To Prove Yeats Wrong
by Michael Eric Dyson, Centennial Chair and University Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies in the College of Arts and Science and University Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School
UNIFYING THEME: Race in America: Toward a Nation of Equality
SUMMARY: Joe Biden, a “sensitive soul, equal parts poetry and politics” represents more than the sum of his past policy positions to Black voters. The President-elect’s “simple, direct, yet profound humanity” and personal and honest experience with profound, soul-testing grief have cemented the bond between most of the Black electorate and Biden.
“I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.”
Most everything you need to know about Joe Biden and Black folk is contained in these brief declarative sentences that border on philosophical aphorism – but not from the stoic mind of Marcus Aurelius or the paradoxical pen of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The author of these sentences is neither a Roman Ruler nor an Austrian prodigy, but South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn – an American sage of sorts. He’s also a Black political force whose endorsement of Biden in February 2020 resurrected his campaign from political oblivion and swept him into the Oval Office. Sure, there was lots of elbow grease and coalition building, but for once a Black mark became a stamp of approval.
What exactly did Black folk know about Joe? For starters, that you can’t judge a man by a single inning in his life, and certainly not one in a metaphoric ballgame way in the past. When news surfaced that Biden had opposed busing in 1975, Black folk of a certain age – say those over 60 – were nearly ho-hum. A lot of white folk they knew had opposed the practice, so it was no skin off of Black backs to realize that a white man for whom they voted, whom they had grown to admire and like a great deal, had vigorously disputed the virtue of busing. That’s because Biden premised at least part of his opposition to busing on a familiar Black nationalist argument – at least familiar to him because he’d been paying attention in a way that lots of white folk hadn’t – that Black folk needed to build their own schools and institutions and stop craving white acceptance. Biden argued that desegregation was “rejection of the entire Black awareness concept, where Black is beautiful, Black should be studied; and the cultural awareness of the importance of their own identity, their own individuality.”
This shouldn’t be confused with the notion that sixties Black nationalist leaders and their white supremacist antagonists could at least agree that they couldn’t stand each other and that separation of the races – with adequate resources, at least from the Black side – was best for all involved. (Let’s not forget that ten members of the American Nazi Party attended a 1961 Nation of Islam rally where Malcolm X delivered a speech, “Separation or Death,” with Party leader, George Rockwell, telling the media, “I am fully in concert with their program.”) Instead Biden was acknowledging an edifying catechism of race pride that promoted Black power and collective self-determination and that preferred Black equality to white proximity. Could some white politicians endorse this view of race to escape the responsibility to direct political capital and financial resources to Black communities? Of course, and the fact that Biden initially supported busing when he ran for the Senate in 1972 before changing his mind when he encountered strong gusts of white opposition among his constituency means that his views weren’t driven by pure motives. As to those motives, and whether they revealed a racist inclination, Biden says he turned to the Blacks on his staff to ask if there was something “in me that’s deep-seated that I don’t know.” That might sound contrived, or hopelessly naïve, but there is something to be said for seeking to determine one’s level of racial self-deception.
Black folk, rather than archiving Biden’s missteps and cataloguing his wrong thinking, were far more interested in the dominant bent of Biden’s career, the evolution of his racial consciousness, his effort to get things right on race over the years, and especially, his effort to stand by, and behind, Barack Obama, our first Black president. Biden’s familiarity with Black culture, its rhythms and designs, its desires and frustrations, endeared him to Black folk over the long haul. You could fairly taste his comfort with Black culture at his annual Black History Month shindigs at the Vice-Presidential manse, that were funkier and more intimate than their White House counterparts. And his deeply loyal service to Obama more than wiped clean his slate after he praised Barack, during Biden’s second run for the Oval Office, for being the first “articulate…and clean” Black candidate for the presidency. It’s not that Black folk don’t keep score; it’s that they generally give higher marks for intent versus a flub or flop and place more weight on noble aspiration than on poor performance. Biden was hammered by younger Black folk for his support of the infamous nineties crime bill that had pernicious consequences on Black America. And yet many older Black folk remember that quite a few brothers and sisters were in queue to support the bill because of the menace of crack cocaine and its heartless ravaging of Black communities. To indict Biden out of context was to manipulate history for convenient and shortsighted politics; it was to insert ideology to obscure unlikable facts.
