Joe Biden's 'Jim Crow moment' was dreadful — but he may be Democrats' best shot at beating Trump
Joe Biden, U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sergeant John Michaels

The Democratic Party's presidential nomination and the White House are Joe Biden's to win — unless he sabotages himself.

Last Tuesday while speaking at a fundraising speech in New York, Biden reflected on his early career in the Senate, working alongside Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi and and Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia, a pair of old-line segregationists:

I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me 'boy,' he always called me 'son.' Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn't agree on much of anything. 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.

Eastland and Talmadge were vicious racists. During the Montgomery bus boycott, Eastland told the White Citizens Council this: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives."

Biden could have chosen two other senators with whom he had disagreements as a way of exalting his skills at negotiation and compromise in the service of political victory. Instead he chose two unrepentant white supremacists of the Jim Crow era to prove his point. When compounded with Biden's earlier positions, such as his opposition to school integration through busing in the 1970s and his support for the 1994 crime bill (which had a profoundly disproportionate and unfair impact on black Americans), Biden's supposedly "great record" on race and civil rights loses much of its shine.

The optics could not have been worse, or more ill-timed. Biden's fundraising speech took place on the night before Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when African-Americans in Texas were finally notified that they were no longer human property under white-on-black chattel slavery.

Sen. Cory Booker chastised Joe Biden for his comments about Eastland and Talmadge, and his flippant reference to the racist insult "boy." Instead of apologizing and promising to be more thoughtful going forward, Biden told CNN last Wednesday, "Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better. There's not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career."

This was another unforced error: The peculiar expression "not a racist bone in my body" is a standard talking point in post-civil rights America, deployed as a shield when a white person is criticized, however correctly, for their active or past complicity with racism as an ideology or their racist behavior.

It's also a problem that nostalgia and a return to "normalcy" are part of Biden's appeal. That too is colored by whiteness. Writing at the Guardian, Moira Donegan explains:

Biden’s rhetoric appeals to a vision of the past based more in fantasy than reality. If anything, Biden is appealing to an imaginary bygone American era that many Americans don’t recognize. He sees prosperity where others see falling wages and unlivable healthcare and housing costs. He sees dignified political stability where others see their systematic exclusion from the halls of power. He sees chummy, Kumbaya-singing bipartisan cooperation with Republicans where many see the highly uncivil efforts of the right wing to strip minorities of their livelihoods and rights and to enshrine discrimination into law.

As the frontrunner, Biden’s pitch to voters has not been about new ideas or new routes to power, but about a return to the past. But many — most — have reason to think that the past was not much better than the present, that the rosy vision of a bygone America where dignity, civility and bipartisanship reigned exists not in history or in fact, but in Biden’s imagination. His evocation of the past does not make these Americans nostalgic, or wistful, or patriotic. It makes them uneasy.

For all the controversy surrounding Biden's comments, this moment serves as a reminder of something important, if not essential, to resisting the ugly forces super-empowered by the age of Donald Trump. On matters of racial justice and human dignity the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are diametrically opposed to one another.

The Democratic Party believes that racism and white supremacy are wrong.

Because of that foundational premise, Democrats are committed to America's multiracial democracy. These values and beliefs are so important that Democratic presidential candidates are willing to engage in painful, public fights about civil rights and anti-racism — even if it hurts their electoral chances.

In contrast, racism and the conservative movement are now fully one and the same thing in America. As such, the Republican Party is the natural home for white supremacists and others who hold animus towards black and brown people, as well as Muslims. Today's Republican Party does not merely embrace and defend white racism. It has nominated and elects an all-but-overt white supremacist as president of the United States.

Some have described Biden's comments as a gaffe. This is not correct: Biden meant what he said — if he were a character in a comic book the thought bubble above his head would have read, "Look! I can work with anyone! Good for me!" Biden's "gaffe" reveals much more: It is another example of the common problem of willful ignorance. Too many white Americans still believe that Jim Crow American apartheid was an isolated phenomenon whose harm was restricted to one region of the country. In reality Jim Crow was a central part of the United States' national character.

