Joe Biden, record players, and racism

Towards the end of the second hour of last night’s Democratic debate, Joe Biden delivered a rambling and mostly incoherent answer to a question about the Iraq war that hadn’t been asked. I wondered whether Biden was losing command, but I didn’t stick around for the third hour to find out.

Now, I gather that Biden was, indeed, losing command. A rambling answer to a question in the third hour about race produced a head-scratching reference to record players. It has also resulted in an accusation of racism.

Here’s is the question that was put to Biden and his curious response:

QUESTION: Mr. Vice President, I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

You said that some 40 years ago. 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?

BIDEN: Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red-lining banks, making sure that we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from 15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise, the equal raise to getting out — the $60,000 level.

Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need — we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy.

The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have — make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.

It’s not want 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.

(Emphasis added)

After the moderator thanked Biden for his answer, Joe decided to keep talking, not about race but about Venezuela. In doing so, Biden raised further questions about whether he’s “all there.”

But let’s focus on the answer regarding race. Almost all of the commentary has been on Biden’s bizarre exhortation to Black parents that they keep the record player on at night. Maybe he wants families to party like it’s 1965.

As weird as the record player remark was, it’s probably not going to hurt Biden much, if at all. The fact that he’s decades behind the times is baked into the cake of public opinion about the former vice president.

In fact, it may be beneficial to Biden that he made the record player reference. Why? Because it diverts attention from a potentially more harmful portion of his statement, which some are claiming is racist.

Ed Morrissey directs our attention to the claim of Time Magazine editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas that Biden’s insinuation that Black parents don’t know how to raise their kids is “appalling — and disqualifying.” Giridharadas says that Biden may have set a new low for racism in a Democratic presidential debate.

As unfashionable as it might be, perhaps before hollering “racism” we should consider whether it’s true that kids coming from a very poor background will hear 4 million fewer spoken words before attending school than kids from a more prosperous background — and more generally, whether it’s true that they show up at school in a disadvantaged position.

I don’t know whether the claim about 4 million words is true, but it has currency. Actually, the usual claim is that there’s a 30 million word gap. Researchers have said this figure is way too high (which it surely is), and put the gap at around 4 million. I’ve heard liberal friends cite both figures.

They do so as an explanation for why poor Black students tend to be outperformed at school from the get-go. They do so, as Biden did, in support of calls for liberal programs to help poor Black kids get a head start before they begin kindergarten.

Biden didn’t pick up this theme at a KKK meeting. He picked at up in the liberal circles he (or maybe his handlers) frequents.

Nor should Biden’s statement be construed as an attack on poor Black parents. A young child will probably hear more spoken words in a two-parent home than in a home with just one parent. A young child will probably hear more spoken words in a home where a parent isn’t working two jobs or a night shift to make ends meet.

For political purposes, though, the question isn’t how Biden’s statement should be construed; it’s how Black voters will construe it.

I’m not in a good position to say. However, I don’t assume Blacks will construe it the way Time Magazine’s fancy Asian-American editor, a former business consultant and New York Times writer, did. It may well be that poor Black parents do feel overwhelmed and do think they need help of the kind Biden inarticulately described.

We’ll see. We’ll also see whether the cumulative effect of Biden’s sometimes incoherent rambling and more than occasional gaffes finally results in harm to his quest for the Democratic nomination.

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