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Biden comments trigger renewed scrutiny of his record on race

Former Vice President Joe Biden, in making a point about civility in the Senate, sparked a heavy backlash. | Joshua Lott/Getty Images

2020 elections

‘One thing I hope we’ve learned from 2016 is that it’s not just enough to speak to Republican voters,’ says Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Updated

Joe Biden has boasted on the campaign trail that he knows how to make government work again, pointing out that he even got things done with Southern segregationists decades ago.

But rather than bolster his image as an effective pragmatist, Biden’s parables of working with long-dead Dixiecrats have started to reinforce two of his biggest liabilities: his age and his record on race.

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A 76-year-old centrist who spent 36 years in the Senate before serving as vice president, Biden was already out of step with the Democratic Party’s left wing, which wants a fresh face, a woman, a candidate of color or at least an unapologetic progressive torch-bearer.

Now, just a week before the first debate of the presidential campaign, the criticisms from progressives and Biden’s opponents have begun to mount. The backlash came after Biden told donors Tuesday night about how he worked with racist lawmakers like Georgia Sen. “Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys.”

Biden, imitating a thick Southern drawl, recalled how Mississippi Sen. James Eastland called him “son”, but not “boy.” Yet they worked together on legislation.

“At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything,” Biden told the group, according to a pool report of the speech by a reporter invited to cover the fundraiser. “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.”

But today’s Democratic Party and progressive movement might not be interested in a consensus-builder. The base of the party wants a fighter.

“If you ignore racism and if you don’t address issues of race with racists, then everything is fine, right?” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez said in an interview with POLITICO. “That’s how you work with segregationists: By not confronting the racism and their institutionalization of second-class citizenship and a lack of fully recognizing African Americans.”

In the Trump Era of politics, “civility” has become a trigger word for liberal activists who believe conservatives haven’t been fighting fair. And so the criticism of Biden was immediate: over his record, his rhetoric and a campaign schedule that’s long on high-dollar fundraisers with power brokers, short on attention to the liberal base and shot through with a brand of middle-of-the-road politics of the past.

“It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of ‘civility” typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to ‘the pursuit of dead n*ggers,’” New York Mayor Bill deBlasio, a white Democratic presidential candidate who has a black wife, wrote on Twitter.

“It’s past time for apologies or evolution from @JoeBiden,” the mayor wrote. “He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.”

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, an African-American presidential candidate, issued a press statement blasting Biden for “praising segregationists” and said “you don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity.”

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Before a fundraiser Wednesday night, Biden explained that he disagreed with segregationists but worked with them for the greater good in Congress. When asked by a reporter if he would apologize, as Booker called for, Biden sounded surprised.

“Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better,” Biden said. “There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career.”

On CNN later Wednesday night, Booker shot back at Biden: “As a black man in America I know the harmful and hurtful usage of the word ‘boy.’ And how it was used to dehumanize and degrade.”

“Vice President Biden,” Booker added, “shouldn’t need this lesson.”

Booker isn’t the only one who’s advised Biden not to mention segregationists. One Biden campaign source said it has been “a point of contention” with Biden, “but there’s only so much we can do. This is his decision.”

A source with Biden’s campaign dismissed the criticisms as a politically motivated effort by rivals to gain ground on the frontrunner. The person noted that Biden is popular with African-American voters, many of whom appreciated his time as the loyal vice president to the first black president, Barack Obama.

In a nod to Biden’s popularity with African-Americans, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus stood by him, including South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who is holding his “famous fish fry” this weekend in the first-in-the-South state where Biden is dominating.

But one young African-American activist said the black caucus is out of touch with the base of the party and young voters of color when it comes to Biden.

“He’s not strong with young folks. He’s not talking to us. He has shown no growth. He is the same person he was a million years ago,” said Nailah Summers, an activist with Dream Defenders, which advocates for young people of color and supported the Florida Democrats’ most progressive nominee ever for governor, Andrew Gillum, last year.

For activists like Summers, the opposition to Biden is rooted not in his bio but in his record, including his authorship of the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to mass incarceration and the disproportionate jailing of minorities.

Cory Booker

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker issued a press statement blasting Biden for “praising segregationists.” | Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Young people faced the effects of the ’94 crime bill in our homes,” Summer said. “People were disappearing from our homes — our parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters — and he’s calling it just an ‘overcorrection’. There’s no real apology.”

In addition, Biden had criticized integration-era busing in the early 1970s and for decades supported the war on drugs. He spearheaded a 1984 civil-forfeiture bill with South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, the segregationist who gave the longest filibuster in the chamber’s history to block civil rights legislation in 1957. Biden eulogized Thurmond at his funeral.

Even before becoming a candidate, Biden brought up Thurmond, Talmadge, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and Eastland, whose Southern accent Biden also imitated during a speech in January where he delivered a similar message about working with unsavory lawmakers.

Biden recalled that speech how he, as a young senator in the 1970s, called Helms an “awful heartless guy [with] no redeeming social value.” Biden, who was ripping Helms over his opposition to a bill to help the disabled, recalled that he was chastised by then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.

“It’s always appropriate to question another man or woman’s judgment. It’s never appropriate to question their motive because you don’t know what their motive is,” Biden said Mansfield told him, explaining that questioning motives and making personal attacks makes it almost impossible to reach consensus in Congress.

Beyond the righteousness of confronting racists, Ocasio-Cortez said she was “absolutely” concerned that Biden’s stances and rhetoric have been too conservative to excite the coalition of young, nonwhite and woke white voters who are energizing the party.

Biden’s refusal to apologize to Anita Hill for the way she was treated in the 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings for Republican Clarence Thomas is still a point of contention. His reversals on the so-called Hyde Amendment, concerning publicly funding abortions, was controversial.

And, Ocasio-Cortez said, Biden’s penchant for gaffes and insensitive comments — he once remarked about the ethnicity of gas station attendants and had marveled at how “clean” and “articulate” Obama was in 2008 — could also prove problematic.

“Between this, between the Hyde Amendment, concerning comments towards women, towards African-American people — it justly creates anxiety if there’s going to be tone-deaf comments towards immigrants, towards Latin American people, towards LGBTQ communities,” she said.

“One thing I hope we’ve learned from 2016 is that it’s not just enough to speak to Republican voters, we need to speak to people who are so jaded about politicians that they need to believe that someone will fight for them.”

Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.

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