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Thursday, January 21, 2021


I spent a lot of time off and on yesterday watching portions of the inauguration in the aftermath. Even the banality of a great deal of it was an enormous relief. Coming on the heels of the insurrection in that very same place two weeks earlier, I found it strangely moving to have three former presidents introduced, one by one, in the order in which they served. It lent a certain poignancy to the phrase “a peaceful transition of power.”


Late in the afternoon I devoted 15 to minutes watching a little ceremony that seemed to me perfectly to capture the very best of Joe Biden and also his deepest limitations. Biden was administering the oath via zoom to upwards of a thousand newly appointed administration officials who do not require Senate confirmation. The faces of the appointees appeared on large television screens in gallery view, perhaps 50 at a time on each screen, with the display changing periodically so that over the course of the ceremony all of them had their moment in the sun. The administration of the oath takes only a few moments but Biden spoke for almost 12 minutes in total. He did not have a prepared speech so his remarks were rather scattered and informal but they showed him at his best. At one point he told them, “if I see you speaking in a disparaging way to anyone I will fire you on the spot, no if’s and’s or but’s.” I think he really meant it and it said something fundamentally decent about his character.


Then, at about 5 ½ minutes into his remarks (You can see the entire talk here) he said something that brought me up short and made me realize how fundamentally clueless he is in certain important ways. Because I wanted to say something about it on this blog, I wandered around on the Internet until I found a video of the talk and carefully played it, stopping periodically so that I could copy his words down as accurately as possible. Here is the portion that struck me so powerfully:


  …to root out systemic racism. We have reached the point in my view when the American people realized they did not realize before just how much systemic racism still exists because they did not live in circumstances with large minority populations whatever the background circumstances were and all of a sudden they see what happens to George Floyd with his nose being pushed up against the curb suffocating to death and murdered and they said my God that really happened …”


There it was in full view. When Biden uses the phrase “the American people” he means the white American people. It did not take the murder of George Floyd to alert black Americans to how much systemic racism still exists, whether they live “in circumstances with large minority populations” (which is to say, with themselves) or not. Mind you, Biden was as a newly inaugurated president legitimating the phrase “systemic racism,” something that I think our first black president never actually did. Biden was doing this at a time when he was taking significant executive action to address some of the aspects of systemic racism. And yet, even in this moment, he simply could not grasp the fact that he sees white America as America and black America as not quite truly, really, America.


Biden had just brought about the installation of the first black vice president. He had just appointed an historic number of minority men and women to his administration. He had been elected, and he knew that he had been elected, by the votes of black Americans. And yet he just could not see it. It is not just a matter of age. I am almost 10 years older than he is. And it is not that he is a bad person, despite Anita Hill and all. He is just blind.


What is it, then, that opened my eyes? It was not some divine revelation on the road to Damascus. Quite simply, it was picking up and moving from Bartlett Hall on the west side of the University of Massachusetts campus to New Africa House on the east side of the campus. After I had completed that simple move, I viewed my university and beyond that the world from a different standpoint – literally, I was standing in a different place with different people around me and after a while I began to see the world as they saw it because of where I was standing. I was not visiting, I had moved, and from that simple move flowed an entirely new way of understanding my world.


s. wallerstein said...

I'm sure my comment will be considered as contrarian by some, but you made that move for certain reasons, I imagine, political and ethical reasons, just as I moved from the U.S. to Chile (which changed my standpoint on the world) for certain political and ethical (as well as entirely personal) reasons.

Biden hasn't gone anywhere. He's a Washington insider and has been one for about half a century. He doesn't have the intellectual (and moral and political) energy which motivated you to make that move.

That move is to your credit, it indicates your intellectual courage (you started over intellectually at mid life, which few do). However, the reasons behind the move also indicate your intellectual courage.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Wolff,

I do not agree with your interpretation of Pres. Biden’s statement. You are saying that by not expressly stating, “when the white [or Caucasian] segment of the American people realized [something] they did not realize before just how much systemic racism still exists because they did not live in circumstances with large minority populations” that this was an admission that deep down, subliminally, he does not regard Black Americans as true Americans. Implicit in his use of the phrase “American people’ was the term “the majority of” since White Americans do constitute the majority by population (60.7%). To interpret his statement as subconsciously excluding Blacks as true Americans would be totally inconsistent with the Cabinet appointments he has made, his choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, and with the people who spoke at the Inauguration, including the young poet laureate, Amanda Gorman. I believe you are parsing his words too closely.

Regarding Barack Obama’s never expressly alluding to systemic racism in our country, as the 1st African-American President, he had to walk fine, difficult line not to appear to be favoring Black Americans over White Americans, and despite his efforts to walk that line cautiously, he was still accused of being racist and anti-White, when, for example, he came to the defense of Henry Louis Gates.

