In a long and often rambling interview with The New York Times published Friday, former Vice President Joe Biden responded to a question about the legacy of racism by blaming Black parents for the racial achievement gap.
In the third 2020 Democratic presidential debate, held in September, Biden had said that one way America could address the legacy of slavery and segregation was by bridging the “word gap” between white and Black children. “A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there,” Biden said. He then recommended that Black parents play records at night to “make sure that kids hear words.”
The New York Times editorial board pressed Biden on these claims and asked him to elaborate on how solving the word gap would address the legacy of slavery. Biden began his answer by noting that former President Barack Obama had also been criticized for advising Black parents to take more responsibility for raising children. He then suggested that America could do more to help minority parents “provide more guidance and better guidance for themselves and their families.”
Finally, he suggested that Black parents may not participate in their children’s schooling due to embarrassment about their own lack of education. Biden said he’d learned from his wife, a former school teacher, that poor parents “don’t show up because they’re embarrassed. They’re embarrassed the teacher’s going to say — and it’s hard to say, ‘Well, I can’t read.’”
While somewhat masked by his choppy delivery, Biden’s suggestion that Black parents are reluctant to participate in their children’s education and are responsible for the racial achievement gap has no basis in fact.
To start with, the supposed “word gap” between white and minority students is a highly contested notion. The research on which it is based was carried out in the early 1980s with just 42 families. The researchers, both of whom were white, recorded the interactions of white and Black families and concluded that Black children heard 30 million fewer words by the time they were 3 years old than white children ― a deficit that significantly impeded their linguistic and cognitive abilities.
It was the perfect factoid for the pre-TED Talk era. Politicians across the spectrum cited the “30 million” figure throughout the 1990s and 2000s, often coupling the figure with advice (based on no academic research) that Black parents should play records featuring spoken English to their children.
As the simplistic version of the “word gap” gained popular currency, however, research began to paint a more complicated picture when it came to racial achievement. While gaps in standardized test results between white and Black students do indeed still exist, few academics now explain the cause with a single reason or number.
In 2018, researchers surveyed a much broader range of families than the original study did and found vast linguistic diversity among families of all races and socioeconomic statuses. Far from being bereft of speech, low-income and minority families were, in the words of linguist William Labov, “bathed in verbal stimulation from morning to night.”
“For decades, white politicians have blamed Black parents, rather than the legacy of racism, for disparities in achievement.”
Biden’s comments on the “word gap” were bad, but his suggestion that Black parents are reluctant to participate in their children’s education was even worse. For decades, white politicians have blamed Black parents, rather than the legacy of racism, for disparities in achievement.
Studies have consistently found that Black parents are more likely than whites to value post-secondary education. Segregation, mass incarceration and poorly funded schools ― i.e. things that fall squarely under Biden’s responsibility as a politician ― play a larger role in exacerbating the racial achievement gap than parenting styles.
Remarkably, The New York Times editorial board tried to give Biden an out, suggesting that some minority parents are working second jobs. Instead of taking the point, Biden doubled down.
“Well, that’s true,” he said, “but there’s also a good deal of it, and check with the educators, there’s a good deal is they just don’t know what to say, many of them. They don’t show up.”