But as Biden leans into his argument that he is the left’s best option to defeat Trumpism, some of his critics claim that he has a history of perpetuating stereotypical ideas of and anecdotes about black people that bring into question his understanding of the black American experience and ability to address issues of chief concern to many of them.
One such anecdote went viral Sunday: an account Biden gave in 2017 of an incident when he was a lifeguard in 1962 involving a local gang leader who went by the name “Corn Pop.”
In a clip of the account and in his 2007 memoir, Biden describes a confrontation he had with a razor-blade-wielding Corn Pop that ended when Biden apologized for calling him by a different name.
The clip resurfaced over the weekend after writer Michael Harriot of the Root questioned the incident and the existence of Corn Pop. Reporting has corroborated that Corn Pop and his gang, the Romans, did exist. He was named in a story The Washington Post’s Robert Samuels wrote in July about Biden’s summer as a lifeguard at a pool in Wilmington, Del., that was predominantly frequented by African Americans.
But re-airing the story was enough to give some Biden critics pause, especially coming on the heels of Thursday’s debate and Biden’s meandering answer to a question about slavery.
In response to this question from debate moderator Linsey Davis of ABC: “As you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”
Biden launched into a response that touched on and conflated many topics and included the following: “We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”
Malaika Jabali, an attorney and writer, attempted to explain why many of Biden’s black critics find that story troublesome. “Folks really aren’t understanding what’s wrong with Joe Biden,” she tweeted. “It’s not about the veracity of his specific claims — whether parents should play records or Corn Pop existed. It’s about framing black people in the most reductive, outdated tropes possible.”
Biden’s answer on slavery in the debate earned critiques as both an insufficient solution to inequality and for portraying black parents as neglectful and not deeply invested in their children’s education.
Mical Raz, a professor in public policy and health at the University of Rochester, wrote that Biden’s prescription for improving the word gap between low-income kids of color and affluent white kids is based in stereotypes and poor, outdated research.
“While his dated choice of technology made many chuckle or cringe, Biden’s prescription for poor children reflected a long tradition of highlighting deficits, verbal and otherwise, in poor and minority families while ignoring the true causes of poverty and inequality,” she wrote for The Post.
Those looking to find other examples have decades of fodder from Biden’s career. During his 2008 presidential bid, Biden discussed the disproportionately high rates of AIDS in the black community at a forum with other candidates and got some pushback over this comment:
“I spent last summer going through the black sections of my town holding rallies in parks trying to get black men to understand it’s not unmanly to wear a condom,” he said in 2007. “Getting women to understand they can say no. Getting people in the position where testing matters. I got tested for AIDS. I know Barack [Obama] got tested for AIDS. There’s no shame in being tested for AIDS.”
Biden and his supporters frequently argue that the things he has said that attracted backlash from those on the left have been misunderstood and misrepresented. And Biden argues that having a track record as long as his will inevitably mean controversies can surface.
Biden argues that his presidency would be far superior on addressing the country’s racism than Trump’s or even the potential administrations of his liberal competitors, and many Democrats and black voters seem to agree with that, which accounts for his steady lead in the Democratic field.
But for a vocal number of black voters on the left, Biden’s past and recent comments leave them worried that they’ll be stuck with a well-intentioned leader whose views on and words about black Americans have done more to harm than he seems to realize.