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Joe Biden’s “you ain’t black” comments and what they mean for Black America come Election Day

“If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black,” Joe Biden grinned at Charlamagne Tha God during an interview with “The Breakfast Club” on Friday (May 22) morning.

Joe Biden AP

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

When I was a kid, I always heard (mostly) white classmates telling me “you’re not really black” in a way that was intended to be complimentary. As a grade school kid, I didn’t really know what to do with that feedback. As an HBCU student, it infuriated me. As an adult, it says more to me about the speaker than the spoken-to.

Every marginalized group has its measures of membership: “If you don’t (know/watch/love/listen to/think) _____ you ain’t really (black/gay/a feminist/Asian/otherwise about that life). We use said measures as a bit of sarcasm that’s rooted in some amount of reality; stereotypes come from somewhere.

We do it with things and ideas, we do it with words. Black people are generally allowed to call black people “n**gas.” Women can generally call other women “b**ches.” Gay people can generally call each other “f**gots” or “punks” and it’s accepted by many.

It’s a phenomenon that is explicitly intra-, not inter-. When launched from a person outside of the community, it can quickly go from friendly fire to piercing language.

“If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black,” Joe Biden grinned at Charlamagne Tha God. Biden’s throwaway comment at the end of nearly 20 minutes of conversation pierced the zeitgeist because it was both correct for a lot of people, but it was coming out of the wrong mouth.

In my mind, I felt Symone Sanders – Biden’s senior advisor and probably best surrogate –heard his words and put her palm to her forehead, thinking, “We were almost out of here without a readymade-for-a-black-Twitter-drag gaffe.”

Meanwhile, back here in reality, Sanders tweeted: “The comments made at the end of ‘The Breakfast Club’ interview were in jest, but let’s be clear about what the VP was saying: He was making the distinction that he would put his record with the African American community up against Trump’s any day. Period.”

His best surrogate. She’s also... not wrong.

It’s no secret I’ve never been a fan of his candidacy.

“Joe Biden didn’t have any business saying what he said, period. He’s not a candidate I’m excited about, considering the field of options we had,” I tweeted in the hours following the comments. “But, there’s no question as to who I’m voting for when it’s Biden or Trump.”

We’ve been told that Biden was the great white hope; he’s the antidote to Trump that white people in the midwest would feel most comfortable with over Trump; he’s (insert anything here about Barack Obama).

He’s been sort of the party’s heir-apparent like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton in 2016 (may their campaigns rest).

But… Joe Biden.

He’s never been a stellar. We started to see that clearest when the Democrats’ primary debates started. Once he had to start talking extemporaneously, the cracks in the foundation started to show.

He didn’t always seem to have the cognitive ability to get his message across. He often didn’t say the right things when it counted. He yielded his time in a way that made him feel relieved to not have to talk anymore.

But… Joe Biden is the best option we’ve got. Do I trust he knows the issues? Yes. Do I think he knows how to handle the big challenges? Sure. Do I believe he is well-intentioned? I do.

I’m not going to let a(nother) gaffe, without significant substance, play into the hands of the alternative.

In a group chat, a couple of friends said they always think about a Toni Morrison quote in moments like these. It honestly almost made me stop writing in the middle of this piece.

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

Democrats have a serious problem on their hands that a Biden-promise of a black woman being on the Supreme Court won’t fix. Democrats have a storied history of playing to black voters when election season comes around, then forgetting who has turned out for them most loyally time and time again. Spoiler alert: It certainly wasn’t 53% of white women.

But, I’m not voting for Trump’s brand of anti-blackness. Not because of this. Not now. Not ever. I don’t know if it’s an endorsement for Biden or not, but I am voting for him.

As a millennial, we’ve been spoiled and soiled by the presidents in our lifetimes. In my 35 years, presidents who are Democrats are generally young, charismatic, aspirationally intellectual and inspiring. They come in and clean up the s**tstorm of wreckage left behind by the Republican before them, and they leave the economy better than they found it.

What Republicans can say that in my lifetime? Not George Bush. Or George Bush. And neither will Trump.

Republican presidents of my lifetime are typically… shall we say… “less-than-bright.” They come in to surpluses, growth, and prosperous scenarios and always find a way to ruin it. They’re the metaphorical rock stars that leave the metaphorical hotel room trashed after doing God knows what, while they were there. And Democrats are, metaphorically, the housekeeping staff.

I want to make a Betty Wright Clean Up Woman reference here, but the actual lyrics won’t let me be great. Biden is knocking on America’s door, saying “housekeeping.”

He’s not young, he’s not charismatic, and I’ve probably never felt inspired by him. He may not be able to clean up this mess to granny’s standard, but he’s the guy holding the broom.

Diddy, while in a conversation with Naomi Campbell, recently said that he was holding his vote “hostage” until he was clear on what Biden was doing for black people.

I wholly get the sentiment.

I think an even better strategy, however, would be recognizing that if he wins, we are all going to be tasked with holding Biden to account. We have to be part of the white glove test to his clean up. We have to run our finger tip across the mantle of our freedom. We have to hold it up to light and show where the dirt remains.

Biden isn’t going to be a great president if we don’t recognize it ain’t about him being something. It’s about us making him be what we need him to be to get what we need.

He at least seems to hear the feedback when he’s wrong, and while it’s a low bar to rise to, it’s higher than what we’ve got right now.

“I should not have been so cavalier. I’ve never, never, ever taken the African American community for granted,” he said in a call to black business leaders from the US Black Chambers on Friday afternoon. ”No one should have to vote for any party based on their race, their religion, their background.”

That was because black folks held up the glove and said…“unh-uh. Do it again.”

The childhood version of me has learned that when Biden is telling me about what my blackness needs to look like, it’s really saying more about him than it ever says about me. But, when Trump is handing him the keys to the White House, it will be us who will be taking on a job, as well. I don’t have it in me to infight right now about white people’s shortcomings when it comes to doing right by us.

Because as Morrison knew, “There will always be one more thing.”

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