And while you may not have been aware of the systemic racism which existed in our country during the 1960’s, others of my generation were. I remember as an undergraduate student when the riots occurred in Newark and Detroit, after the assassination of Dr. King, a classmate of mine wrote a letter to the college newspaper accusing the rioters of being “animals,” and I responded with an editorial condemning the use of the word “animals,” and insisting that the rioters were reacting to the years of racism and abuse in our country. Indeed, in the interview with Mark Rudd, also of my generation, which s. wallerstein referred to an earlier comment, Rudd spoke about the awareness of his fellow Vietnam War protesters to the systemic racism which existed in our country at that time.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm sure that Professor understood that there was structural racism in the U.S. during the 60's. From what he's told us of his life, he's always been progressive and was raised in a progressive household.

I believe that when he speaks of his change of standpoint above, he's referring to what might be called an "existential" understanding of racism rather than a purely intellectual one, such as Biden might have.

If one has an existentialism understanding of racism or of any social phenomenon, one will not make the kind of faux pas that Biden made and which Professor Wolff refers to above.

Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

How does one demonstrate one’s “existential” understanding of racism, versus a mere “intellectual” understanding of racism? Did you demonstrate an “existential” understanding of racism by, putting aside your personal reasons, leaving the United States? Is that what it takes? Mark Rudd did not leave the United States, instead he engaged in violence as a member of the Weathermen. Is that what it takes in order to demonstrate an “existential” understanding of racism? Simply writing about, or speaking about and condemning the existence of racism does not suffice, it only demonstrates an “intellectual” understanding of racism, which is inferior to an “existential” understanding of racism? I did not view Pres. Biden’s reference to “the American people” as a faux pas, nor, I suspect, did a lot of other listeners watching and hearing what he said viewed it as an indication that he regarded Black Americans as not truly Americans, especially judging by his actions, which I submit, is a better index of whether an individual has an “existential” understanding of racism as compared to a mere “intellectual” understanding of racism. Did Robert Kennedy have only an “intellectual” understanding of racism, not an “existential” one, when he merely spoke denouncing racism after the assassination of Dr. King? You have a peculiar way of judging what is in people’s hearts when they fail to meet your standards of authenticity. And let me remind you that when Joe Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas hearings, while he did appear to lack both an existential and intellectual understanding of systemic sexism in our society, he spoke on behalf of Clarence Thomas’s appointment to be a Justice on the Supreme Court, and, although he came under criticism for ignoring Thomas’ alleged sexist behavior towards Anita Hill, no one accused him of lacking an appreciation – intellectual or existential - of the racism in our country.

henry said...

Biden and the Democrats are already starting movements to walk back on the stimulus money that they claimed would be sent out immediately after/if they won. Now the substantive economic stimulus plan is being pushed back until mid-march.

See, If they can successfully bankrupt more of the citizenry and small businesses, then their large corporate owners can consolidate more of the economy. It's not just about getting even more money and power, or even being "out of touch"... it's about having more money and power THAN YOU!

So much for Biden's ambitious legislative agenda.

Prepare yourselves for neo-Hitler in 4 years.
I will not be voting for the democrats ever again even though I did this time after they subverted genuine democracy and spat in the faces of the young in the primaries, again


A pre-emptive fuck you to those who are about to shame me for my rage.

aaall said...

Henry, those of us who actually live in the United States and who have read the Constitution understand that only the Congress can appropriate funds. Also, it's ~24 hours that Biden has been president and Schumer has been Majority Leader. How are things done in your country?

BTW, Biden has already fired the anti-union general counsel of the NLRB and the anti-consumer head of the consumer protection agency as well as a bunch of other Executive Orders including stopping construction of the stupid border wall.

Anonymous said...

All of you! Look at your jejune pandering to see who's the most 'authentic' of all -- and you're not teenagers anymore, any of you -- are you?

"Kvilischevskii ate raw cranberries and tried not to wince. He thought people would say 'what strength of character!' But no one said anything at all."
-D. Kharms

C said...


It is the second day of Biden's presidency, and legislation takes time. If Congress hasn't passed another major stimulus package in 3-4 weeks, then come back here and rant all you want.

I assume you're focused on the proposed $1400 stimulus checks, since the last stimulus package extends the federally enhanced unemployment insurance through mid-March.

I think there's a very good chance the Congressional Democrats will pass another round of stimulus checks (through budget reconciliation if necessary). So just be patient.

If you're really hurting financially (e.g. you have zero savings and little in your checking account) and really need that $1400, then just pay for necessities using your credit card(s). Yes, it's debt that incurs interest but it can help you get through these extraordinary times. Normally, I would avoid accumulating credit card debt but if I had to during this pandemic, I would not hesitate.

Do whatever it takes to survive, as long as you're acting ethically and legally.

