sentences and the confusion on tense (“my deceased wife is a teacher” – not true) and the strange suggestion that his current wife, an English professor, is an inner-city teacher. (Castro may have been wrong on his specific charge last Thursday, but this is yet more evidence in a big file showing that Biden is suffering from mental decline and from a longstanding problematic relationship with the truth.)

Notice the totally bizarre concluding Venezuela rant (“I know Maduro…I’m the guy who came up with $740 million…chance to leave…”), tacked on for reasons that are unclear.

Notice the complete evasion of the matter the moderator started with – his 1975 dismissal of the notion that white America owes Black America anything for centuries of slavery and Jim Crow.

Notice the initial absurd impulse to tell poor parents to make sure the television was blaring nightly in poor folks – and his equally preposterous and outdated shift to “the record player.”

“The record player”? Seriously? Has Biden heard about CDs? Has he never heard of books, and of parents reading to their children? Does Biden propose to initiate a federal program to distribute phonographs to poor families?

And notice the single most coherent thread in Biden’s jumbled comment: victim blaming. Consistent with his failure to address segregation (a critical lynchpin of racial inequality since where one lives is intimately related to the social resources and opportunity one can access) and his total dodging of the reparations question, Biden reflexively defaulted to a vicious neoliberal narrative, however jumbled, that places the blame for Black poverty not on institutions, not on the un-addressed and far-reaching and living reach of the slave system and the racist terror regimes that succeeded that system (along with related racial oppression and inequality structures) but rather on Black parents who don’t know how to raise their kids the right way.

The writer Anand Giridharadas got it right. “Is this not one of the most explicitly racist moments of all time in a Democratic primary debate?” Giridharadas tweeted. “Asked about his past comments denying responsibility, as a white man, for America’s sins, he gives an answer insinuating that Black parents don’t know how to raise kids.”

“Joe Biden’s answer on how to address the legacy of slavery was appalling…It ended in a sermon implying that black parents don’t know how to raise their own children.”

Yes, it did. For Biden, two-and-a-half centuries of slavery, eight decades of Jim Crow terrorism, racist ghettoization, racially hyper-disparate mass incarceration, and numerous other related and widely documented forms of persistent racial oppression and discrimination are non-starters. The real issue for the Democratic Party’s officially designated front-runner is “the problems that come from [poor Blacks’] home[s].”

Not that most Americans watching the ABC News dog and pony show even caught it. Biden’s jumbled, incoherent, and halting prose probably left most viewers too confused or bored to register his noxious neoliberal-racist parent-blaming paternalism.

It was all too sadly consistent with Biden’s long liberal racist record, which includes describing Barack Obama as “articulate” and “clean,” voting for Bill Clinton’s mass incarceration-ist “three strikes” crime bill (which Biden helped write), and weirdly boasting that a racist Jim Crow Senator (James O. Eastland) “never called me ‘boy.’”

Of course, Biden’s commentary needs to be understood within the broader framework of the capitalist and neoliberal ideological creed to which he adheres. In an annoying defense of Biden’s comments, Vox’s Mathew Yglesias rightly observed that “Biden is a slightly old-fashioned meliorist liberal who does not believe in reparations or in overhauling the basic structure of the American economy. …At the same time, Biden is not wrong that [his neoliberal] formula is the one that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama rode to victory. By espousing it, he is the heir to Obama’s ideological legacy.”

Indeed he is. Okay fine, but Obama was heir to the right-wing Democratic Leadership Conference’s Clintonite legacy, which is objectively racist in its refusal to “overhaul…the basic structure of [an] American economy” that has been shaped by deep and systemic racism and classism from the birth of the nation and before.

If this is a “winning formula” in 2020 as in 1992 and 2008, then Gold help us – and do not expect big enough Black voter turnout to prevent the election of the next and likely more menacing white nationalist Republican Amerikaner president in 2024.

“Meliorist” liberalism is inauthentic opposition in a nation where the three richest people possess more wealth between them than the bottom 50 percent and the median Black family owns $3,600, just 2% of the wealth of the median White family.


Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).