In the actions that will shape his legacy, Biden is an antiracist — a term used by author Ibram X. Kendi in his instructive memoir, “How to Be an Antiracist,” and one that has taken on the weight of enlightenment and progressivism. To be an antiracist is to make choices that proactively nudge the country toward equity, paying special attention to those places where race intersects with gender, class and sexuality.
“Denial is the heartbeat of racism,” Kendi writes. “… What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’”
Biden is an empathetic and flawed human being. He’s imperfect in this role. Who wouldn’t be? He has inspired relief in those moments when he has spoken obvious truths about racial injustice in policing — including when a mob of mostly White rioters were grievously underestimated when they stormed the U.S. Capitol. But Biden has also caused consternation and disappointment when he’s favored incrementalism or reassuring conventions over bold reinvention.
So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he is the occasional antiracist — that he strives toward the fulfillment of its high-minded definition.
Biden often says the wrong thing, the awkward thing, the inelegant thing, on the subject of race. There are always ways in which he could have done more or done better, apologized more fully or chosen his words more carefully. But with the white hair and lined face that mark his 78 years, he reminds us that the blessing of a long life also means that one has ample time to make mistakes, to course correct, to fail again and to keep learning. There’s strength in the scarred and rough patches — the places where the failures have healed or at least scabbed over. His is not a mean-spirited refusal to see the problems at hand; his blind spots are because of the culture into which we are all born.
In 1991, he didn’t seem to fully grasp the complex and sorrowful racial history at work during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings when Hill — a Black woman alleging sexual harassment by Thomas, a Black man — was personally derided on Biden’s watch. He sat on the dais looking down at her. Pointing his finger. And not giving her her due, which meant that he was similarly disrespecting those who believed her accusations against Thomas, as well as those who had endured the same pain but never came forward for fear they wouldn’t be believed.
In 2007, as he was launching his second bid for the presidency, Biden imprudently called Obama, one of his Democratic primary rivals, “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In his most recent campaign, he chided African Americans who were considering voting for the incumbent, saying during a radio interview before a largely African American audience, “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
In each case, Biden apologized. He explained himself without taking a defensive crouch — without the qualifying “if I offended anyone.” He also has expressed his regret for his part in past legislation that had the effect of disproportionately criminalizing generations of Black and Brown citizens.
Despite his apologies, some people can never forgive him, and they’ve made that plain. In response, Biden hasn’t effused that he is “not racist,” which is in many ways a pejorative that can’t be argued away. Racism is in the atmosphere. Sometimes it rolls in ominously like storm clouds, and sometimes it’s barely visible — like smog we don’t even notice until those revelatory occasions when we’re blessed with a clear day.
Biden’s new partner in governance as the vice president-elect, Harris, has called him audacious for his willingness to invite her onto the ticket, for clearing the path for her to make history as this country’s first woman — Black and South Asian — to reach such vertiginous heights of power. What exactly did Biden do? He asked a qualified legislator and lawyer to be his No. 2. He elevated this Black woman when Black voters — and those blessedly determined Black female activists — had breathed oxygen onto the flickering embers of his campaign. He recognized the glory of immigrants of color at a time when this nation has maligned them, which is akin to insulting our own national character. He gave credence to the capabilities of women when their skills are so numerous it would require foolish effort to ignore them.
To choose Harris was obvious. But it wasn’t easy, because this nation’s entire history argued against the choice. The country so often shrouds what is right in darkness. We are stubbornly committed to our hierarchies.
The most memorable images of Biden, the race guy, have long been those when he was at Obama’s side, in his shadow, following in his wake. The older White man standing behind the younger Black one. Certainly, there were professional advantages to Biden’s decision. But there were risks, too. Those pictures forced a recalibration of what many had presumed to be the natural order. They brought hope. They also left others enraged with the belief that their rightful power was being stripped away.
And now, Biden is crafting a new, even more powerful visual story. In it, a Black woman stands just behind him. But he regularly steps aside so that she has the full light. As he introduced his Cabinet designees and his senior staff, he established a ritual. He spoke first. Each new team member followed up with brief remarks. And then Harris closed the presentation. She would reiterate Biden’s thoughts but always added a few of her own. She built on his foundation. She stood on her own.
Biden made space so the world can see that the presumed social order is not destiny. The stubborn hierarchy can be upended, and the center will not only hold, it will be shored up.