Joe Biden speaks to voters last month at the Community Oven in Hampton, N.H. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Former vice president Joe Biden is forever a gaffe machine. But he managed to outdo himself Tuesday night. On the eve of Juneteenth, marking the end of slavery in the United States and barely 12 hours before the start of the first hearing on reparations in the House in a decade, Biden touted his bipartisan bona fides to a group of wealthy donors by talking up his ability to work with such supporters of segregation as the late senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. “At least there was some civility," Biden said. "We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done.”

Biden quickly followed up with his usual sort of salubrious comments to his wealthy patrons. He assured his audience that no, he doesn’t “demonize” them for their wealth. His plans to tackle inequality? “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”

On one hand, a giant yuck, but not so bad. Almost no one believes Biden’s a racist. And if one is in a generous frame of mind, one could read his comments on wealth inequality to mean that he doesn’t think members of his audience would notice paying more in taxes, or a cut in their net worth. In true Biden fashion, it’s not actually clear what he meant.

But, on the other hand, the combination of Biden’s comments highlighted a truth about segregation and our age of inequality, one many people would just as soon not acknowledge: The two are not unconnected.

When we speak and think about segregation, we often refer to the most visible horrors such as lynchings and forcing African Americans to stand at the back of the bus. But as Wednesday’s hearings on Capitol Hill made clear, the idea of reparations isn’t just rooted in the fact that many believe the United States has yet to apologize adequately for the harm done by the enslavement of millions of black people over the course of more than two centuries. It’s also about the damage economic subjugation did, and how that ghastly legacy still affects our present society.

It is all but impossible to separate the age of inequality from the discrimination black people continue to face. There is a significant wage gap between blacks and whites. Almost 1 in 3 black children lives in poverty, compared with little more than 1 in 10 white children. The unemployment rate for African Americans is twice as high as it is for whites. African American men are more likely to do prison time than white men. African Americans are discriminated against when they seek medical care, with the result that African American women are more likely to die of everything from pregnancy complications to breast cancer than white women.

So it should come as no surprise that increasing inequality and especially the financial tsunami of the Great Recession have hit African American households harder than white ones. The wealth of African American households — not as high as white households’ wealth to begin with — fell significantly over the past three decades, while the wealth of whites continued to rise, albeit at a much slower rate than it did for the richest Americans.

One major reason for this? Housing. For all the attention paid to the stock market, most American households’ largest financial assets are their homes. But for decades, African Americans have found obstacle after obstacle to homeownership. In the aftermath of World War II, few African Americans benefited from the GI Bill, with many suburbs discouraging them from moving in at all. The neighborhoods they lived in or moved to were “redlined” by the banks for decades of the 20th century — that is to say, financial institutions avoided investing in minority neighborhoods. Even today, according to a study published last year by the Brookings Institution, owner-occupied homes in black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 on average compared with similar residences in areas with few black residents.

Moreover, when the Obama administration bailed out the banks while offering homeowners significantly less help, African American families suffered, thanks in no small part to the fact that they were more likely to be targeted by unscrupulous lenders and mortgage brokers who offered up subprime loans, and financially abusive refinancings even when they qualified for better terms. While almost three-fourths of white households owned their own residence in 2018, the same is only true for 43 percent of black households.

So it’s not all that surprising that Biden’s evocation of segregationists came at a tony fundraiser. The obstacles facing African Americans come from more than deliberate malice. Their lives and finances are also impacted by the obliviousness of the greater society to past injuries and the ongoing reality of what they face on a day-to-day basis. No one should be boasting about his or her ability to work with segregationists, even if it was several decades ago. As commentator and economist Julianne Malveaux said during her testimony at the Wednesday hearing, “Race is central to anything we do related to economic inequality."

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Joe Biden is badly undermining his ability to challenge Trump

Jennifer Rubin: This is Joe Biden’s real problem

Helaine Olen: What Joe Biden really means when he talks about bipartisanship

Elizabeth Bruenig: Why Biden can’t take us back to normal

Helaine Olen: Can Joe Biden’s nostalgia act work?