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Children on a school bus in Charlotte, North Carolina, 1973. The worst instance of racism may be its effect on childrenEXPAND
Children on a school bus in Charlotte, North Carolina, 1973. The worst instance of racism may be its effect on children
Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress

Dear Joe: Just Don’t Do the Not-a-Bone-in-My-Body Thing. Better to Be Quiet.

Please, deliver us. Before this presidential election is over, is every old white guy in America going to say the not-a-racist-bone thing? If nobody’s got a racist bone in his body, how in the hell did we get here?

This whole election is about race. The whole country is about race. As far as I can tell, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are about race. Show me a bunch of white people anywhere in this world, I’ll show you a bunch of race.

That seems to be the basic modus operandi for the 21st century. As soon as significant numbers of so-called nonwhite people started pulling ahead of so-called white people — the Obama family on TV every day, for example — white people everywhere went meshuggah. Some white people. Not me. There’s not a meshuggah bone in my body. Oh, no, now I’ve said it, too — the bone in the body thing.

It’s just a bad thing to say. And maybe it’s actually worse than that. I discussed this last week on vacation with my brother-in-law while we sat by a warm June fire in a cold stone cottage in Maine. I told him I had winced when I heard Joe Biden tell Cory Booker in the first Democratic presidential debate, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.”

“I just don’t think white guys who are Biden’s and my age should say the bone thing,” I said. “Doesn’t sound good.”

“And not true,” he said.

Well, yes, there is that. There’s a little bone in there somewhere, I’ll guarantee you, and among old white people, my own demo, you’ve probably got some big bones plus quite a bit of cartilage.

Biden made it worse, it seemed to me, by appending to his bone statement, “I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career.”

Yeah, Joe, that’s a big so-what in the bone department. I think Biden has been on the right side much more than on the wrong one during his career, but that’s a kind of public philosophical matter. Don’t get me wrong: It’s better to have a virtuous philosophy than an evil one. But racism at its core isn’t all that susceptible to philosophy.

Racism is far more gut than that, deeper in the bones than we think, and, especially among people who grew up deep in the island of white, we can’t just think our way off the island. It takes a bunch of swimming.

Then last Sunday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham jumped into the racist bone debate on CBS Face the Nation: “But anybody that knows Joe Biden,” Graham said, “there's not a racist bone in his body.”

Oh, my goodness, what is the damn deal with the bone in the body thing? And coming from Graham? Graham has an ACLU rating of zero on civil rights — zip, nada, not even 1%. The man has every right to his convictions, but if I were Lindsey Graham and I had an ACLU rating of 0%, I would lean way over hard away even enough to tip over the boat and fall in the water before I made a bone statement. Not a good look for Graham.

As I said at the top, the bone thing is probably a lot worse than just a bad look for Biden. California Sen. Kamala Harris put the entire issue of racism right at its most barbed, wounding and telling point when she described her own experience as a black child bused to a white school in Berkeley, California, in 1970. The toughest thing for white people to look at and comprehend honestly is the effect of racism on children.

Yet it shouldn’t be all that hard for us to imagine. It’s one of those shoe-on-the-other-foot exercises. Imagine that here stands my beautiful little daughter whom I love more than the sun, the moon and the stars, who has no idea, not one inkling that she is black, white or anything but alive, and I am about to put her on a bus and send her to a place where some people — it only takes a few — will convey to her that they think she is ugly, that she is stupid and that she is unworthy of being alive.

And, wait. There was always an easy way out of that. Don’t send the black kids to the white schools. Bus the white kids to the black schools. Get them off the island of white. Aren’t they the ones with the problem, anyway?

None of that means we should not have tried busing. There were ways to make it work. Busing may have been painful, even brutal to children, but the goal was good, and the brutality only took place because white people did not want busing to work.

That’s where we get down to brass tacks on Biden and his bones. White people my age who have been paying attention know that Biden would not be a presidential candidate now, would never have been vice president of the United States or a U.S. senator had he not worked to defeat busing.

