COMMENTARY

Biden's missed opportunity in Buffalo: He needs to tell white people the truth

Biden's Buffalo speech was remarkable — but not enough. He has a historic duty to speak directly to white America

Published May 19, 2022 9:53AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden and US First Lady Jill Biden arrive to a memorial near a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, on May 17, 2022. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden and US First Lady Jill Biden arrive to a memorial near a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, on May 17, 2022. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Compared to his predecessor, Joe Biden is a fundamentally good and decent human being. On Tuesday, Biden summoned that energy as he played the role of healer, counselor, and secular priest during his visit to Buffalo to help that community (and the nation) mourn in the aftermath of Saturday's white supremacist terrorist attack.

As CNN commentator Stephen Collinson observes, Biden connected the Buffalo attack to previous "racist massacres" in Charleston, El Paso and Pittsburgh "to spell out what is now awfully obvious. The United States faces a significant scourge of White supremacist extremism that erupts periodically and results in the mass, racially motivated murder of innocent people."

The bile is being exacerbated by online propaganda and conspiracies that White Americans could be replaced by a tide of immigration. Such claims are often legitimized on conservative media and have been hinted at by some GOP politicians....

The President condemned a "hate" percolating in politics, the media, and on the internet, which he said had convinced isolated individuals that they will be "replaced" by non-White immigrants.

Biden was referring to the so-called great replacement theory, which follows false claims advanced by QAnon conspiracists that top Democrats are involved in a pedophile ring and the out-of-control lies now believed by millions of Americans that the 2020 election was stolen. It is just the latest sign of how deeply untruths and conspiracies have hijacked U.S. politics.

The very thought of Donald Trump, whose actions and words have repeatedly revealed him to be both a white supremacist and a malignant narcissist, traveling to Buffalo in the aftermath of an attack of this kind is literally nauseating. The American people and the world are fortunate to have (barely) avoided such a scenario in the wake of the 2020 election and Trump's attempted coup.

RELATED: Expert panel on the Buffalo shooter and what he stands for: "He was not a lone gunman"

The terror attack in Buffalo, and the rising tide of neofascism and hatred that it represents, demands bold truth-telling about the evil power of white supremacy and racism in American society. Unfortunately, Joe Biden demonstrated in Buffalo that he is not the person for that difficult task. It is painful to see him come so close to what is demanded in America's crisis of democracy, and yet be so far away at the same time. The truism about "reach and grasp" is apt here, if insufficient: Biden almost literally has the solutions in his hand, but chooses not to make a fist around them. This is part of a much larger pattern: Joe Biden could be a great president, but seems afraid to embrace that possibility.

There was much good in Biden's speech in Buffalo on Tuesday, when he sought to rally the nation in outrage against the upsurge of white supremacy:

[W]e are the most multiracial, most dynamic nation in the history of the world. Now is the time for the people of all races, from every background, to speak up as a majority in America and reject white supremacy. These actions we've seen in these hate-filled attacks represent the views of a hate-filled minority. We can't allow them to distort America. The real America. We can't allow them to destroy the soul of the nation.

In a particularly human and vulnerable moment, Biden reflected on his own painful experience with tragedy and loss:

Jill and I have come to stand with you and, to the families, we've come to grieve with you. It's not the same, but we know a little bit what it's like to lose a piece of your soul, whether it was a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a mother, a father. The feeling of having that — as I said to some of you when we talked privately, you feel like there's a black hole in your chest you're being sucked into, and — and you're suffocating, unable — unable to breathe.

That's what it felt like, at least to us, and I'm sure some version of that feels that way to you, the anger, the pain, the depth of the loss that's so profound. ... I can tell you now, from our personal experience and many others who we've met, the day is going to come, it will come, when your loved one brings a smile as you remember him or her. As you remember her, it's going to bring a smile to your lip before it brings a tear to your eye. It takes a while for that to happen. It takes a while. It might take more than a season, but our prayer for you is that that time comes sooner or later. 

Biden made clear that he understands the threat that white supremacy and the rising tide of neofascism pose to American democracy:

The American experiment in democracy is in a danger like it hasn't been in my lifetime. It's in danger this hour. Hate and fear are being given too much oxygen by those who pretend to love America but who don't understand America. 

America's democracy crisis is so extreme that mainstream political leaders and others with a public platform now frequently speak out against white supremacy. To hear the president repeatedly use that term in Buffalo was striking: 

White supremacy is a poison. It's a poison. It really is. Running through our body politic. And it's been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes. No more. I mean, no more. We need to say as clearly and forcefully as we can that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America. None.

Explicit public discussion of white supremacy was quite rare in American political life until recently. That topic, and that specific terminology, was largely the province of scholars, anti-racism activists, civil rights organizers and other experts. That has all changed, because of the dire crisis we now face.


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Biden also spoke to the American people as an adult leader addressing other adults, not as if he were talking to people who are easily distracted, immature, anti-intellectual and disinclined to think about serious subjects. He is evidently trying to prepare them for the long and difficult struggle ahead.

