Last Tuesday, Donald Trump and Joe Biden had their first presidential debate. I went through a wide range of emotions during and after, from exasperation to amusement. I’ve spent the last week thinking about the subtle things I missed, thanks to the distracting embarrassment that was the current president’s behavior. I’ve come to realize that what bothers me most about that debate is that neither one of them, when speaking about “The American People,” was speaking to me.
When Donald Trump told Joe Biden that learning about America’s racist past is, in itself, racist, it was an opportunity for Biden. If Biden believes and is capable of articulating why we must confront America’s racist legacy and why it still hurts us now, that was the time to say so.
Joe Biden had the opportunity to speak to people who continue to be marginalized by systems and institutions in this country that were explicitly not made for them. Last Tuesday, Biden had the opportunity to look at us and say, I see you, I understand, I get it.
The debate made it clear to me that Biden does not get it, and apparently, the people guiding him and his campaign don’t either, or are not empowered enough to have the kind of challenging conversations and internal debates that would have prepared him to speak coherently on the matter.
The demographics of America are different now than they were when these two were of working age (ie. below 65). America’s choices for leadership should not be between two people who can’t articulate the truth about this country and how it effects a growing number of people in it. And yet, here we are.
And it’s not just marginalized people who are traumatized in and by this country. Paradoxically, people who benefit from America’s foundation of white supremacy are traumatized by it too. It’s kind of why German people learn about the Holocaust at an early age – an attempt not to repeat the past. The only way to avoid repeating behavior is to talk about it. There’s a quote by James Baldwin making its way around media circles right now that perfectly speaks to this: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
It’s not racist to point out reality.
They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over again. Well, the person representing the party explicitly seeking the votes of marginalized people should have an organic and well thought out response regarding race in America that speaks to the people who experience it. Without an attempt at that kind of representation, it’s nothing but the same stale behavior the party has displayed for the past 30+ years, packaged in a different form with new talking points.
I don’t know Joe Biden, and I don’t know what the inside of his campaign is like. I’d hope that they engage in vigorous, challenging, and uncomfortable conversation — debates — at a microlevel, every week, every day. I’d hope that Biden has hard conversations about race with his staff, his family, and his friends — especially the wealthier ones. I’d hope those conversations include people under 30 struggling to pay student loans, afford rent, and build wealth.
Most Americans, regardless of race or political party, are just one not-even-catastrophic event away from financial ruin. I’d hope Joe Biden has regular, frank conversations about that with people currently experiencing it. Unfortunately, everything about his debate performance signaled to me that he is not.
If Biden is having those conversations, if he is intimately familiar with the problems experienced by people in this country, responding to Trump’s rhetoric about cultural sensitivity training would have come more easily, because he would have been practiced. He could have and should have been more fluent about it, because it’s a fundamental part of America that any good leader must be able to speak to. To take things further, and if he has access to an olive branch, he could have taken the opportunity to give a true apology to Anita Hill, explain why he’s apologizing, provide the context behind it, and mean it. But he didn’t, and he won’t.
I don’t know Joe Biden, and I don’t know who he surrounds himself with. I don’t know if he’s having hard conversations — I can’t tell, which for me is the trouble. What I do know from that first debate is that he’s not speaking to me. Maybe tonight things will feel different with Kamala. Hopefully.