Former Vice President Joe Biden is refusing to explain what he meant when he used the term “roaches” at the renaming of a community pool in 2017.
Biden, who is well known for the occasional nonsensical utterance, was honored by the city of Wilmington, Delaware, shortly after leaving the White House in July 2017.
The event, meant to recognize the former vice president’s contributions to Wilmington, was centered around the renaming of a public pool at which Biden worked in his youth. Things took a strange turn, however, when the former vice president began to share personal stories from his time as a lifeguard at the pool.
“By the way, you know, I sit on the stand, and it get[s] hot,” Biden said, flanked by children from the local community. “I got a lot, I got hairy legs that turn blonde in the sun, and the kids used to come up and reach in the pool and rub my leg down so it was straight and then watch the hair come back up again. They’d look at it.”
Video of Biden telling the crowd about his “wet leg hair” caused a stir when it resurfaced on social media last week. Many, seeing Biden’s comments for the first time, found them inappropriate and “creepy.” Even more people, however, were perplexed by another portion of the former vice president’s speech, one that seemed out of place with everything else said that day.
“So I learned about roaches, I learned about kids jumping on my lap,” the former vice president told the audience in Delaware. “And I loved kids jumping on my lap.”
Biden’s use of the term “roaches” without any context when talking about his tenure as a lifeguard was met with confusion on social media. Some openly wondered if the stream of words uttered made sense to even the former vice president himself.
Was it the kids on his lap playing with his leg hair or Corn Pop In a hairnet who taught @JoeBiden about roaches?
— John Cardillo (@johncardillo) December 1, 2019
Hairy legs, children sitting in his lap and roaches? This stream of thought all makes sense to Joe Biden.
— Chuck Woolery (@chuckwoolery) December 3, 2019
A review of the event’s full camera footage by Breitbart News provided no help in clearing up the mystery, and Biden’s campaign was unwilling to elaborate on what he meant when reached for comment.
Without proper explanation, many were left to speculate the use of the term was an allusion to the racial and economic makeup of the community frequenting the pool. Some, like the prominent conservative activist and commentator Larry Elder, went further by claiming Biden was calling the children “jumping on my lap” roaches.
Biden in '17 Described Allowing Kids To Play With His Wet Leg Hair: I’ve Loved Kids Jumping On My Lap’
“So I learned about roaches. I learned about kids jumping on my lap"
— Larry Elder (@larryelder) December 4, 2019
The implication was not helped by Biden, who noted at the outset of the ceremony he initially sought the lifeguard position because it presented an opportunity to meet African Americans.
“I was a kid from suburbia,” Biden said when describing his motivations. “I wanted to get more involved. I realized, I lived in a neighborhood where I’d turn on the television, and I’d see and listen to Dr. [Martin Luther] King and others, but I didn’t know any black people, no I really didn’t. … So, I wanted to work here.”
The pool today, much like in Biden’s youth, is located in a historically black neighborhood on Wilmington’s east side. In 2010, the two census tracts surrounding the pool had a population that was 87.3 percent black. More than 75 percent of the families who reported having children under the age of 18 were living below the poverty level. Likewise, more than 61 percent of individuals over the age of 18 in the area were living below the poverty threshold.
Complicating the picture is the fact that poverty is often associated with pest infestation, with the poor, themselves, at times being labeled parasites that feed off the public dole. Given the makeup of the community in which the pool is located, it is easy to understand why Biden’s comments could be interpreted negatively.
The Racial Slur Database, an online website working to combat racism by educating on the etymology of denigrating language, characterizes “roach” as an offensive term used against African Americans. A 2017 paper published by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society denotes the term derives from the tragic history of slavery. European ships carrying enslaved Africans were the first to bring cockroaches to North America—a result of the often cramped, filthy, and inhumane conditions blacks were subject to below deck. The introduction of an invasive species, like the cockroach, alongside slavery in North America gave rise to unfair racial connections.
“The horrifying conditions of the ocean crossing and the formidable economic conditions experienced by African Americans following emancipation gave fuel to a fallacious association between blackness, poverty, and filth that pervades the American cultural imaginary,” Lindsey Garcia wrote for the Carson Center.
One only has to look at the recent public controversy surrounding the rap star Cardi B to understand the negative and racist overtones associated with the term. In 2017, the rapper drew condemnation from the black community for calling dark-skinned African American women “roaches” in old social media posts. Cardi B eventually clarified she was using the term in reference to someone who was “disrespectful,” like many do in her native New York City borough of the Bronx. Even before the explanation was offered, a number of prominent black public figures denounced the artist’s use of the word as racist. Many, cited the term’s longstanding racial significance as an impetus to speak out.
Although it is unclear if Biden knew the offensive history behind the term “roach” when using it in 2017, the former vice president’s record in public office does not bode well for his defense. Biden’s history of racially insensitive remarks spans from his early days in the U.S. Senate, when he warned busing would lead to a “racial jungle,” to his 1988 presidential run, in which he downplayed his support for civil rights to court Southern voters.
The former vice president’s defenders have chalked it up to his penchant for gaffes. Such utterances, though, have continued raising eyebrows, especially when directed at two generations of black leaders, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama.