Joe Biden announced his candidacy with a rousing call to arms against the resurgence of white supremacy in America. He cited the “Klansmen and white supremacists” who marched in Charlottesville, and ripped President Trump for failing to unambiguously condemn them at a “defining moment for this nation.”
“We can’t forget what happened,” Biden said. Referencing our long struggle to align ourselves with our founding “ideals,” and casting the 2020 election as a referendum on whether we’ll abandon them, Biden declared: “We have to remember who we are.”
Well, now Biden appears to be having a serious memory lapse.
I don’t mean to suggest that Biden, who is now refusing to apologize for his nostalgic comments about working with segregationist senators, is actively trying to erase the legacy of white supremacy. Biden should not be speaking nostalgically about white-supremacist senators, of course, but he insists he’s solicitous of that broader history. He very well may be. We can’t know for sure.
But we do know this for sure: Biden is indeed doing serious violence to our history in another important way — by asserting that despite those senators’ views, they hailed from a time of “civility” and getting “things done.”
This itself trivializes crucial aspects of our racial past. Biden should clean this up, along with doing other things that show he understands why this whole mess is so controversial.
Biden is pushing back hard against the criticism. “There’s not a racist bone in my body,” he said. “I’ve been involved in civil rights by whole career. Period.”
Biden’s defenders insist he’s not soft-pedaling the history of the southern senators he spoke of working with, James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. They point to other remarks in which he declared that he “detested what they stood for.”
They also say Biden was merely acknowledging that one must work with “downright racist folks to get things done,” as Biden adviser Symone D. Sanders put it.
But as New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb points out, Biden was not required to make this point through references to these senators. Indeed, The Post reports that some inside Biden’s campaign have heard him make these references before and warned against them.
I’d like to make an additional point here, which is that Biden’s gauzy depiction of Senate history is itself deeply problematic.
Resistance to civil rights was massive and horrifyingly ugly
In his original comments, Biden noted that Eastland “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’” He called Talmadge “one of the meanest guys I ever knew,” but added that “at least there was some civility” and “we got things done.” Biden added: “Today, you look at the other side, and you’re the enemy.”
This is curious history. The Southern bloc of segregationist senators used every means of procedural warfare at its disposal in the Senate to mount a full-blown, scorched-earth campaign of resistance to any and all racial progress — one that lasted for decades.
As Robert Mann recounts in “When Freedom Would Triumph,” that Southern bloc adhered to this “massive resistance” as a “philosophy,” one committed to fighting to maintain white supremacy in the South “to the last ditch.”
These senators literally depicted the civil rights movement as “the enemy,” for years. As Mann recounts, when President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Arkansas while angry white mobs protested, Talmadge likened it to “Russian tanks and troops in the streets of Budapest."
For his part, Eastland depicted one early civil rights measure as “the very worst form of Stalinist tyranny,” and claimed another bill “takes us back to Stalin, Khrushchev, Nasser, Hitler.”
None of this was overcome by “civility” or “getting things done” together. It was overcome by years of mass protests and struggle, much of it undertaken while braving fear of violence and death, in the face of terror.
To be fair, Biden does sometimes refer to this as a struggle. But he should be much clearer in recognizing this full history, which should feature heavily in the relitigation of our racial past prompted in part by Trump.
“What Biden is remembering as the clubby world of the Senate was shielded from realities the civil rights movement faced,” Princeton University’s Kevin M. Kruse, who has written extensively about Southern politics, told me. "It’s important for Biden to remember that the real sources of change were not in Congress, but were people on the ground who faced imprisonment and terrorism, in an atmosphere fueled by people like Eastland and Talmadge.”
Biden may also be referring to his own time of Senate overlap with those figures, in the 1970s. But this doesn’t help, either. Biden was an opponent of busing in those days, which means he spoke to white backlash in a period that was also racked with racial strife and violence — a history that shouldn’t get obscured by discussions of alleged Senate comity.
“The riots against busing that took place were extremely violent,” Kruse continued. “Whatever era Biden is talking about, the racial turmoil of that period was an outgrowth of the era of segregation and civil rights struggle.”
Which leads to the need for Biden to signal clearly that he understands a key reason this blew up the way it did.
Biden must clear this all up
Given Biden’s past flirtations with white-backlash politics, one big unknown about his candidacy, as New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has outlined, is whether he will engage in the sort of cultural and racial signaling that certain Democrats have employed even in the recent past, and whether he understands that today’s Democratic Party cannot tolerate any hint of it any longer.
When Biden engages in this kind of talk and then dresses down African American Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), based on an entirely bogus rationale, as Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith points out — well, we cannot be certain that Biden isn’t up to such old tricks. Perhaps he isn’t in any way. He needs to find some way to communicate this.
This is particularly critical, if we are going to “revisit the racial history of America,” as Kruse put it. Biden wants to be the guy who relitigates this history against Trump. If so, he needs to show a real awareness of all of it.