The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Team Biden keeps insisting he isn’t racist. It’s a defense that misses the point.

Former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden said that he's "sorry" for his recent comments on working with segregationists as a senator. (Video: Reuters)
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In the past month, former vice president Joe Biden has repeatedly come under criticism for comments and positions related to race.

His highlighting working with segregationists on policy issues and his defense of his opposition to busing to integrate public schools has drawn the ire of those wanting the next Democratic nominee to have a better grasp of the history of racism in America.

But one of the main retorts from Biden and his surrogates has been to proclaim that he’s not racist. Most recently, Jill Biden delivered that talking point in an interview this week with CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

“The one thing you cannot say about Joe is that he’s a racist,” she said. “He got into politics because of his commitment to civil rights, and then to be elected with Barack Obama and then someone is saying, ‘you’re a racist.’ ”

In June, after Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called on Biden to apologize for pointing to his working relationship with two segregationists as an example of civil bipartisanship, Biden began defending himself with that refrain.

“Apologize for what?” Biden asked, before adding, “There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”

The problem with this response is that it completely misses the point. While it may garner some sympathy for Biden, it could suggest to those wanting to hold him accountable that they are going unheard.

The thing is, no one who grabbed headlines for their critiques of Biden called him a racist. In fact, they have often gone out of their way to communicate just how much they don’t think Biden is a racist.

During last month’s Democratic debate, before Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) shared how hurt she was by Biden’s glowing comments about two lawmakers who were white supremacists, she made sure to give this caveat: “I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden: I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.”

And not only did Booker not call Biden a racist, he publicly praised him as someone he respects — something Booker probably would not have said if he viewed the former vice president as a racist.

By framing criticism of his words and positions as accusations of racism, the Bidens misrepresent the views of their critics and demonstrate their inability to grasp the validity of the critique. That could be an issue for the man who is hoping to convince Americans, particularly black voters, that the former vice president is the best person to defeat President Trump.

Booker told CNN’s Don Lemon as much in June.

“A guy running to be the head of our party, which is a significantly diverse and wondrous party, doesn’t even understand and can’t even acknowledge that he made a mistake, whether the intention was there or not,” Booker said. “Instead he’s fallen back into the defensive crouch that often people say, which is ‘Cory called me a racist’ or ‘I’m not a racist,’ which is not what I said, and not what I’m calling him.”

Of course, it is possible that Biden’s team does understand the criticism but hopes that supporters focus on the former vice president’s words more than his critics'.

Biden eventually apologized this Saturday for his comments about working with senators James Eastland (Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (Ga.), two Democrats who were staunchly opposed to civil rights and racial integration.

“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was. I regret it,” he said. “And I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception they may have caused anybody.”

But his continued view that critics are trying to “weaponize” his record and use it against him suggests that Biden might still not quite understand that he is not the victim here — it is black people on the receiving end of the policies.