Clyburn understood that the masses of Black voters, especially older voters, know that politics is chess, not checkers, that it’s the long game, not the instant satisfaction or immediate payoff. Older Black voters were Aristotelian in their understanding of how character is shaped by habits and dispositions, by long practice and repetition of virtuous acts that fill in the blanks of one’s political persona. They knew they could trust Biden, that he wouldn’t undercut the first Black president, that he would stand up in defense of Black interests as he learned more and more over the decades of exactly how Black folk needed meaningful education, substantive health care, good jobs, better housing and the relief from social misery.
Biden took these things in moderate stride and in centrist swings at the plate of social reform. As a Black progressive, I can acknowledge that there is distance between me and Biden on what to do about law enforcement and the plague of police brutality – but then, that same gap existed between me and Obama. Beyond our political differences, beyond our vigorously contrasted views of how we can stop Black blood flowing in the streets from a cop’s pistol, baton or knee, I have come to trust that Biden’s political instincts, and his developed intuition, are at least oriented toward making things far better than leaving them far worse. That’s by no means perfection in public policy, but it is a great improvement over what we’ve seen in the last four years.
It is, perhaps, Biden’s experience of grief, the way he publicly mourns his losses, the way trauma has tracked his life and hounded his happiness, that offers insight about the compassion that hugs his worldview. It also opens a natural simpatico between Black folk and the Irishman who draws strength from the poetry of Seamus Heaney, and seems at the ready, always, to meet Yeats’s insistence that the center cannot hold with a political pedigree that proves that it will. There is something about the suffering Biden has endured that endears him to Black folk who, collectively, have withstood the withering assaults on our psyches by insensitive bigots, and by shrewd and cruel systems of oppression. And there’s something about the visceral pain of Black folk that shapes our bodies and attunes our spirits to those who lose greatly what they love and labor over, an experience that binds Biden and Black folk in metrics of misery. But there is, too, improbable and stubborn hope that inspires Biden and lots of Black folk to break the shackles of enduring tragedy. This sense of empathy doesn’t show up in predictive algorithms, or in polling, but it registers in the bodies of Black folk and in the souls of seasoned veterans of social struggle – and in the efforts of ordinary Black folk just to survive. That gives Biden far deeper resonance in Black circles than it might seem when younger Blacks dispute Biden’s political agenda.
The most dramatic display of Biden’s deep Black appeal may be measured in his simple, direct, yet profound humanity. After Trump, that can never again be taken for granted; it can never be presumed that a kindly gracious approach that revels in humaneness and the felicity of niceness will again be what we can expect. Biden’s return to decency is more than a foundational moral virtue; it is a political asset that generates the sort of connections between citizens that should prevail, finally, even above the din of partisan fractiousness. To progressives and the left-wing, Biden’s impulse to reach across the aisle can be seen, with some justification, as a surrender of precious ideological territory that could otherwise preserve political gain. But the bigger impulse must not be lost in the fray, and that is Biden’s strong suit: no matter what differences we have as a people this nation must not be ransomed to politics that put party above country.
After four years of disconcerting assaults on the American spirit, and vicious tirades against our formidable institutions from the highest echelons of power, Biden’s grace and demeanor are a huge benefit to the nation. His virtues in this arena need not be a deficit for Black progress. Even his centrist politics can help soothe a nation embroiled in battle with its identity and undergoing a reckoning with race. We need support from all quarters as we fight to restore the balance of power to “we, the people.” The ruinous neo-fascism of Donald Trump has also opened the eyes of many citizens to the horrors of racial injustice; both ills gained scary intensity under the same figure.
