Welcome to 2020, the year that provides yet another opportunity for America to examine and address the issue of race, and the ways in which politicians treat black voters. The recent police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is evidence that racism is still pervasive and remains unaddressed. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden stepped into a morass of racial politics when he said to a prominent black radio host, “Well, I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Biden made the comment on “The Breakfast Club,” toward the end of a cordial but direct interview with host Charlamagne tha God, who invited Biden back to the show, noting he had many more questions to pose before November’s elections.
“It don’t have nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with the fact, I want something for my community,” Charlamagne responded.
“Take a look at my record, man!” Biden replied.
Up to this point in the interview, former Vice President Biden spoke about his campaign, institutional racism and the challenges facing the black community. He also defended his record, particularly the 1994 crime bill, which has drawn criticism for promoting mass incarceration in the black community, and touted his support among black voters. He discussed his recovery plan and policy proposals such as the Manifesto for Black America, and his “Lift Every Voice” Plan for Black America — which is a good conversation piece, even if it risks pandering to black voters because it is named after the black national anthem — with support for a study on reparations.
The interview showed that Biden must engage on the issues that matter to black voters, and demonstrated the importance of the black community to the Democratic Party and Biden the presidential candidate. In addition, the interview may have increased the pressure for Biden to select a black woman as the vice presidential candidate.
Depending on whom you ask, either Biden made an offensive remark, he spoke in jest and the joke bombed in its delivery, or he spoke the truth — and Biden should be left alone, because criticizing him will only help reelect President Donald Trump, they say. It’s all so complicated — just like the history of race in the United States.
Biden apologized for his remarks, saying he shouldn’t have been so cavalier and does not take the black vote for granted. Florida Democratic Rep. Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief who has endorsed Biden and is reported to be under consideration to be Biden’s running mate, told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday morning that she was glad Biden apologized. She said he “shouldn’t have said it,” yet took Trump to task for exploiting this for the 2020 campaign and insisted the President have a serious conversation about race, which she regarded as among “America’s toughest issues.”
“Look, let’s talk about race cause we definitely need to,” she added. “We see it in housing, we see it in voting rights, we see it in health care, we see it in education. Mr. President, let’s do have a serious conversation about race in America and how about working for all people that you are supposed to represent, not just the privileged few.”
Black Republicans, such as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, criticized Biden as “condescending and arrogant,” while former Utah Rep. Mia Love said his comments were “incredibly offensive,” “racist and an affront to the millions of African Americans who voted Republican in 2016.”
However, last week, when Biden appeared on “The Breakfast Club,” Trump visited a Ford plant and praised the “good bloodlines” of Henry Ford, an aggressive anti-Semite who published anti-Jewish rants in a newspaper he owned and was honored by Hitler’s regime. Yet, Trump received little scrutiny for this remark, in large part because America has become desensitized to him and his racism.
Failing to address a history of systemic racism and white privilege in this country helped bring Trump — and his harmful policies against people of color and America as a whole — to power. That Trump is an existential threat to black lives does not mean African Americans cannot and should not hold Biden accountable on race and force him to become a better and more thoughtful candidate who is responsive to their needs and issues.
Looming in the background is the sentiment that black voters — a diverse bloc and the reliable base of the Democratic Party — are taken for granted, treated as props and provided with much lip service and window dressing, yet offered few tangible policy gains. Efforts to lobby Biden to choose a black woman as his running mate, and the insistence he not select a white centrist in the mold of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (reportedly also being vetted) reflect a desire among many black voters to demand more from those in leadership and power in exchange for their support. Black voters are crucial to Biden’s success, with subdued enthusiasm, engagement and turnout among this demographic threatening to derail his presidential aspirations.
One critique of Biden is that as a white person, he was speaking out of turn in that interview and had no right or authority to define blackness, even as many African Americans might agree that voting for Trump is a reckless pursuit. Perhaps Biden became too familiar with black voters, acted too much like he was one of us. Biden’s latest incident isn’t his first, and reminds me of former President Bill Clinton, who during the 2016 campaign was campaigning for his wife Hillary in Philadelphia and found himself in a heated exchange with Black Lives Matter activists over his — and incidentally, Biden’s — 1994 crime bill.
“This election is about the future. They’re trying to blame her for something she didn’t do. So, I’ll tell you another story about a place where Black Lives Matter? Africa,” the former president said, referring to his wife’s AIDS work in Africa as secretary of state.
Clinton, once described by Toni Morrison as the first black president before President Barack Obama, arguably also became a little too familiar in that exchange, sounding like a patronizing white man seeking more credit for all the great things he and his wife had done for black folks.
A comparison between Clinton and Biden is particularly revealing because it demonstrates the history of bad policies that black voters have had to accept for the payoff of more diverse political representation and attention. The Clinton administration had the most diverse cabinet in history in its time and was very popular with black voters, but also enacted problematic and damaging welfare reform legislation. In addition, it backed the same crime bill Biden defended on the radio, one that devastated communities of color, and which black lawmakers also supported, because it’s complicated . White politicians, even those who have enjoyed and relied on black support, have capitalized on the specter of black criminality and have assumed a “tough on crime” stance for political gain. Black lawmakers, eager to seek solutions to pressing problems in their community, often supported unfortunate legislation such as the crime bill, which also contained beneficial elements that helped justify its passage.
Biden has a long history of ill-chosen words, even while advocating for good policies. For instance, in 1977, Biden worried that integration done wrong would lead his children to grow up in a “racial jungle.” Last year, he reportedly told a group of black mayors that many black parents can’t read or write earlier this year. While campaigning in Iowa later in the year, Biden misspoke at an event, offering that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” immediately correcting himself by adding, “wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids.” He suggested, “We’ve got to recognize that kid wearing a hoodie may very well be a poet laureate, and not a gang banger.” And in 2007, he called then-Sen. Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” Statements like these have drawn apologies from Biden over the years or explanations that they were taken out of context; Obama for his part said he didn’t taken Biden’s comments personally. It’s time, however, to raise the bar.
Biden, like Clinton, presents black voters with a conflicting picture; he served under the first black president in a White House — one with a strong commitment to civil rights. However, he also recalled the days of “civility” when he worked with segregationists in the Senate , as if to cling to a fantasy of working together with Dixiecrats who disenfranchised and disempowered black people, and an even more quixotic dream of finding common ground with present-day Trumpian Republicans who do the same. And his poor treatment of Anita Hill during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas still reverberates today among civil rights and women’s rights groups, given that Biden did not defend Hill against Republicans who sought to discredit her.
To his credit, Biden has made some smart recent decisions, such as selecting progressive activist, campaign organizer and political commentator Karine Jean-Pierre as a senior adviser, even as his inner circle is otherwise white and from his own, older generation. His Lift Every Voice Plan is a good start but is only a useful starting point in addressing systemic racism.
In other words, Biden must do more to earn the black vote if he wants them energized and engaged — a point Charlamagne made clear throughout the interview. Stating this obvious fact does not mean Trump will successfully court black voters. The Trump presidency has indulged and in some cases fostered white nationalism, racism and xenophobia, a “Southern Strategy” on steroids to please a dwindling white right-wing base. Black voters have little to expect from Trump other than more bad policy, race baiting, voter suppression, and more disproportionate deaths as he continues to mismanage the coronavirus pandemic.
Editor’s note: David A. Love is a writer and commentator based in Philadelphia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.