Overall, President Biden’s speech on Veterans Day was unremarkable. Presidents give solemn speeches with regularity, and the content is generally pretty predictable. And yet a controversy erupted anyway, pulled from the wispy ether like magic.
What’s the controversy? Well, let’s let the right-wing personality Benny Johnson explain.
You’ll notice the difference between how I presented the comments and how Johnson did. In his version, “negro” is not capitalized — because Johnson is pretending it’s not an obvious reference to the “Negro Leagues,” a professional baseball league for Black players that existed about a century ago. In fact, his tweet willfully skips over that clarification, burying it in an ellipsis. It’s obvious that Biden was going to describe Paige as a great Negro Leagues pitcher (which he was) before clarifying that he was also great in the major leagues. But that’s not how Johnson characterized it.
These things happen with some regularity. Comments are misinterpreted, often willfully, to make someone look bad. Generally, we might assume that an obviously misleading interpretation like the one above would simply flash and then fizzle out. But this one did not.
It was featured on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, as reporter Aaron Rupar pointed out. Hannity described the comments as Biden having “one of his most disturbing, troubling moments to date.” On Friday morning, “Fox & Friends” picked it up, showing a clip that cut out the reference to the Negro Leagues entirely. In that snippet, Biden was shown saying, “I’ve adopted the attitude of the great Negro at the time, pitcher … his name was Satchel Paige.”
“Biden’s choice of words while referencing Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige,” the show’s host claimed, “landing him in hot water” — as though it wasn’t Fox’s choice of the words it aired that was the problem. There was some outcry and criticism from elsewhere in the media world, but Fox was undeterred. Later Friday, the network ran the story again, showing a full clip as a host invited viewers to “cringe” along with her.
It’s useful to consider why the network and others on the right are investing in this particular narrative. It comes down to one of the central debates in politics at the moment, the interplay of partisanship and race.
There is a sense among many conservatives that the political left is constantly attacking them as racist. The reasons for this are myriad and complicated, rooted to some extent in the overlap of race and partisanship (most Black Americans are Democrats) and in a sense that reevaluations of America’s history through the lens of race are implicitly (or explicitly) about criticizing White Americans. Polling has repeatedly shown that Republicans and, in particular, Trump supporters perceive White Americans as subject to discrimination at rates equal to or larger than minority groups. Many on the right believe that the left sees accusations of racism as a political trump card and deploys them to that effect.
At the same time, there’s a popular narrative on the right that insists that Democrats are the party of racism. After all, Abraham Lincoln was the Republican president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Southern Democrats were the driving force behind segregation and, often, anti-Black violence 100 years ago. That there was a dramatic and public move by segregationists away from Democrats during the civil rights era is generally ignored; the more useful story casts the political left as the then-and-now purveyors of racial discrimination.
In a radio interview last week, former House speaker Newt Gingrich made exactly this point.
“The Democrats have moved from anti-Black racism to anti-White racism,” he said.
To a large extent, this is also a function of the enthusiastic deployment of whataboutism in current political discussions. During Donald Trump’s presidency, a common refrain in his defense was to contrast his actions and statements with cherry-picked examples of others: What about what Barack Obama did?? So, as the presidential contest between Biden and Trump unfolded last year in front of the backdrop of racial tensions, Trump allies and Biden opponents worked to define Biden as a racist. It could be useful to mute criticisms of Trump, sure — What about what Biden said?? — but it also helped reinforce the idea that Democrats were hypocrites on race who used claims of racism opportunistically.
This is why the “Negro” allegation gained traction. The hashtag #RacistJoeBiden was trending on Twitter by early Friday afternoon. Some commenters on social media described Biden’s speech as having used the “n-word,” suggesting that a term once commonly used to refer to Black Americans — a descriptor that was in use in the Census Bureau’s racial categories as recently as 2010 — was equivalent to a historically racist slur. By pretending that Biden was calling Paige a “Negro,” though, they could pretend that Biden was revealing a secret bias against Black Americans, both for him and his party.
Oddly, some defenders of Fox News’s coverage tried to compare it to coverage of Trump’s “covfefe” tweet, a late-night typo that Trump later pretended was intentional. Covfefe did, in fact, elicit undue media attention. But the point here is that Fox et al are trying to claim that Biden’s speaking error wasn’t an error at all — precisely the opposite of the covfefe situation.
One of the hallmarks of Biden’s career in politics is that he is in fact prone to gaffes. This isn’t one of them. It is, instead, a run-of-the-mill speech in which an obvious transition in thought has been elevated to the level of scandal to put points on the board for the red team. We learn nothing new about Biden from this pseudo-debate. We do, however, learn something about his critics.