All of this must be kept in mind when we measure Biden’s moral and political rebukes of racial intolerance. Biden is keenly aware of what he owes to Black America. No president has been as direct in acknowledging this debt as the basis of both cultural recompense and political payback. “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” Biden has convincingly begun the effort to make good on that debt. More than 20 Cabinet officials have been selected; half of them are women, 12 of them are people of color, including 5 who are Black, 3 who are Latinx, 3 who are Asian American Pacific Islander, and one who is Indigenous – and one is gay. Those numbers are quite solid and suggest that Biden will keep his word as he keeps adding to his cabinet.
Biden’s choice of a Black and Southeast Asian woman as Vice-President is a remarkable gesture of investment in Black political possibility – and a dramatic extension of the Black political future: he has put Kamala Harris in position to possibly become in a relatively few years the first Black female president. Moreover, he has pledged to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court.
But beyond the numbers and calculations of diversity lies the understanding of how race works, of what is owed loyal Black voters, of how the nation can hardly begin repair without grappling with the persistent racial inequalities that mar the national character.
Joe Biden is a healing force and redeeming voice amidst the racial carnage left in the wake of the Trump presidency. He has clearly shown that he has a far more robust understanding of how national unity and racial togetherness works: it doesn’t rest on the suppression of racial difference or the silencing of healthy conflict. Rather, Biden understands that we must wrestle with the bloody cultural wars that have sapped our will to embrace diverse identities and unorthodox bodies. The last four years have eviscerated the substance of true multiracial democracy. Trump and the right wing have crafted policies to contain the exaggerated threats of immigrants and to fight the mythical menace of people of color.
Nowhere was this more clearly seen than in the melee on the Mall when Trump partisans engulfed the nation’s capital in an anti-democratic miasma – all in the belief that the nation had turned its back on them because it had rejected their Bigot in Chief. If, as Howard Thurman argues, a bigot is a person who makes an idol of his commitments, then the poisonous prejudice that polluted the land also infiltrated the reasoning of the 45th president’s followers. A president’s reckless rhetoric convinced them that BLM is the scourge of democracy and baited them into self-destructive behavior. In this shameful instance of disloyalty to democracy, our racial “what if” clashed with our political “couldn’t be”: what if this had been BLM protesters, they would have hardly been treated with such high regard. But the reason the militants on the Mall got the kid glove treatment is because much of our society – and law enforcement that was present – insisted at the outset that it couldn’t be true that these white citizens were domestic terrorists carrying out a vile act of sedition. An anemic view of patriotism failed to expose traitorous action and insurrectionist impulse. But in the era of Trump the yearning to secede from the nation is often read as an enduring sign of loyalty.
As we welcome a new year, a new administration, and, hopefully, a new destiny, Joe Biden looms as a healing Lincoln ready to bring us out of the long night of racial catastrophe into a new daylight of a just and righteous national unity. Or perhaps he will be a savvy FDR offering a racial and political New Deal. Perhaps he can even bring back a commitment to the poorest and most vulnerable as in LBJ’s Great Society. Or he might pick up Clinton’s will to racial conversation, or Obama’s artful grappling toward a more perfect union. Or, maybe, just maybe, he will be Joe Biden: a sensitive soul, equal parts poetry and politics, laying claim to rational deliberation and spiritual aspiration to make us live up to our motto: E pluribus Unum – Out of many, one.
About Michael Eric Dyson:
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson is the Centennial Chair at Vanderbilt University and serves as University Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies in the College of Arts and Science and University Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society in the Divinity School. He is also a New York Times contributing opinion writer, and a contributing editor of The New Republic, and of ESPN’s The Undefeated website. His rise from humble roots in Detroit to his present perch as a world class intellectual, noted author of 21 books, prominent leader and national media fixture testify to his extraordinary talent. Dyson has also taught at other elite universities like Georgetown University as a sociology professor, Brown University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Columbia University and The University of Pennsylvania.