Asked about race at last week’s presidential debate, one candidate gave a very disappointing answer.
The other was Donald Trump.
Which is not to suggest 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.
But none of it was disappointing. To be disappointed, one must have had expectations of something better. Trump is what he is.
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,” Biden added, “there are some bad apples and when they find them, they have to be sorted out. They have to be held accountable.”
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 cliche 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.
Joe Biden is a good man.
We expect better of him.
Leonard Pitts Jr. can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.