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Joe Biden’s Stumble and the Fraught Distinction Between ‘Poor Kids’ and ‘White Kids’

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 09, 2019 5 min read
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The recent remark from former Vice President Joe Biden appearing to draw a line between “poor kids” and “white kids” caused a stir in the 2020 presidential contest and could continue to elevate controversy around his record on race, including his positions on school segregation and “busing.”

The statement, which he quickly tried to correct and his campaign tried to downplay as a gaffe, also revived his past comments about links between race, poverty, and educational attainment.

In a Thursday speech at a Des Moines, Iowa, town hall hosted by an Asian and Latino political coalition, Biden spoke about the need not to set low expectations for students even if they come from challenging circumstances.

“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 said, according to the New York Times, before pausing and then adding, “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids—no I really mean it, but think how we think about it.” Video of the comment is here at roughly the 35-second mark; as he speaks, there’s some applause from the audience. A Twitter account for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign highlighted the comment disparagingly and called it part of a pattern.

Biden’s campaign moved quickly to address the issue: A Biden campaign staffer told the Times Friday that the former vice president “misspoke and immediately corrected himself” and stressed Biden’s belief that all children can succeed whether they come from rich or poor households. Biden’s immediate follow-up comment indicated his awareness about how alarming his remark could be to many. Biden has called himself a “gaffe machine” in the past (although such a defense might start to ring hollow for some if it’s used frequently).

And the former U.S. senator from Delaware didn’t use his remark to launch a new policy in education or elsewhere. Indeed, Biden’s education platform focuses on the need to address “systemic racism” and tackle school segregation.

But there’s a backstory, and a set of assumptions, that should be explored in a little detail. One central point might be that Biden, while seeking to rebut stereotypes about disadvantaged students, seemed to express one of those very stereotypes, that poverty is a proxy for race. And stereotypes in that vein can have a significant impact on those children’s school experience.

Black Populations and Homes With ‘No Books’

It’s not the first time Biden has made controversial remarks—inadvertent or not—of how white and nonwhite families approach education differently.

During a previous run for president in 2007, Biden—once again speaking at an Iowa campaign event—was discussing Iowa’s superior school performance compared to that of Washington, D.C. He said the following:

There’s less than one percent of the population of Iowa that is African American. There is probably less than four of five percent that are minorities. What is in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you’re dealing with.

When you have children coming from dysfunctional homes, when you have children coming from homes where there’s no books, where the mother from the time they’re born doesn’t talk to them—as opposed to the mother in Iowa who’s sitting out there and talks to them, the kid starts out with a 300 word larger vocabulary at age three. Half this education gap exists before the kid steps foot in the classroom.

As with earlier this week, Biden’s staff moved quickly to clarify that 2007 statement, saying at the time that he “was not making a ‘race-based distinction’ but rather a ‘socio-economic’ one,” as CNN put it. (During that campaign, Biden also had to clear up remarks he made about then-rival candidate Barack Obama as “articulate and nice and clean.”)

Nevertheless, it’s striking that a dozen years ago, he stressed the disparate racial makeup of Iowa and the District of Columbia when explaining the academic achievement of both areas, and the amount of reading parents do with their children. And Biden’s reference at the time to a vocabulary gap between different types of households has also been called into question recently.

Perceptions and Bias

The way in which students of color are perceived by educators and the long-term repercussions of those perceptions is a significant challenge for teachers and others in school.

In 2017, the journal Education Next published a study finding that even when controlling for students’ backgrounds and other factors, the vast majority of teachers had notably lower expectations for black students than for white students. As Evie Blad wrote at the time for Education Week:

White teachers are generally less optimistic about their black students’ chances of obtaining a four-year degree than black teachers, a new study finds. And those lowered expectations could become “self-fulfilling prophecies” when students internalize them or when teachers change their approach to students as a result.

On the one hand, this underscores Biden’s point—or at least the point he said he was trying to convey—about how low expectations harm students. On the other hand, Biden’s implicit statement that nonwhite children are poor conveys its own stereotype that could be harmful to students of color.

Other recent work from Harvard and the American Psychological Association, to name just two, have also dealt with stereotypes about students of color. In addition, research published late last year shows certain benefits for black children when they are taught by a black teacher.

The idea that poverty is a proxy for race has faced increasing resistance.

A seminal 2018 study into long-term outcomes for children from different demographics, for example, found that, “When we compare the outcomes of black and white men who all grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth, and education, we continue to find that the black men still have significantly lower incomes in adulthood.”

And apart from anything else, of course, it’s a clear-cut mistake to disassociate the entire white population from poverty. The National Center for Education Statistics found in 2016 that 10 percent of white children under the age of 18 were living in poverty. That’s compared to 31 percent of black children, 26 percent of Hispanic children, and 10 percent of Asian-American children.

Finally, since we’re talking about a candidate for president: A Quinnipiac University poll released in late July found that Biden’s had the support of 53 percent of black Democratic voters, far outpacing any other candidate. It’s a very open question whether Biden’s record on busing, his gaffes concerning race, or other such factors actually influence such voters in any dramatic way.

Photo: Presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during the National Education Association’s presidential forum on July 5, 2019, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

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