Biden was referencing the words of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson — a founding father who attracts significant attention for his role in shaping this country along with intense criticism for his unwillingness to extend those rights to all human beings. When Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote those words, he did not view black people as equal to white Americans, something Biden alluded to in his video. Biden said:
“We haven’t always lived up to these ideals; Jefferson himself didn’t. But we have never before walked away from them.”
But Biden thinks America is at risk of walking away from treating all human beings as equal because the country is led by President Trump, someone who Biden believes does not value all human beings equally. And to the former vice president, Trump’s response to the violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville, led by self-proclaimed white nationalists, summarizes why he is not fit to be president.
"Charlottesville is also home to a defining moment for this nation in the last few years. It was there on August of 2017 we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out in the open, their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging, and bearing the fangs of racism. Chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ‘30s. And they were met by a courageous group of Americans, and a violent clash ensued and a brave young woman lost her life.And that’s when we heard the words from the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were ‘some very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people on both sides?With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime."
In the days after the rally, during which one self-professed white nationalist killed anti-racism protester Heather Heyer with his vehicle, Trump said:
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides."
Many Americans disagreed with the president’s apparent affirmation of some of the self-proclaimed white nationalists. And he hit some of his lowest approval numbers after sympathizing with the self-professed white nationalists who marched to protect memorials built to honor Confederate soldiers who fought to keep black people enslaved.
Nearly 6 in 10 voters say Trump has encouraged white supremacists, according to a Quinnipiac poll. Most Americans — 56 percent — viewed his response negatively, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey.
Views on Trump and race relations have not changed much since Charlottesville. Last year, nearly 60 percent of Americans said they disapprove of Trump’s handling of race relations, according to a Quinnipiac survey.
By leading with Charlottesville, Biden is suggesting that he wants to focus on improving race relations in the United States, something 70 percent of Americans say is getting worse, according to the Pew Research Center.
But Biden — who was vice president to the first black president of the United States — faces some challenges. He is running against at least two black candidates — Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — with track records of speaking out against racism. And other presidential candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have already released detailed proposals aimed at addressing America’s systemic racism.
And Biden brings some baggage to the table on race issues. As I wrote for The Fix:
“During Biden’s congressional career, he pushed several pieces of legislation that lengthened criminal sentences, particularly for drugs favored by nonwhite users. That legislation helped create America’s dismal mass incarceration crisis. The United States has one of the largest prison populations in the world, and people of color are disproportionately impacted.”
And some black voters — one of the most influential voting blocs in the Democratic Party — will likely have questions about Biden’s previous opposition to school desegregation and his handling of the Senate hearing he chaired where Anita Hill testified that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her.
After Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Sen. Tim Scott (R.-S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate, told VICE:
“What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority. And that moral authority is compromised when Tuesday happened. There’s no question about that."
By centering Charlottesville in his announcement video, Biden clearly believes he can return moral authority to the White House.