Let’s look at it another way. Beginning in the 1970s, had Biden put himself forward as an unswerving white champion of busing, his ascent to the Senate and later to the White House would have been nothing short of a miracle. Maybe science fiction. No white guy, Democrat or Republican, rose to the top of national politics in this country during that period by supporting busing.

President Jimmy Carter said he supported the goals of school busing but opposed large-scale implementation. U.S. Senator Joe Biden supported busing and then opposed it.
President Jimmy Carter said he supported the goals of school busing but opposed large-scale implementation. U.S. Senator Joe Biden supported busing and then opposed it.
Office of United States Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware)

Worse, Biden fought busing in that particularly unappetizing way that all white liberal Democrats did back then, by coming up with stupid sophistries. Oh, no, he says now, he was never opposed to busing: “I did not oppose busing in America,” he told Harris in the debate. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”

Oh, please. That’s like saying you just didn’t like the yellow buses. P.R. Lockhart has a great piece up on VOX this week explaining how the federal bureaucratic mandates that Biden seems to be talking about were executive implementations of law laid down by the courts. To oppose implementation was to oppose law.

Lockhart describes Biden’s quite tortured history on busing over the years. Biden did try to support busing. He went out on limbs. He clearly believed in it. But in 1974 Boston exploded in riots over busing; Biden’s Democratic constituency in Delaware had already turned virulently anti-busing; he was taking serious heat; and in 1975 Biden threw in the towel.

“I have become convinced that busing is a bankrupt concept,” he said, explaining his vote in favor of an amendment authored by North Carolina senator and arch-segregationist Jesse Helms. The amendment banned the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare from collecting data on the race of students and teachers in public schools.

Get it? You can’t desegregate white and black students if you don’t know who’s black and who’s white, and you can’t know that if there’s a law saying you’re not allowed to find out. So, no, Biden didn’t vote against busing. He voted against allowing the government to count.

Sorry, let me bore you with a personal detail. In a very long career as a local reporter working in diverse newsrooms and neighborhoods, it has been my distinct privilege and my even more distinct pain to have had black and Hispanic colleagues on numerous occasions catch me being a white guy. It has almost never been confrontational, more often quite casual, as in, “Hey, Schutze, why do you say that?”

I have seldom taken it gracefully. I demanded of a colleague once, “Are you calling me racist?” She said, “Not yet. I’m calling you white.”

I’ve never once won one of those. I wanted to. I fought back. But later that night in the quiet of my own apartment, I thought, “Damnation. She’s right. There’s a little bone in there somewhere. Must have missed it on my last scan.”

Missing that little racist bone in the body gets more serious when we begin to look honestly at the global effluvium of white identitarian resentment in this century. After all, denying that we have even a bone, denying that we have anything to do with racism, is like refusing to count the black kids and the white kids. Where in the hell do we think it comes from? The moon?

Maybe the bone question is even the core moral conundrum of white. What does white mean, if it doesn’t mean racism? I can describe my own family tree, root and branch, and never mention the word. I love the stories of my forebears coming to the New World and forging a path forward for me and my progeny. That’s the same story we all share as Americans. Not a word of it is white.

So what is white? Is white not the original fundamental assertion of privilege and superiority? And then what? What else is white after that? The really tough question is this: If that’s what white really is, then how can I maintain my sense of important identity as a white person and also concede that I am guilty of racism?

Nah, see, it doesn’t work. If white is true God-given privilege and superiority, then white is right, and white has nothing to admit or concede. The not-one-bone thing is like the not counting the kids thing — a defense of white through stupid sophistry.

What about this for us old white guys? What about sort of shutting up about it? How about a little bit of humility, a good dose of self-awareness and vigilance, and then just shutting the hell up? And if you’re a Democrat and you’re running for high office, maybe your prayer at night should be, “Please God, that I may never be defended by Lindsey Graham.”

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