Former Vice President Joe Biden spent Sunday at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, 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.
Biden's pivot to the black household in the face of questions about racial justice is the liberal's version of the conservative's reflex to ask, "What about black-on-black crime?" when challenged to think critically about police brutality. Biden's inability to distinguish the question's goal - to engage a conversation about the pervasive legacy of white supremacy and slavery - from a query about his beliefs about the failures of black people speaks volumes about the ways Democrats have long failed to imagine their own role in systems of racial oppression. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York, wrote an infamous 1965 study for the Johnson administration, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," that provided an early blueprint for this method. The then-assistant secretary of labor believed that focusing on what took place inside black homes was the best response to the demands of an era when segregation trapped black families in some of the worst slum housing in America, black voting rights were not respected in the South, and black people experienced joblessness and health crises at rates higher than their white counterparts.
The same avoidance strategy could be found in the halls of Congress, where symbolic civil rights legislation lacked enforcement mechanisms and lawmakers made no effort to compensate black people for generations of suffering. Nor did Moynihan linger on the police precincts that dispatched officers to intimidate and beat black citizens. The hospitals that refused black people care in emergency rooms were not indicted; black mothers were culpable for all that went wrong. The places that had exploited black labor and shortened black life spans were not where the inquiry began or ended - it was in the black home that all the problems and solutions could be found.
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.
Biden's former boss, Barack Obama, also believed that the black family and household could mediate problems that emanated from structures they did not govern, even if he was far more eloquent than Biden in response to direct questions about race. In his 2016 commencement address at Morehouse College, Obama made it clear that while his job was to make policy to help level playing fields, the black community was expected to make magic. They had to exorcise the legacy of racism from their lives. Obama declared: "We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there's no longer any room for excuses."
For Democrats who are serious about change, there can no longer be any excuses for the dismissive script of responding to questions about reparations with empty platitudes. Although Biden has gaffed his way through his bid for the White House, his response on the debate stage was probably the most consistent and coherent part of the performance of running for president: evade direct questions about race and reparations, and look askance at the black family. If he doesn't want to take up the issue of reparations, that is his choice, and he should simply state that. If he does have a deep concern for black households, then Biden (and his counterparts) could address a number of substantive issues if they are serious about fixing problems rooted in the nation's enduring structural racism. There is the 8.6 percentage-point drop in black homeownership over the past five years and strong evidence that there was little recovery for black communities after the past recession. There are ample opportunities to think about the disproportionately high levels of lead in the paint chipping off the walls of some black homes. Biden could have reminded the audience that black children in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, still don't have access to clean, potable water in their homes.
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.
Marcia Chatelain wrote this for The Washington Post.