Those were the words of presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden when confronted about his comments regarding his cooperative working arrangement with two racist, white supremacist Dixiecrats, James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.
I find it difficult to believe that anyone growing up and living in the United States, a country in which race plays a very dominant role, is not at all affected in his perceptions and feelings concerning people of color in this country. Nor can I accept that having a pleasant, respectful relationship with two racists is no reflection of Biden’s racial attitude. Eastland and Talmadge were responsible for the misery of thousands of people of color in their respective states and Biden claims a pleasant, respectful relationship. According to Biden, they treated him well. Wonderful.
Eastland and Talmadge held positions of power and influence and like Donald Trump, they could facilitate an atmosphere of hate or acceptance. They chose hate and as a result, thousands of people of color lost their lives and homes. Like Trump, they didn’t create racism but they unleashed and facilitated the racists’ willingness to openly express their hatred both verbally and physically. Will Biden tell us eventually that he and Trump get along and have a mutual respect for one another and are planning to play a round of golf?
Race is a dominant force in this country, one that touches everyone who lives here. It is not only the racism of individuals, but the racist policies that our institutions adopt that are instrumental in perpetuating and expanding the racism in our country. Whether it be our educational system, our media and entertainment, the judicial system, housing and neighborhoods, etc., Blacks and Latinos are portrayed as intellectually deficient, drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, men of violence, etc. This assault on our senses reinforces our racial prejudices and serves to justify our racist feelings.
I grew up in the Bronx, in a working class, Jewish neighborhood. I didn’t know any African Americans but did hear comments about “them.” These comments were never complimentary and created a bias in my feelings about people of color. When I attended high school, there were two Black kids who made the basketball team and became my first actual contact with someone black. Although we didn’t become close friends, our contacts were friendly. But, in those years, I felt cautious around them, I didn’t know what to expect.
Was my experience unique? I doubt it. Joe Biden grew up in the same racially contaminated country as I did. I’m willing to bet that he heard and formed the same stereotypes about people of color as I, along with most white folks. A good part of my life has been dedicated to overcoming these negative stereotypes and I can honestly say that I’ve been successful.
But, one thing I know, I could never refer kindly to known racists no matter how well they treated me. The fact that Biden did, reflects much about his feelings about race. He is a traditional liberal… against racism as a concept, but willing to accept the racist. I feel strongly that all of us are racist to one extent or another. We cannot avoid this as people who call the United States home, a country with a history of genocide against the indigenous people as well as the enslavement of the African American people.
Racism also serves the capitalistic system. It separates and divides the workforce, keeping the capitalist safe from a united and strong pool of workers. No matter how difficult life is for the white working class, they can always claim superiority to the Black population. While Black and white workers do battle with one another, the capitalist watches calmly, knowing that he/she can continue to exploit the men and women, both Black and white who make up the working class of this country.
Some people, in their enthusiasm to show lack of racist feelings, claim, “I don’t see color”, or “I’m colorblind.” That’s a ridiculous claim to make. Racism is not about whether one recognizes that the person he or she is talking with has black skin, it is more about one’s feelings when the neighborhood he lives in is becoming predominantly black or the school his child attends has a majority of black students. Racism is not an intellectual exercise, it affects us when it touches our lives personally. Many people who have fought against racism still feel uncomfortable when it goes beyond the concept.
Are my feelings and my behavior regarding race dictated by feelings of guilt? Rest assured they are. I came into this world as a white male with all the privileges that come with that identity in this society. For me and my fellow white men to maintain our white, male privileges, people of color have had to accept their status as less than.
Although I’ve taught in Harlem for 10 years, although I have had many close, long term friendships with black men and women, I cannot honestly claim that I am free of all the racist contamination thrust upon us from the time we are old enough to understand. So, where Joe Biden can claim that there isn’t a racist bone in his body, I don’t believe anyone raised in this country can honestly make that claim. It is what it is and the best we can do is to be aware of it and try to overcome by dealing with race honestly.
Dave Alpert has master’s degrees in social work, educational administration, and psychology. He spent his career working with troubled inner-city adolescents.