Joe Biden
Credit: Michael Stokes/Flickr

Former Vice President Joe Biden must have had millions of Democrats wincing during last Thursday’s debate as he fumbled his way through a pointed question on racial inequality in schools. His sentences were incomplete, his thoughts jumped around erratically. He revealed, once again, his tin ear on race.

But if you distill his incoherent response—which did not directly answer the question of Americans’ obligations in the long wake of slavery—you can see that he actually identified the essence of key problems facing impoverished families and their schools. He displayed deeper understanding and proposed more solutions in a disjointed sound bite than all of the other candidates combined.

Here is what he said, annotated in italics:

“Well, they have to deal with the … Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where—” He doesn’t finish his thought, but he is pointing to banks’ long practice of denying mortgages to blacks and “redlining” poorer neighborhoods out of consideration for loans. That has contributed to entrenched poverty and de facto segregation by community, which has meant that schools have been segregated, as well, by race and income.

“Look, we 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.” Pumping more funds into poor schools is essential to improve children’s life opportunities. That’s because education funding relies mostly on local property taxes, which create vast disparities in per-pupil expenditures between wealthy and poor school districts.What Biden does not say, and should, is that these difficulties, and others he mentions subsequently, afflict poor whites as well as blacks. There are public schools that don’t have enough textbooks for all students, and teachers pay out of their own pockets to photocopy chapters.

“Give every single teacher a raise to the equal of … a raise of getting out of the $60,000 level.” He identifies a chronic defect of American education: low salaries for teachers, which can be remedied if taxpayers who declare how much they value children put their wallets where their mouths are.

“No. 2, make sure that we bring in to the help with the stud—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 required—I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife was a teacher. They have every problem coming to them.” He is absolutely right about this. Teachers confront problems from home and neighborhood that they have no ability to address. One teacher in Washington, D.C. once told me that he took Granola Bars to class for kids who come hungry. He had no resources to address food scarcity at home. Schools need not just more psychologists, but an array of counselors who can help families get services that are available from nonprofits and government agencies. Biden puts his finger on something crucial here.

Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have three, four, and five-year-olds go to school. School! Not day care, school.” He is recognizing the enormous leg up that pre-school education provides for children in improving their readiness to read and other prompts for entry into first grade. 

“We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t know what—they don’t knowquite what to do.” Parenting is definitely an issue. Biden is on target. Most families below the poverty line are headed by single parents. They might have been badly parented themselves, and they are stressed with shift work, multiple jobs, shoddy housing, unpaid bills, and dangerous neighborhoods. Programs that send caseworkers into homes to assist find that some parents don’t even play with their kids, either because they don’t know how or because they’re frantically busy and exhausted. Again, however, this is not a function of race. In researching my book, The Working Poor, I witnessed poor parenting in certain low-income white families. It’s a point Biden should make.

“Play the radio. Make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. The phone—make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school—er, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.” The record player got him laughed at, but he’s right that the degree of conversation at home helps determine children’s vocabulary and fluency. The benefits and disabilities transcend race, and if Biden meant to imply that black families were less verbal, he couldn’t be more mistaken. 

In fact, while his rambling answer illuminated vexing problems of poverty, it evaded the racial component. Indeed, since being called out by Senator Kamala Harris and others for opposing federally-mandated busing decades ago, Biden has failed to discuss how, or whether, his views have evolved.

Linsey Davis, the ABC moderator who posed the question Thursday, gave him the perfect chance. “I want to talk to you about inequality in schools and race,” she said, and then read his words from 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?”

It is a poignant question that still burdens our society 400 years after the first African slave was brought to these shores. Biden answered it in his way 40 years ago by differentiating between his impunity for the nation’s past and his responsibility for its present. But his own past is, one feels, not exactly his own present on this matter. On that subject, the country needs to hear from him.

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David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer; Pulitzer Prize–winning author of seven books, including Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; and former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report and cohosts the podcast Two Reporters. Follow David on Twitter @DavidShipler.