Look, I'm not naïve. I know tragedy will come again. It cannot be forever overcome. It cannot be fully understood either. But there are certain things we can do. We can keep assault weapons off our streets. We've done it before. I did it when I passed the crime bill last time, and violence went down, shootings went down. We can't prevent people from being radicalized to violence, but we can address the relentless exploitation of the internet to recruit and mobilize terrorism. We just need to have the courage to do that, to stand up.

But the opportunity Biden missed was extremely frustrating, and that is true of his response to the country's democracy crisis more generally. He could have spoken plainly and directly to white Americans about the true costs of white supremacy and racism — something that Barack Obama, Kamala Harris or any other Black or brown leader likely could never do. Such a conversation is essential: White supremacy is a particular and specific failure of white society. Black and brown people are clearly targeted for suffering by white supremacy, but they did not cause it and cannot correct it, nor should that be their responsibility. 

Biden missed an opportunity to speak plainly and directly to white Americans about white supremacy and racism — something that Barack Obama or Kamala Harris could likely never do.

Biden could and should have told White America that it's time to clean house, and get rid of the corrosive rot of white supremacy and racism. He could and should have named the leading Republicans and other right-wing propagandists whose language, values and beliefs are almost identical to those expressed by the man who killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo. 

As CNN's Collinson notes, Biden never identified "specific culprits" in the spread of white supremacist conspiracy theories during his Buffalo speech, but when he returned to the White House later on Tuesday, "he was coming closer to naming names":

"You have folks on television stations talking about the replacement theory – they're scaring the living hell out of people who don't have a whole lot of emotional stability, taking advantage of … the internet and other means by talking about how we're going to be overtaken," Biden said at a reception honoring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a group that has also faced racial hate.

As seen in his Buffalo speech and throughout his presidency, Biden, like most other American leaders and mainstream public voices (Obama included), talks about racism and white supremacy in a general way, as if they were a weather system or a moral failure common to the entire society rather than a highly specific problem. 

Definitions are critical here: Any group or individual can be prejudiced, bigoted, hateful, ethnocentric, nativist or otherwise intolerant. But racism and white supremacy are a function of power, not of skin color or some other phenotypical marker of difference. In American society, that type of group power, almost by definition, is exclusive to white people.

To defeat white supremacy and racism, white people's relationship to such systems of power, and their role in maintaining it (consciously or otherwise) must be confronted in a specific and transparent manner. Joe Biden did not come close to doing that, repeatedly making rhetorical choices throughout his Buffalo speech that erased the specific role of whiteness and white people in creating and maintaining systematic white supremacy and racism.

Here is one example:

What happened here is simple and straightforward: terrorism. Terrorism. Domestic terrorism. Violence inflicted in the service of hate and the vicious thirst for power that defines one group of people being inherently inferior to any other group. A hate that, through the media and politics, the internet, has radicalized angry, alienated and lost individuals into falsely believing that they will be replaced. That's the word. Replaced by the other. By people who don't look like them.

I and all of you reject the lie. I call on all Americans to reject the lie, and I condemn those who spread the lie for power, political gain and for profit.

Who is the "them" he is speaking about, the people who supposedly fear being "replaced"? What "group of people" believes another group to be "inherently inferior"? Who are these "angry, alienated and lost individuals"? Who are "those who spread the lie"?

We cannot vanquish white supremacy and racism, and the systems of inequality and injustice they reproduce, by describing them as a vague or general pattern rather than a specific question of power.

American society cannot vanquish white supremacy and racism, and the systems of inequality and injustice they create and reproduce, without making whiteness visible. This is true when it comes to presidential speeches, and even more true in day-to-day life. Describing white supremacy and racism as a vague, general pattern — as opposed to a specific question of power, of who wields it and who does not — is an ahistorical retreat from reality. It's also an example of a type of colorblind fantasy that inadvertently does the work of white supremacy and racism while superficially appearing to fight back against them.

Joe Biden has fashioned himself as a healer and unifier. That is admirable in many ways, but it is the wrong strategy in the current battle to save American democracy against a "conservative" and fascist opposition that views him as a usurper and has already attempted a violent coup to prevent him from even becoming president. Republicans will likely seek to impeach Biden if and when they take control of Congress, and have made it increasingly clear that they view Black and brown people — the base of the Democratic voter coalition — as less than "real Americans" who do not deserve basic basic civil and political rights.

No person of principle, integrity or basic decency should seek to "unite" or "compromise" with fascists and white supremacists, and it is long past time Joe Biden understood that. He needs to be a fighter, not a unifier, if he wishes to be the leader who saves American democracy and inspires its renewal. To be that kind of champion in this moment of crisis requires him to be specific and direct about the dangers we face

Being the champion that the American people want and need in this moment of democracy crisis will require Joe Biden, and other white political leaders, to be specific and direct about the dangers we face. White supremacy is not some rootless, inexplicable force. It is the ideology of the Republican Party, the "conservative" movement and the American right. To defeat white supremacy, those forces must be crushed. 

Read more on the Buffalo shooting and its aftermath:


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Buffalo Shooting Commentary Domestic Terrorism Fox News Joe Biden Racism Republicans White Supremacy