Contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom right now, I remain pretty skeptical that Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee in 2020. The fact that his staff was already lowering expectations about his performance in Iowa and New Hampshire spoke volumes.
But there is something we can learn from his candidacy—especially in contrast to Donald Trump. It has become clear to everyone but the president’s most ardent supporters and enablers that Trump is deeply racist and, at minimum, demonstrates support for white supremacists. Trump has eschewed the “dog whistle” variety of racism, bought it out into the open, and given his supporters permission to be vitriolic in their expression of hate.
In contrast, Basil Smikle asks a question: “Does Joe Biden have a race problem?” He points to previous statements and actions by the former vice president, as well as things that have happened more recently. For example, a lot of people of color took offense at Biden’s remarks during the last debate when asked about his history of being opposed to busing. He suggested that parents don’t know how to raise their kids and need help—going on to give some rather incoherent advice about record players.
Smilke made an excellent point about how Biden, who came to the Senate about the same time as Pat Moynihan, was probably influenced by the paternalistic attitude toward African Americans that was common among a lot of Democrats at the time.
Moynihan’s controversial 1965 report written for Johnson while a Cabinet member is often cited as positioning the circumstances of black Americans as both pathological and cultural, which influenced a generation of thinkers and policy makers to adopt a similar paternalistic, caretaker view of black families.
In one passage, Moynihan wrote: “The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure….The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability….By contrast, the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.”
Critics rightly called this victim blaming, but the report’s analysis and influence very likely swayed young senators like Biden.
For a more thorough documentation of the impact Moynihan’s report had on the politics of race in this country, I would suggest a piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” But overall, Smilke is right that a paternalistic attitude toward African Americans became the norm for a lot of liberals, while the white savior narrative flourished. Tola Folarin-Coke unpacks that one for us.
The white savior complex refers to the idea in which a white person attempts to “rescue” or help a person of color from their own situation…The white savior trope appears in a variety of film genres where a white protagonist is portrayed as a messianic figure who typically learn something about themselves in the course of helping the non-white person. However, despite the weak attempt to seem progressive it instead comes off as tone deaf.
Grab ahold of your irony meter and watch a white male comedian demonstrate how the white savior narrative has appeared in films.
The controversy about these films is definitely not about their portrayal of white people standing up against racism. Instead, the issue is twofold: (1) they promote the idea that black people need a savior, and (2) that filmmakers see the need to constantly insert a white savior into films about black history. One of the subtle results, as Meyers points out, is that white people identify with the hero and fail to acknowledge their connection to the white racists.
There are those who take great offense at the idea of referring to this kind of paternalistic attitude as racist. And it’s true that it would be a grotesque form of false equivalence to suggest that it is in any way comparable to the racism we see from people like Donald Trump and his supporters. But regardless of what we call it, these attitudes reinforce the hierarchy of white privilege and rob people of color of their agency, all while subtly buying in to the assumption that people of color are to blame for inequities that have been systemic in our culture since our founding.
Joe Biden is a product of his era and the prevailing white culture. That is no excuse. But it does offer us the opportunity to recognize that not all racism in this country is as obvious as what we see from Donald Trump.