Editor’s Note: Dorothy A. Brown is a law professor at Emory University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden held a fundraiser at the Carlyle Hotel in New York on Tuesday night; you may have heard about it.
The Carlyle Hotel is so exclusive and world renowned that there is a movie about it. Biden told the roughly 100 affluent attendees that if he were elected, “nothing would fundamentally change” for them. That ominous affirmation of the status quo should have gotten more attention, but instead we are talking about his remarks describing the “civility” of the Senate in the 1970s and 1980s.
He was presenting himself as the reasonable Democrat when he cited his ability back then to work with two Southern Democratic segregationists: Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi and Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia. Describing Sen. Eastland, Biden said, “he never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’” Biden appears to think that makes him special and demonstrates his unique ability to work across the aisle. But the only thing special about him from a Southern segregationist’s point of view is that he is white. His “relationship” with them is no testament to his peerless diplomacy skills – just his whiteness.
How could Biden not know that, especially after eight years in Barack Obama’s administration as Vice President?
Maybe he doesn’t care because he thinks Democrats – and especially blacks – will vote for him anyway (racism compels us to be pragmatic voters). And he may be right. He currently stands as the Democratic front-runner. And he is far ahead of his primary opponents in polling among people of color: An Economist/YouGov poll last week had his support at 50% among black Democratic primary voters. Bernie Sanders trailed behind with 10%.
When asked if she could vote for him in 2020, even Anita Hill responded: “Of course I could.” And several members of the Congressional Black Caucus continue to support him even after his Carlyle comments.
The alternative, after all, is re-electing Trump.
But Biden is not making it easy for black voters, including those black leaders with whom he has built up a reservoir of goodwill over the years. On Thursday, for example, Texas CBC member Rep. Al Green endorsed Kamala Harris for president saying “Kamala Harris represents the future of our nation.”
Indeed, Biden’s remarks Tuesday were a sobering reminder of his checkered legislative history on issues affecting people of color – not to mention his behavior as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing probing Anita Hill’s allegations that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her.
For example, though he helped expand voting rights and affirmative action while a US senator, and worked to end employment discrimination, he was also a main architect of the 1980s’ tough-on-crime laws that filled America’s prisons disproportionately with black and brown people. Those are bitter pills.
So as he tries to win the Democratic nomination in 2020, Biden should be careful – not cocky, not defiant – about rhetoric that offends people of color. The black vote may be his to lose.
Biden leans on his proximity to Obama as a proxy for how good he is on race, but almost every time he opens his mouth we learn how little he knows about the racism regularly made plain when President Obama was in the White House.
The first black president encountered a Senate majority leader avowing that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” That same majority leader took away that black President’s moderate Supreme Court pick, but recently said he would not do the same under President Donald Trump, a white Republican. (We have already seen the real-world effect that this court’s resolutely conservative justices have had on rights and representation for people of color.)
Recall that in 2016 America, Trump rose to power on a platform of, among other things, numerous birtherism claims against our first black president. There are a hundred ways to see how Republican defiance, and backlash against Obama, had everything to do with pure, modern-day racism and not Obama’s lack of civility or poor negotiating skills. But Biden clearly did not see any of that.
Now it’s possible that Biden just isn’t that bright. It’s also possible that he is so arrogant that his ego tells him the problem was Obama and things would be different if only he were in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That if the old, affable white guy became the Democratic nominee he would save us all, because once he is elected things will go back to normal, civil rights will advance apace and the systemic racism that impedes black progress will be addressed. That there are reasonable people in both parties.
He seems not to realize that we are in a new normal.
We now have Republicans who put babies in cages and want to argue about what to call the cages.
We now have Republicans in the Senate who continue to put judges on the bench who refuse to say Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 ended school segregation, was rightly decided.
We now have a Republican Senate majority leader who said electing President Obama was our reparations.
The ground has shifted in another way. Instead of one black presidential candidate, we have two and they both lit into Biden yesterday. When Biden was asked specifically about Sen. Cory Booker’s demand that he apologize, he replied that Booker owes him an apology because he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. It’s not the bones in his body that had Sen. Booker worried, I would imagine – but the mush that seems to fill his brain.
What Biden should have done in that fundraiser was acknowledge that he can work with anyone – even those whose racist views he finds repugnant. The problem, however, is he couldn’t say this last part. Because he and Eastland sometimes agreed. They both opposed school integration through busing.
So where does that leave those of us who find Biden deeply problematic, but Trump even more so? Will Joe Biden be that candidate many of us will have to hold our nose and vote for?
Time will tell whether Biden loses the black vote because he keeps taking us for granted. The upcoming primaries could open his eyes. Yesterday on twitter, @emily_evers tweeted: “me realizing i’m going to have to vote for joe biden in 2020.” @CoryBooker replied: No, you won’t.
I’m hoping and praying that Cory Booker is right.