Asked about race at Tuesday night’s presidential debate, one candidate gave a very disappointing answer.
The other was Donald Trump.
Which is not to suggest that Trump had satisfactory answers. To the contrary, asked by moderator Chris Wallace why America should trust him to heal its racial wounds, he was, as is his norm, nonsensical and miles wide of any discernible point.
He leaned into the asinine claim that he has done more for African Americans than any president since Lincoln. For good measure, he declined to condemn white supremacy and instead gave the Proud Boys, an ultraviolent, ultraright hate group, what amounted to a shout-out: “Stand back and stand by.” Indeed, Trump turned the entire debate into the hottest of hot messes, his constant interruptions, non sequiturs and insults offering superfluous evidence that he is a vulgar cretin with impulse control issues.
But none of it was disappointing. To be disappointed, one must have had expectations of something better. And who can honestly say they expected this 74-year-old 3-year-old to behave like an adult? Trump is what he is. And as one is not disappointed when a hog wallows in slop, one cannot be disappointed when he behaves like an ass.
But Joe Biden is a compassionate and honorable man whose intentions are unimpeachable. That’s why it was such a letdown to hear him address the issue of race and policing with shallow incomprehension.
“The vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable, men and women,” he said, and of course, they are. “They risk their lives every day to take care of us,” he said, and of course they do. “But,” he added, “there are some bad apples and when they find them, they have to be sorted out. They have to be held accountable.”
“Bad apples.” Again with the bad apples.
That’s the unfortunate formulation favored by those who insist on framing racism as a personal character flaw like arrogance or greed. What makes Biden’s resort to that tedious cliché especially troublesome is that it came after he acknowledged the reality of structural racism. Which suggests that while he spoke the words, he doesn’t truly understand them.
For the umpteenth time: the issue is not bad apples. Ultimately, it is not even the police, who are not unique, except insofar as they have the power to arrest and kill, which makes their mistakes more visceral and dramatic. Otherwise, there’s little real difference between policing and politics, health, business, news, or any other institution you care to name. They all reflect the biases of the society they serve.
So it’s not that a given cop is a bad person. It’s that the very definition of policing includes conflating criminality with skin color. As the definition of doctoring includes less aggressive care for Black patients. As the definition of reporting includes pathologizing African American life. And so on.
To be a member in good standing of whatever institution presupposes and encourages this. It is racial bias with profound effect, yet no single author, bias that cloaks itself in “the way things are.” And one doesn’t defeat it by good intentions or being “nice” to Black people. One defeats it by taking purposeful and intentional action to do so. Which requires that one first recognize what one is dealing with: not the apple but the tree. And the soil in which it takes root.
Look, Trump has the moral fiber of plankton. He is a fundamentally bad human being. So no one is shocked that he comprehends none of this.
But Biden is a good man.
We expect better of him.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91st Avenue, Doral, Florida 33172. Write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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