Anonymous said...

lol. Voted for Biden for the $2k and already whining because "I want it now" instead of in a couple weeks.

Man, this comments section is a perfect microcosm example of how the modern left will devour itself and implode, inevitably. Made up of the 'secret tyrants' who hide their desires in virtuous words. You people will never be satisfied until everyone else has been crucified and you are the one in the throne.

Don't worry - the rest of us have plenty of patience for eating popcorn, watching the insanity, and finding a real leader in 2024.

Sparks said...

Bless you, Professor Wolff!

LFC said...

Although the "safety net" in the U.S. is frayed, inadequate, and requires navigating bureaucracy, it does exist, after a fashion. Someone who is in serious financial straits (and whose command of the language happens to be good enough to allow commenting on a blog, which is a plus, i.e. literacy is better than the opposite) should explore, possibly w the help of someone skilled in navigating the bureaucracy (though that may not be realistic), whether he/she qualifies for food stamps (SNAP, I believe it's called now), assistance w housing costs, or other things. The local (county, presumably, depending on where one lives) office/dept. of social services is probably the, or a, place to start. There are also food pantries run by private groups, churches, etc. (That's just off the top of my head; there are probably other resources.)

IOW, using credit cards, while one option I guess esp if one expects one's situation to change w/in a matter of say 6 months (on the best case scenario perhaps), is not the only or exclusive option for someone in that situation. Of course a great deal depends on the specific circumstances, I would think.

LFC said...

P.s. I'm not really the person best placed to be offering advice of this sort, but no one else was yet on the thread, so I thought I would. Of course henry did not divulge the details of his situation, and there's no reason he shd have. I suddenly have a weird deja vu feeling that this kind of conversation has been held here before, which is prob a signal I need to get off the computer, which I'm going to do.

C said...

I agree with LFC. I don’t know Henry’s situation but if necessary, use SNAP, food pantries, housing/rental assistance, the paycheck protection program for small businesses (if applicable), etc. Credit cards are one tool among others but credit card debt has interest and you must be able to pay the monthly minimum.

s. wallerstein said...

A completely innocent question about life in the USA.

Could a low income person in the U.S. today be expected to have a credit card?

I'm solidly middle class in Chilean terms (and at least lower middle class in U.S. terms) and I have no credit card, although I do have a debit card. I've applied for a credit card several times and been turned down.

LFC said...

s. wallerstein

I believe the short answer to your question is yes. The issuing banks in the U.S., I suspect, are less concerned w the person's income than w his/her credit history. So a "low-income" or low-assets person will not have much trouble getting a credit card, provided they haven't run up a lot of unpaid debt in the past. I'm not absolutely sure so stand open to correction, but I think that's right. Chilean issuers of credit cards may well operate differently.

LFC said...

P.s. That's not to say all low-income or poor people have credit cards by any means. Some don't have bank accounts either. It varies.

Anonymous said...

Chances are if you are low income and needing more credit cards to get by, your credit score is not going to be good - you will have missed payments, probably have had collections filed against you, and you won't qualify for a lot of credit. All of which will add up to a poor score and less chance of being issued any line of credit to your name.

If you qualify for one, it'll be maybe $1000 of credit at 30% interest a year full of extra penalties for anything else you do wrong.

s. wallerstein said...

Thanks everyone.

In Chile they don't issue credit cards to people with incomes below a certain level and they discriminate against seniors (like me) in issuing credit cards. I imagine that they calculate that seniors have a greater chance of dying or falling gravely ill and thus not paying debt.

C said...

As I said, credit cards are one tool among others and you must be able to pay the monthly minimum (which can be $35-40). If you cannot pay the monthly minimum or if you do a late payment (even once), the credit card company will significantly increase your interest rate.

So even if you're low-income or broke, use the credit card prudently. Live frugally. Do not max out your credit limit by buying a bunch of unnecessary stuff (e.g. the latest iPhone or iPad, a 4K Ultra HDTV, etc.). But if you've applied for SNAP, are waiting to be approved, and need to charge groceries to your credit card, then okay.

If you use your credit card prudently (i.e. for necessities) and your credit score still drops significantly, then it's not the end of the world. You can rebuild your credit score over time.

Once again, we are in extraordinary circumstances, and do whatever it takes to survive, as long as you're acting ethically and legally.

Eric said...

Let them eat cake.

(Or, as we say in the 21st century, they can just ring it up on their credit cards.)

GJ said...

In Canada, it doesn't matter if you have no income at all. As long as your credit score is good, you'll qualify for a credit card. In fact, even if you don't have a credit score, say because you've never been on the radar of credit reporting agencies due to borrowing inactivity, you'll qualify. University students are one of the favourite targets of credit card companies here.

Mobius Trip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mobius Trip said...

Victor Davis Hanson on some of these issues: