When it comes to race, Joe Biden’s record and rhetoric reflect the broader hypocrisy of U.S. politics. While Biden rightly criticizes Donald Trump’s racism, he then praises himself for his own ability to work with overt white supremacist Dixiecrat Democrats in the 1970s. It’s important to recognize the problematic nature of Biden’s history of working with Southern Democratic racist senators. We must acknowledge the more subtle forms of racism at work in the Democratic Party even as an overt racist sits in the Oval Office.
Black Voters Shift to the Democratic Party
There was a time when it was considered “normal” to be openly racist — in fact, that encompasses the vast majority of American history. It was just the expected behavior; no one batted an eye because white men were firmly in control of the body politic, and Black people in particular were expected to know our place. This overt racism lasted well past the civil rights era, when political parties mostly realigned due to race.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express his sympathies that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested at an Atlanta sit-in and was being held on a “previous warrant.” Shortly after, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting. These moves helped shift support from the Black voting population to the Democrats for generations.
The realignment took full swing when Southern whites felt Democratic administrations were supporting voting rights for Black people. Southern white voters began supporting Barry Goldwater’s call for “states’ rights” in 1964 and began voting for Republicans to represent their interest in maintaining white supremacy.
The civil rights movement and this shift of the majority of Black voters to the Democratic Party, demanding a voice in public affairs, meant that overt racism was no longer fashionable in the following decades, particularly amongst national elected officials, at least in public discourse. Republicans changed their language to slightly disguised symbols of racism, and “dog whistle” politics were the order of the day to convince white people that Black people were dangerous and there was a need to keep the “negros” in their place.
By the 1970s, most of the overt white racist Dixiecrat politicians had abandoned the Democratic Party for the Republican Party, but no matter what side of the aisle, these good old boys seem to have often had a good working relationship with Joe Biden. Should Biden become president, racial justice activists will need to exert pressure to hold him accountable for his actions — and alliances — while in office.
Joe Biden’s History of Working With Notorious Racists
Since the 1970s, the Senate has remained a mostly white club where overtly racist attitudes have continued to be tolerated and not a cause for major concern. This is the Senate that Biden came of age in and has always been comfortable. He has described his ability to get things done for the betterment of the country across ideological lines by referencing his work with several notoriously racist Southern senators. Biden praised former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond from South Carolina at his eulogy in 2003, remembering him as simply a product of his own time, who eventually came over to the “right” side.
While at a fundraiser on June 18, 2019, Biden invoked the name of former Mississippi Democrat Sen. James O. Eastland, who spent 36 years as a senator and who, even among racists, was notorious for his white supremacist commentary. Eastland, who never sought to retract his views, stated plainly, “I have no prejudice in my heart, but the white race is the superior race and the Negro race an inferior race and the races must be kept separate by law.” Eastland, who made similar white supremacist remarks on the Senate floor, was never censored, rebuked nor publicly reprimanded by his Democratic colleagues at that time — Biden included — for his racist statements. Known as the “Voice of the White South,” Eastland was instead perfectly acceptable to the Democratic Party. It’s no wonder that this more overt strain of white supremacist thinking allows for the more passive strain to be advanced.
This explains Biden’s and his fellow Democrats’ easy support for such measures as the 1994 crime bill, from supporting mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug convictions to the disparity in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack, a derivative of cocaine. Biden, like past fellow moderate Hillary Clinton, similarly invoked the language of “predators” to describe crime in Black communities during the drug crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s.
In 2007, when Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama as contender for the presidency, he stated, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy, I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” There is a lot to pick apart in this statement, but what is even more notable is that after this comment, presidential nominee Barack Obama and his team felt Joe Biden was just what the country needed in a vice president to draw more moderate whites to his candidacy.
This is what has directly led us to this point, where voters see a moderately racist centrist candidate as more acceptable than a democratic socialist, in order to remove the overt old-school white supremacist from office. The trust given to Joe Biden by the Black constituency is a direct result of spill-over “affection” from the Obama presidency (even though the former president has not endorsed Biden). This has allowed Biden to keep the fidelity of the Black vote, as he praises his ability to work with white supremacists of the past. The fate of this primary is not sealed, but Biden is currently the front-runner.
The mainstream Democratic Party has perfected the art of subtle — or at least subtler-than-Trump — racism. We must ask ourselves: How will we challenge the president’s racist actions, even if a Democrat is elected?