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.