Which is very much not a good thing for a white man to say.
It isn’t the first or the hundredth time Biden has said something that made his allies cringe and gave his opponents the opportunity for fake outrage. Throughout his entire career, Biden has had a habit of saying sorta-well-intended-but-nevertheless-offensive things, especially when he’s trying to ingratiate himself with people.
I don’t think anyone’s going to vote against him because of this, but it’s a good opportunity to think about what’s wrong with that kind of statement coming from him. For instance, here’s writer Roxane Gay disagreeing about it with Biden aide Symone Sanders:
While it’s perfectly fine to argue that black people have about twelve thousand reasons not to vote for President Trump, it’s not up to someone like Joe Biden to say who’s black and who isn’t.
Then Gay was retweeted by renowned civil rights activist Donald Trump Jr., which shows you the level of trolling you have to wade through to have a thoughtful conversation about something like this.
But let me suggest a middle ground between “C’mon, you know what he was trying to say” (as Biden’s defenders insist) and “Aha, he has now revealed himself to be a racist!” (as trolling Republicans will claim).
I have a long-standing rule about gaffes, which is that if a candidate says something once, and if he had the chance to do it over again he would rephrase it, then it should be forgiven. If it’s part of a pattern that keeps repeating, that’s something else.
Most of the time, we in the press call attention to gaffes that reinforce the conclusion we’ve already made about candidates. So for instance, in the classic case, when in 1999 Al Gore said, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet” — a largely true statement — reporters who thought Gore was a liar shorthanded it as “Al Gore said he invented the Internet” and roasted him over the coals for something he never said.
At the same time, they ignored many lies George W. Bush told but highlighted it every time he mangled his words, because they thought Bush was dumb but honest.
Or sometimes, when the press seizes on a statement it’s because we know it will get a reaction. When Hillary Clinton said “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” reporters knew it would play as “Elitist Clinton wants to destroy lives of honest hard-working white working class folk” even if that wasn’t at all what she was saying.
Every time we’re confronted with a potential gaffe we have to ask how much attention it deserves, and there is no “objective” answer to that question. It always involves judgments about what’s important and what isn’t, and how we should understand it.
Am I inclined not to make too much of any one Biden statement because he’s running against the most disastrous president in American history? Maybe. But last August, I defended him on his gaffes even though he was running in the primaries against a bunch of candidates I preferred.
Still, this isn’t the first time Biden has said something insensitive on race (as opposed to Trump, who has a long history of outright bigotry). I think in its totality the record shows him to be someone with a sincere desire to fight racism and do right by black Americans, but who is also sometimes captured by problematic assumptions and ways of speaking that used to be much more acceptable among white people than they are now.
His response when criticized for something like this ought to be to say, “I didn’t really think about it when I said it, but now that you’ve explained what’s wrong with what I said, I understand, and I’m going to try to do better.”
That’s not what politicians usually do, however — their impulse, especially when much of the incoming fire is from the worst people criticizing them for the worst reasons, is to get defensive.
Biden did say something along those lines: In a subsequent call with black business leaders, he said, “I shouldn’t have been so cavalier,” adding: “No one should have to vote for any party based on their race, their religion, their background.”
But this won’t be the last time Biden says something that gets people upset. When it happens again, we should remember to ask whether it’s really meaningful, whether it reveals something important about how he would perform as president, and whether there’s something we can all learn from it. Or if it’ll just be a tool for Republicans to bash him with.