It may go down in history as the “record player” debate. In the latest installment of “Survivor: Democratic Primary,” the most iconic moment was Joe Biden suggesting that poor parents should play the record player at night to make sure their kids are hearing more words.
It was considered a gaffe on a few levels. First of all, aside from a handful of Gen X hipsters, most people haven’t seen a record player in the last 30 years. But for far-left progressives, the problem wasn’t that Biden isn’t up on the latest tech, it’s that his answer was, in their judgement, racist. Here is a sampling of the commentary on Twitter:
FYI to all media: The issue with the Record Player Moment was the racism, not the outdated reference. https://t.co/8r2JeSjGq0
— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) September 13, 2019
So many problems with this. He didn't answer the question. He repeated a racist stereotype (using a debunked study). He still has a record player… But the pettiest problem… Does Joe Biden think black parents don't play their kids music?? Has he MET black people? https://t.co/2qMLU7EcP2
— Ashley Nicole Black (@ashleyn1cole) September 13, 2019
In summation, poor kids are just as bright as white kids, as long as they keep the record player on at night. #DemDebate
— Krystal Ball (@krystalball) September 13, 2019
Biden Didn’t Bow to Progressives’ Racial Views
This was a very telling moment regarding how race will play out in the 2020 primary, maybe the most telling that we have thus far seen. The question was an opportunity for Biden to walk back comments he made 40 years ago about not feeling responsible for slavery. In those old remarks, Biden essentially was saying that improving outcomes for black students today is what matters, not wrangling with the legacy of 1619.
This position is wildly out of step with modern American progressivism. For progressives, slavery and the resulting hundreds of years of racism are inexorably tied to improving outcomes today. Without a reckoning on the evils of racism, they believe improvement on race relations and group outcomes is impossible.
What was telling was that Biden did not walk back his decades-old comment — if anything, he doubled down on it. While he did nod to the idea that systemic segregation (not systemic racism) still exists, his policy proposals had nothing to do with reparations or healing the wounds of slavery. They had to do with creating better schools, and even more shocking to a modern progressive, they put some responsibility in the home.
The study Biden used about the 4 million-word gap between poor and wealthy students is debatable, but his broader point is quite correct. There are all kinds of metrics of family stability that correlate with academic achievement. And this question of how much of a role family stability plays in group outcomes is a very old one in the Democratic Party.
Patrick Moynihan in his famous report in 1965 sounded the warning about the crumbling of the black family in America. In her recent book “Primal Screams,” Mary Eberstadt shows that this crumbling has spread far and wide among poor white families as well.
Is There a Place for Biden in Today’s Democratic Party?
What Joe Biden was saying in this answer is that coming to terms with slavery, whatever we mean by that, is not going fix problems and change outcomes. Better schools and homes will change outcomes, and that’s what he will focus on. He was supposed to wax poetic about America’s original sin and talk about how much he’s grown since he made those intemperate comments. But he didn’t.
In recent weeks and in last night’s debate, Biden has been offering more modest proposals than his progressive opponents and leaning more into his role as the moderate voice in the presidential race. In a debate that could generally be summed up as “ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do for you,” Biden’s rhetoric about the importance of home life stood out.
Is there still an appetite in the Democratic Party for a candidate who says government exists to help individuals and families, but that it can’t solve all of their problems, that some of the responsibility for today’s sins — not slavery, but poor outcomes for far too many kids — also lies with us as citizens and human beings?
Biden’s answer will rankle no shortage of progressives for its impiety toward the church of identity, but a practical approach to solving today’s problems rather than arguing over policy from the 1830s will appeal to moderate Democrats. Biden just has to hope they still exist.