“[A]s we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002
This past week Joe Biden stepped in it again. In an apparent attempt to promote his ability to work across the aisle and wax nostalgic for a bygone era of greater civility, nay, camaraderie in the U.S. Senate, Biden discussed working with old-school segregationists. Of one, Biden said “He never called me boy, he always called me son.” Of another, whom Biden called “mean,” he said, “Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
First, it’s all well and good to promote the ideals of civility and compromise and getting things done. Most Americans would probably agree that our public discourse seems decidedly uncivil and uncompromising, and the government seems to get almost nothing done.
Here’s the rub
It didn’t take long for Biden’s fellow candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris among them, to take exception to his remarks. Booker said that Biden should apologize and Harris commented that she wouldn’t be a U.S. Senator if Biden’s former colleagues had gotten their way.
Rather than apologizing, Biden said “Why should I? Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career.”
The racist bone
Allow me to do a little whitesplaining. White people, like Joe Biden and myself, tend to take the words “racist” and “racism” very badly. Even a hint that we showed bias, ignorance or insensitivity can be taken as an affront to our character and intelligence. We white people hear “racist” and think BAD person.
There is a parallel with men and the words “sexist” and “sexism.”
Thus, when Joe Biden was accused of behavior that made women uncomfortable, he became defensive. He defended his record. He defended his intentions. He defended his character. He declared “I get it.” And this week when Joe Biden was accused of insensitivity in his remarks about working with segregationists, he became predictably defensive. In fact, Biden became verbally aggressive. He claimed that HE was the one being wronged. He defended his record. He demanded an apology.
There’s not a racist bone in your body? Yes, there is: your skull.
That southern segregationist senator who never called you boy but called you son? The reason is very simple: he could relate to a younger white man as “son” but could not acknowledge a black man as a man.
Racists aren’t just the guys marching with torches, chanting white supremacist epithets.
This stuff is readily apparent to people who deal with prejudice from the receiving end of it every day, but to Joe Biden and me and every other white male in America, it takes a lot of effort. It takes time. It takes some humility.
Joe Biden took a lot of time to decide whether or not to run for president and he’s obviously putting some effort into it. Unfortunately, a lot of that time and effort seems to be directed toward raising money, not raising his own awareness. And humility is pretty hard to find in anyone running for president of the United States.
The problem Joe may never “get”
Joe Biden may come to terms with his behavior around women — I have doubts, based on the way he’s joked about the issue, but we’ll see. Biden may understand why the Hyde Amendment was discriminatory toward women of color. He may come to understand how the 1994 crime bill led to mass incarceration of minorities for non-violent drug offenses. He may regret his part in shutting down Anita Hill. Who knows, maybe someday he’ll reconsider having supported for the Supreme Court, though I don’t hear anybody asking about that one.
Joe Biden may figure out that simply not being a pussy grabber or a skinhead does not necessarily mean that someone doesn’t have a sexist or racist bone in his body.
But there is one issue that I’m not sure Joe Biden will ever get: the answer to America’s problems does not lie in trying to bring back happy days.
Donald Trump sold a lot of voters on the idea of making America great again. Well, it was never that great for a lot of people.
Joe Biden has a different kind of nostalgia, but it’s equally irrelevant to where we are now. Joe wants to make America more civil and bipartisan, which would be fine if we had any idea how he intends to do it.
Into the future, or the known unknown
I think we need a more forward-looking approach. Fortunately, other candidates, some of them much younger than Trump and Biden, are offering it. We should hear them out.
We don’t know what kind of future we might have, but the known known is that the past is not coming back, whether Donald and Joe get it or not.