“I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race,” debate moderator Linsey Davis said Thursday night. She quoted Biden in 1975 saying that he didn’t “feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
“You said that some 40 years ago,” Davis continued. “But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?"
A complex if direct question. To which Biden offered a complex and wildly indirect response.
I went back and watched it several times to figure out what Biden was trying to say and the path he took to get there. Allow me to be your tour guide.
Biden fumbled for a moment at the outset.
“Well, they have to deal with the —," he said, before resetting and picking a direction: “Look, there’s institutional segregation in this country."
He transitioned into his political record.
“And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that,” he said. “Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where —”
“Redlining” was a process in which neighborhoods were literally outlined with red to indicate that they were too risky for lenders to issue mortgages. Often, those lines were drawn specifically because the areas were heavily black.
After the first Democratic debate, Biden made a similar, more direct assertion to this point. “I did support federal action to address root causes of segregation in our schools and our communities,” he said at an event in July, “including taking on the banks and redlining and trying to change the way in which neighborhoods were segregated.”
In the middle of his similar answer Thursday night, though, Biden reset again. Catching himself in rocky terrain — this was the general domain where Harris blasted him in June, after all — he settled back into a place where he felt familiar.
“Look, you talk about education,” he said. “I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 [billion] to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise, the equal raise to getting out — the $60,000 level.”
This is part of Biden’s education platform, something he’s talked about regularly. That plan also includes a push to double the number of support staff in schools, which Biden talked about next.
“Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home,” he said. “The problems that come from home, we need — we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy."
Perhaps without realizing it, Biden was walking back into rough terrain. He'd been asked a question about how the education system could be a tool for addressing the endemic problems of race and was now talking about … problems kids brought to school from home.
It got worse.
First, Biden reset again, only slightly, mentioning that he had firsthand experience with what teachers experience.
“The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher,” Biden continued. “They have every problem coming to them."
He then went back to the safe terrain of his policy proposals: advocating universal pre-K starting at age 3. “We have to make sure that every single child does, in fact, have — 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds go to school,” he said. “School. Not day care. School.”
As happened the first time, though, he then continued to explore what his education proposal entails, including more support for parents who need it.
“We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children,” Biden said. “It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”
There’s the record player line, apparently suggesting using an archaic technology to encourage children to listen to and learn words. Hence the line at the end there noting that poor children have less exposure to language, which then starts them in school at a disadvantage. (This, it’s worth mentioning, is disputed.)
Again, though, this is a problematic place to end up from a question starting with addressing the role of education in racial inequality. There’s certainly a gap in performance that correlates to race as there is one that correlates to income. Income and race are themselves linked. But Biden’s answer here has him suggesting that the way to address a divide that he called institutional is to get black parents to do a better job.
I can say from experience that, faced with an open microphone, you can sometimes discover that you're a ship far out at sea with no discernible route back to shore. One strategy is to keep paddling, saying things and trusting that you'll end up somewhere coherent. Perhaps that's what Biden was doing here, looking for a safe port.
Perhaps it was more troublesome: Biden subconsciously deciding that talking about improving parenting skills was a good answer to a question about “repairing the legacy of slavery in our country” — that there was a central link between black parenting and the inequalities of our educational system. There was a public debate early in Barack Obama’s second term in office (and Biden’s second as vice president) in which Obama criticized black culture as a barrier to success. If Biden internalized that argument without recognizing why he might not be the best messenger for it, that’s a problem.
This would be the second time that Biden problematically conflated poverty and race in the context of education. At an event in Iowa last month, Biden said that students needed to be challenged. After all, “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” He soon caught himself, but the line understandably attracted attention.
After his line about record players on Thursday night, something remarkable in a different way happened. Davis gave him an out, cutting him off with a “thank you.” (Each candidate was given one minute for answers.)
Biden had been criticized for actually stopping when his time was up, which was seen as an admission that he didn't want to say too much. His response to Harris in that first debate, for example, ended with his meekly noting that his time was up and stopping.
“No,” Biden said to Davis, rather indignantly. “I’m going to go like the rest of them do, twice over, okay?"
The crowd applauded.
“Because here's the deal. The deal is that we've got this a little backward,” Biden said.
And then he started talking about Venezuela.
“And by the way, in Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela. I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro,” Biden said. “Number two, you talk about the need to do something in Latin America. I’m the guy that came up with $740 million to see to it those three countries, in fact, changed their system so people don’t have a chance to leave. You’re all acting like we just discovered this yesterday."
There’s a reason for this aside, too, sort of. Biden hadn’t been asked a direct question in the debate during segments about Latin America and climate change. This was his way of inserting his thoughts on those subjects — and highlighting his experience — once he got the floor.
It just didn’t really hang together well. Perhaps this was Biden’s way of again resetting, again finding familiar terrain. Davis broke his line of thinking on education (probably to Biden’s benefit), and he then remembered that he’d wanted to make two points: that others ran over the time limit and that he had thoughts about Latin America. The education answer was over, and he got those other two things out of the way.
And then he was done.
“Thank you very much,” Biden concluded.