Former Vice President Joe Biden gave one of the strangest answers of the night in Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, connecting kids listening to TV and record players as a way to erase the stain of slavery on the country.
In 1975, Biden scoffed at the idea of the country needing to address slavery and its legacy, stating, “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.”
At Thursday’s third presidential debate, ABC News moderator Linsey Davis asked Biden about that quote and what responsibility Americans now need to take to repair the legacy of slavery.
In his answer, Biden never directly addressed what Black Americans face beyond a brief mention of saying there’s “institutional segregation” in the country and that he tried to address redlining, the practice of systemic racial discrimination in the mortgage and other industries.
But then Biden pivoted to talking about “poor schools” ― without directly mentioning race again. His meandering reply was hard to follow at times, but it essentially broke down to arguing that schools need more money, that teachers and parents need more help, and that poor parents need to change how they raise their children.
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 day care. 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.
First of all, this idea of some sort of word gap between rich and poor children has been questioned and criticized. If there is a gap, it’s not clear how big it is. Other researchers say that the entire concept could be counterproductive, including to families of color.
Focusing on how many words children hear places the onus on the families and looks at how to fix children rather than examining schools unprepared to deal with students from low-income backgrounds. It places a significant portion of blame on parents, rather than structural barriers in society.
Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NPR that many lower-income households experience a “word wealth” when children grow up in multilingual families.
She said the practice of adults directing “lots of questions to children in ways that prepare them to answer questions in school” is a “middle-class, mostly white practice.”
But second, talking exclusively about poverty and how families should raise their children doesn’t really get at the root of the legacy of slavery.
In August, Biden also drew attention when he said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” appearing to equate income and poverty with race. He quickly corrected himself, however, and added, “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids — no I really mean it, but think how we think about it.”
While a number of the presidential candidates have endorsed the idea of reparations for slavery, Biden has not. In May, he told WMUR, “We should take action to deal with the systemic things that still exist in housing and insurance and a whole range of things that make it harder for African-Americans.”
Biden once again passed up the opportunity to weigh in directly on reparations in Thursday’s debate.
“He’s talking about people in communities like mine listening to record players,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said to CNN after the debate, questioning whether Biden had what it took to be the nominee. “There are definitely moments when you listen to Joe Biden and you just wonder.”