Friday, July 31, 2009

"Beer summit": Why was Biden there?

I've had some issues with President Obama since his election - in fact, I was saying to my partner the other day that if Gallup called me, I'm not sure I'd say I approve of his performance at all. But I have liked the way that he's handled the Henry Louis Gates situation: he called it what it was, he didn't back down on his central points, and he took proactive action to move the situation forward.

Unlike some, I actually like his framing of it as "let's all have a beer". I'll admit that there are some class implications, and maybe the focus should be solely on this "teaching moment". But I think that it's it cools the situation slightly, makes it less intimidating and more accessible. White folks who react defensively to the situation because of the race issues involved will be able to identify with the slowed pace and calmer tone of the situation, and it's my hope that it will help them to identify with the situation and learn from it. Even the articles which (perhaps problematically) focus on beer to the exclusion of race help others to access it in a more familiar and comfortable way, and perhaps that will help them to understand the racial issues at hand.

[All of the above may be my white privilege at work, though. It's also colored by the perspective of an avid beer lover.]

Having said that, I really objected to the inclusion of Vice-President Biden in the ballyhooed conversation:
The addition of Mr. Biden was interesting, for a number of reasons. Mr. Biden was able to draw on his credibility with blue-collar, labor union America and his roots in Scranton, Pa., to add balance to the photo op that the WhiteHouse presented: two black guys, two white guys, sitting around a table.
Question: Why do we need to have a white guy to make white folks more comfortable?

The beer thing I have less of an objection to because it's both deliberate and organic. Having a beer together is natural cultural language for hanging out and being comfortable, and it kept the flames of the controversy from being stoked into a blaze. It's framing that does a lot to continue the conversation in a productive way without devaluing the race issues at hand.

And frankly, that's enough of a concession.

Making sure that there are equal white guys and black guys in a conversation about racism smacks of cries of "reverse racism". White people must insist that they are fairly represented and have just as much power as the black guys. It fails to acknowledge that the heart of the discussion is about a distinct LACK of power on the part of some people.

Furthermore, all of the men have a distinct stake in this. What real and prescient reason is there to include Biden? He hasn't been a part of the national conversation on this. Why have a notably garrulous man there to take attention from the principals active in the situation?

Another question I have: IF racial balance were so vital here, why not include one of the other principals in the situation: Lucia Whalen?

One definitively positive facet of Biden's participation is the inclusion of a non-drinker in a meeting so focused on beer and alcohol. I'm not an abstainer, but I have issues with how ingrained drinking is into the culture - it's almost made mandatory. Considering that alcholism is a disease, this is problematic.

I do see the working-class roots, but ... Obama has pretty working-class roots. Though his parents were well-educated, his mother frequently lacked money and he was largely raised by his grandparents, who were not rich. People talk about how elite Obama is, but that's a function of racism: he was not given the same advantages as a George W. Bush, a John Kerry, an Al Gore. Biden also came from middle-class roots; only his education (University of Maryland, Syracuse) was less elite than Obama's, and Biden's is nothing to sneeze at.

Also, Gates doesn't exactly have a privileged background. His father worked at the paper mill, and his mother cleaned houses. He's obviously on a grand stage now, but that doesn't mean that he's divorced from a economically unprivileged perspective. And if we're just talking about class privilege now...uh, I think Biden has everyone except Obama beat there.

What do you think?

Further reading from Shakesville.


  1. From a "teaching moment" perspective, getting everyone to sit down, have a beer and talk things out certainly seems like a positive thing, over yelling, name calling, whatever (whether deserved or not).

    But beyond that, too much "I shouldn't have to accomodate your ignorance/bigotry" quickly slips into "I'd rather proselytise from the moral high ground than make progress as a society", which Obama as president should want to stay away from. Yeah, white people are going to find two black guys lecturing one white guy about how he's a racist bigot a lot more threatening than they will with the far more "friendly discussion without strict racial lines" atmosphere Biden creates. This values pragmatism over principles, I guess, a charge I am usually guilty of.

  2. Man, how did I manage to miss this entire event? I guess I haven't been paying much attention to the news since moving back to the swamp.

    I'm more than a little horrified at the situation, and how they're going to "agree to disagree". What about? *sigh*

    And I'll just drop this link here, which explains who Lucia Whalen is, because as someone who had no idea what happened, I found this helpful:

  3. I have to kindly disagree with you here. I did not think that the inclusion of Joe Biden at all had anything to do with his race. He is the Vice-President of the United States, so it's not completely out of the realm of imagination that he'd show up for something at the White House.

    I haven't heard anything saying that she wasn't invited, however, since she seemed to be VERY low-key until a few days ago when she gave a news conference, so I'm not entirely surprised that she wasn't there.

  4. Of course it has something to do with race - the New York Times comes to the very same conclusion, as you can see above. Biden has his own stuff going on, and little to nothing to do with this conversation. I just take a darker view of this inclusion.

  5. Maybe they brought Biden in to make the cop feel more comfortable. That's how I read it.

  6. Here by way of Feministe.

    Co-signing with @tediousandbrief.

    I also think the presence of the VP was a way to bridge a racial gap, given his (Biden's) background.


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