Generational Words Bias Biden’s Perception of African-Americans

It wasn’t so much the use of the term “record player” at the Sept. 13 debate that revealed former Vice President Joe Biden’s generational filters. The offensive idea that African Americans need government help raising children dates back to 1970s arguments about busing, segregation and social welfare.

Biden gave a rambling response to a question about slavery and his past statements about reparations and inequality. Here is the excerpt that came under intense scrutiny:

We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children,” Biden said. “It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

This was yet another incidence of believing poor, nonwhite children are inferior to Caucasian counterparts. In an Aug. 9 appearance in Des Moines, Biden said: “We have this notion that somehow if you’re poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”

Biden’s reference to words (“4 million fewer”) is intriguing. Living Media Ethics contains a section on words and phrases that provoke intense feelings–often ones we don’t regularly share with others–revealing hidden bias as well as generational and personal filters.

These are “trigger words” because they spark a reaction inside us and, consequently, cause us to lose perspective when we most need it.

Biden needed perspective and composure, especially since he was on national television in a vital debate at a historically black educational venue, Texas Southern University. A candidate for office should never make inappropriate racial comments. But doing so at a HBCU institution is certainly not the place to commit a gaffe that indicates insensitivity to audience.

While the term “record player” in Biden’s response betrayed a generational filter, the real triggers were embedded in the question of ABC News moderator Linsey Davis:

Mr. Vice President, I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, ‘I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.’ You said that some 40 years ago. But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?

Here are words and phrases that may have set off alarms in Biden’s bumbled response:

  • Segregation. Biden embraced segregation in 1975.
  • 1975.  (See above.)
  • Responsibility. “I don’t feel responsible for the sins, etc.”
  • Repair. Reference to reparations, which Biden hesitates to affirm.
  • Legacy. His own, including past statements on race.
  • Slavery.  All of the above.

Although Biden still enjoys a plurality of support within the African American community, journalists and social media are documenting his past views on race. New York Magazine published this retrospective:

Joe Biden once called state-mandated school integration “the most racist concept you can come up with,” and Barack Obama “the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.” He was a staunch opponent of “forced busing”in the 1970s, and leading crusader for mass incarceration throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Uncle Joe has described African-American felons as predators” too sociopathic to rehabilitate — and white supremacist senators as his friends.

In response to ABC’s Davis, Biden did mention that he supported federal intervention to investigate the practice of “redlining,” in which neighborhoods were outlined in red on maps to indicate areas too risky for mortgages. Often, blacks were deprived of loans and home ownership because of that process.

However, this post is not about Biden or the race for U.S. president. The two-fold lesson here concerns media practitioners:

Impartiality. Media practitioners should be aware of their own trigger words. This is an important aspect of fairness. Broadcasters especially have to be cognizant of words directed at them, meant to spark a reaction in an initial or follow-up question so as to reveal their own biases on a topic.

Research. Journalists and practitioners should craft well-researched questions–just as ABC’s Davis did in the debate–containing provocative words to elicit a truthful response from a client or source.

Readers of Living Media Ethics and students in author Michael Bugeja’s media ethics classes at Iowa State University are asked to compile a list of their own trigger words and phrases that evoke intense emotion, based on generational, familial and experiential influences. They also are instructed on how to research a client or source so as to phrase interview questions based on past responses or statements on record.


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