As sociologist Joe Feagin suggested via social media several days ago, Biden and others would improve their understanding of the country's history — and of why Biden's chummy comments about white supremacists were so problematic — if they read Ralph Ellison's seminal essay "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks":

Without the presence of blacks, our political history would have been otherwise. No slave economy, no Civil War, no violent destruction of the Reconstruction, no K.K.K. and no Jim Crow system. And without the disenfranchisement of black Americans and the manipulation of racial fears and prejudices, the disproportionate impact of white Southern politicians upon our domestic and foreign policies would have been impossible. Indeed, it is almost impossible to conceive of what our political system would have become without the snarl of forces — cultural, racial, religious — that make our nation what it is today. [Emphasis added.]

Absent, too, would be the need for that tragic knowledge which we try ceaselessly to evade: that the true subject of democracy is not simply material well-being, but the extension of the democratic process in the direction of perfecting itself. The most obvious test and clue to that perfection is the inclusion — not assimilation — of the black man.

Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the “outsider.” Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American.

Despite this recent political speed bump, there is reason for Joe Biden to be hopeful.

All is most certainly not lost. Biden's comments have received so much attention — beyond their awfulness — because the news media and other political observers, as well as Biden's rivals, are probing for weakness and scandal in the days before the first Democratic debates. Biden was foolish enough to give them what they wanted.

Black Americans, the group most aggrieved and insulted by Biden's statements about working with white supremacists, still remain highly supportive of him.

This is true of likely Democratic voters as well — Joe Biden holds roughly a 20-point lead over Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in recent polls.

Biden's popularity among black Americans is a function of many things.

Black Americans are one of the most reliable and stalwart members of the Democratic Party's electoral coalition. Biden still, of course, benefits from having been Barack Obama's vice president. Public opinion and other research shows that black Americans are very sophisticated in their voting behavior. They see and understand the threat posed by Donald Trump's regime, and were among the first to sound the alarm about the horrors his racial authoritarianism would unleash if he were to become president. Ultimately, black Americans understand that Biden, while far from perfect, may be the candidate with the best chance to defeat Donald Trump.

Unlike many white Democratic voters who feel free to indulge in purity tests as they search for a perfect candidate, Black America is pragmatic. To that end, black voters know that removing Donald Trump is the most important goal, much larger than any narrow set of interests. Like any other group, however, black voters are not a hive mind. As Hillary Clinton learned in 2016, black folks' enthusiasm for a given candidate is not fixed. Biden should learn that lesson early, rather than taking the support of black voters for granted and regretting such an error in political calculus later on.

It is still very early in the 2020 presidential race. This week's Democratic debates in Miami offer an opportunity for the candidates to educate the public about their proposals. During these early debates candidates with low name recognition will snipe at Biden, Warren and Sanders. Biden will fight off the latter two candidates in order to maintain the air of inevitability which surrounds his candidacy.

As the Democratic field gradually sheds its bloat and a nominee is selected, Democrats — the leaders, their media, activists, and the rank-and-file — should not lose focus on their real enemy. Donald Trump and the Republican Party are united in service of fascism. Trump's voters enthusiastically support him. Today's conservative movement is a fundamentalist political religion. Its members want nothing more than total victory over the Democrats, and seek to demolish anyone who dissents from their radically backward, anti-intellectual, quasi-theocratic, racist, sexist, plutocratic and anti-democracy agenda. If the Democrats succumb to factionalism Donald Trump will win again in 2020 — and do so easily.

Barack Obama warned us about this several months ago:

One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States ... is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, 'Ah, I'm sorry, this is how it's gonna be.' And then we start sometimes creating what's called a circular firing squad, where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues. And when that happens, typically the overall effort and movement weakens.

Will the Democratic Party rally around its nominee, even if he is Joe Biden? Or will they instead tear each other apart and leave Donald Trump and his Republican jackals an easy meal?