Another Joe Biden gaffe: “We have this notion that somehow if you’re poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” That was yesterday, before the Asian and Latino Commission in Des Moines, Iowa. And Biden knew it was one—he immediately tried to clarify with, “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids. No, I really mean it. But think how we think about it. We think how we’re going to dumb it down. They can do anything anybody else can do, given a shot.”
But still—“white” kids versus “poor” ones. The reason even Biden’s fans are cringing at this remark is that it implies an equation between being poor and being a person of color, and perhaps also that all high-achieving students are white.
And it isn’t the first time Biden has let slip sociological assumptions of this kind. Who can forget Biden sunnily crowing that Barack Obama, when first running for president, was a godsend in being a “mainstream” African American who combined the traits of being “articulate and bright and clean.”
Besides the memory-friendly ABC sequence of the words, that remark was almost uncannily complete in summing up age-old stereotypes about what it is to be black. Few educated black people are unfamiliar with being called “articulate” for simply speaking about as confidently as their white equivalents; the veiled notion is that the black norm is to be somewhat ungifted with words. Then “bright” harbors a quiet yet pitiless condescension. (After the acclaimed theater director Harold Prince’s passing last week, I think of when the playboy Bobby in Company says to a flight attendant he just slept with but is ambivalent about seeing again, “Look, you’re a very special girl,” and “not just because you’re bright.”) As to noting that Obama is “clean,” little needs to even be said.
Biden’s underlying schema was the one minted in the era of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where being accomplished, poised, and well-spoken was seen as remarkable in a black man; in white men, by contrast, those traits were seen as signs of basic middle-class maturity. That movie was a good while ago now, as was Biden’s birth, and few would tar him as a bigot for harboring these quiet assumptions, which were once common. Indeed, they are still common. If America were completely past the notion that articulateness (in standard English) has a ticklish relationship to black authenticity, then it would be hard to explain why debates about the issue still crop up endlessly.
The “articulate, bright, and clean” moment wasn’t pretty, but if anything, the unprettiness it revealed was our own, not just Biden’s.
The same case can be made for this latest flub. In equating poverty with not being white, Biden would seem to be displaying what many would consider high wokeness catechism.
On race and socioeconomics, the enlightened American these days is asked to wangle a peculiar sort of equipoise. For example, we are never to discount the black community’s achievement by “racializing” poverty. We are revolted when President Donald Trump implies that struggling black communities are uniquely degraded, almost perverted landscapes. These days, the concept of underclass is perhaps more race-neutral than ever before, in view of countless mostly white areas ravaged by deindustrialization and the opioid epidemic.
But then we are also to maintain a sense of black Americans as a singularly burdened people, suffering from a persistent wage gap with whites, overrepresented in low-quality schools, and mired in a web of circumstances founded in and ever propelled by a deathless kind of white supremacy. No one denies that other groups suffer as well, such as Latinos and Native Americans. However, the tacit idea is that black Americans are a special case, caught “between hell and high water” by Hurricane Katrina, to use the deft title of Michael Eric Dyson’s book; ever the “faces at the bottom of the well,” to quote Derrick Bell; and owed reparations for the slavery and legal segregation their ancestors endured.
As such, how many among us can claim not to operate upon a certain conception of privileged whites on top and people of color on the bottom? We all know it’s an oversimplification, what with some of those articulate, bright, and clean black people up top—or East and South Asian kids overrepresented at elite public high schools in New York, such as Stuyvesant—and poor whites like the ones depicted in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy at the bottom. But overall, white people are always ahead, “maintaining” their “privilege” upon the necks of the various-hued subalterns down below.
With all the heat Biden has been taking for views on race minted in another time, we might see it as an advance that he made a remark that, in all of its clumsiness, would appear to take a page from progressive scripture. If it’s really so wrong of him to operate upon a thumbnail sketch of white kids as rich and kids of color as poor, then many might consider assessing the essentialism in their own mental schema of how America operates.
This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.
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