No one ever accused former vice president Joe Biden of being the most conscious of the Democratic candidates when it comes to understanding the long-term harm and historical implications of systemic racism.
Now, his praise of the “civility” of two lawmakers who openly promoted racist policies has brought to a boiling point the concerns some Democrats have about his candidacy: that he is not in tune enough with how little tolerance the Democratic base has for working with political opponents who turn a blind eye to issues of race.
That’s hard to reconcile with Biden’s current popularity among black voters, compared with that of his opponents, according to several polls. It’s too early to tell if his first major race-related controversy of the primary campaign is jeopardizing that, but there’s plenty of reason to think it could.
At a Tuesday fundraiser in New York City, Biden spoke about the importance of “bringing people together” while discussing his ability to work well with late senators James Eastland (Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (Ga.), two Democrats who were staunchly opposed to civil rights and racial integration.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, an initiative focused on increasing black voter participation, told the Fix that Biden’s status with black voters has never been set in stone.
“His support of black voters has never been solidified,” she said. “He’s benefited from the fact that he has name recognition, that he was associated with the Obama presidency and that there are so many candidates in the crowd.”
Brown added: “The polling is not reflective of what I hear on the ground. I am hearing a growing disenchantment around his candidacy. And I think yesterday was a big blow to him.”
Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of Black PAC, a group focused on increasing black voter turnout, told the Fix:
“All the most recent polls, including our own, show that VP Biden is leading among African American voters of all ages. But his most recent comments draw attention to a set of issue concerns that Black voters have not yet measured him against. Black voters in our most recent poll identified racism and discrimination as one of their top issue concerns so how the Vice President characterizes his previous relationship with his racist colleagues, matters.”
New York Times opinion writer Jamelle Bouie summarized why black voters could find Biden’s view and response so troublesome.
“Joe Biden speaking nostalgically about working with segregationists is halfway to Trent Lott behavior,” he said. “Telling your black rival that he needs to apologize to you for having a problem with it brings you all the way there.”
While reflecting on his relationship with Talmadge, Biden said, “Guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Biden included an anecdote about his closeness with Eastland that is drawing particular scrutiny from his Democratic opponents and other critics. “He never called me ‘boy.' He always called me ‘son,' " Biden said of the Mississippian.
To be fair, Biden did not suggest at all that he supported the racist worldviews of the lawmakers. But his deciding to highlight his relationship working with the two men (despite his aides advising him not to) without clearly noting where they disagreed came off to some as tone deaf at best and inconsiderate at most.
Most following Biden’s career know he prides himself on being able to work well with those who do not share his politics. The former lawmaker believes Americans need to elect a president who can bring conflicting sides to the table for the good of the American people. But if Biden wants to keep his good favor with black voters, why could he not use an example of bipartisanship that did not involve men whose lasting legacies with many black Americans is their racism?
“What does Biden think Black voters hear when they listen to him talk about his buddy the segregationist being not that bad of a dude?” Zerlina Maxwell, a former Hillary Clinton campaign official, asked on Twitter.
It’s arguably irrelevant that Eastland never called Biden “boy.” That’s a term that has often been dismissively applied to black men to assert power. Eastland said far worse about African Americans, publicly. NPR dug up this quote he reportedly made during the Montgomery bus boycott.
Eastland told a segregationist rally that “In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking n*****s.” According to Robert Caro’s Master Of The Senate, Eastland went on to urge the crowd to “abolish the Negro race” with “guns, bows and arrows, slingshots, and knives.”
Talmadge was so invested in upholding the Jim Crow era laws that he chose to close Georgia’s public schools instead of a desegregating them.
“There aren’t enough troops in the whole United States to make the white people of this state send their children to school with colored children,” he said after the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is black, slammed Biden for his comments about racist politicians.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’ ” Booker said in a statement. “Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone. I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together.”
Another 2020 Democratic contender, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who is married to a black woman, joined the outcry.
And Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D.-Cal.), the only black woman running for president, pointed out that the politicians that Biden highlighted for their civility were quite uncivil when it came to the concerns of their black constituents.
“Let’s be very clear that the senators that he is speaking of with such adoration are individuals that made and built their reputations on segregation,” she said. “The Ku Klux Klan celebrated the election of one of them.”
Biden is polling well with black voters, compared with other candidates for the Democratic nomination, including Booker. He frequently touts his civil rights record and tenure as vice president to Barack Obama. But his competitors probably see an opening in the backlash over Tuesday’s comments — an opening Biden created and is doubling down on by refusing to apologize for his statement. And his calling on Booker to apologize for calling him out reeks of the hubris and even prejudice that Biden praised Eastland for lacking.
The politician who helped elect America’s first black president is potentially putting his success with the left’s most influential demographic in jeopardy by glossing over the long-lasting harms that racist policymakers promoted in the name of “civility.”