An underwhelming start for Joe Biden’s campaign in February seemed to mark it as dead in the water. Now he’s back — and it’s in large part thanks to African-American voters.
After his big South Carolina win on the back of strong black support revived his campaign, Biden solidified his place as the front-runner through a series of wins in Southern states on Super Tuesday, with (mostly older) African Americans in those states backing him in larger numbers.
Biden has carefully cultivated loyal Democratic voters in the black community, both in this campaign and throughout his decades in Washington. “My entire life I’ve been involved with the black community,” he said during the last debate. “My entire career has been wrapped up in dealing with civil rights and civil liberties.”
But surveying Biden’s record, one is left with a different impression: that Biden has, in fact, built a career on the back of steadfast African-American support while consistently betraying those same voters.
Elected as county councilman in 1970, Biden was known as an advocate for public housing, earning him racist abuse from bigoted locals in Delaware. Yet he quickly assured the press about his public housing stance: “I am not a Crusader Rabbit championing the rights of people.”
True to his word, when plans for a controversial moderate-income housing project came to the New Castle County Council in 1972 — one opposed by a crowd of hundreds who attended the meeting — Biden voted with the rest of the council to table it indefinitely. More accurately, Biden disappeared after a recess, and the vote had to be delayed until he could be found and his vote put on the record. When the county’s housing authority later drew up plans to buy a complex to convert to “non-elderly” public housing, the agency’s outreach to discuss the plan with Biden fell on deaf ears; Biden was too busy campaigning for the Senate.
Upon entering the Senate, Biden went where one would expect a champion of civil rights to go: on the Senate Banking Committee, where he worked on bills to regulate predatory private debt collection and sat on its housing subcommittee.
But not for long. Explaining that “other issues are more important for Delaware — the issues of crime and busing,” Biden departed Banking in 1977 for the Judiciary Committee. The decision paved the way for him to become the Senate’s leading liberal opponent of busing and architect of mass incarceration, each of his efforts calamitous to the cause of black equality.
The full significance of Biden’s anti-busing crusade has rarely been explored. Though his 1975 anti-busing amendment failed, by clearing the Senate, it was credited by the Congressional Quarterly as signaling the end of the upper chamber’s previous commitment to defending desegregation measures. Meanwhile, his lasting anti-busing achievement — the 1977 Eagleton-Biden amendment, which barred the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from using its funding for busing — became the bane of existence for civil rights activists and school administrators around the country, whom it blocked from fully implementing desegregation plans. That it had no effect whatsoever on the court-ordered busing in Delaware, the ostensible reason for Biden’s sharp right turn on the issue, didn’t prevent him from being pleased with its impact. Biden was so against busing that, on a Judiciary Committee filled with former segregationists, he became the member who would vote against two historic black nominees to the Justice Department because of their stance on the matter.
Meanwhile, as Biden pushed the flurry of tough-on-crime legislation in the 1980s and 1990s that would prove so disastrous for communities of color, he was well aware of its dangers. He referred to the “political hysteria of the law and order campaigns” of the 1960s and later chided Reagan for his punitive approach: “It costs more money to keep a prisoner in jail than to send your son or daughter to Harvard or Yale,” he told a crowd. As early as 1972, as Biden demagogued on the dangers of crime and drugs for his Senate campaign; one expert whom Biden himself deemed “eminently qualified” to talk about crime trends had complained about politicians misleading the public on the issue; he assumed the expert wasn’t talking about him, Biden said.
The carceral avalanche that resulted was one half of a post–civil rights counterrevolution; the other took place in the courts. As a member and later chair of the Judiciary Committee, Biden let through several hard-right justices to the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy chief among them. Handpicked by Biden as a nominee acceptable to Democrats, he praised Kennedy throughout his confirmation hearing while feeding him softballs, hoping they could “all get out of here,” declining to investigate his anti-abortion views and earlier controversial rulings. Once on the court, Kennedy completed its right-wing takeover, working with his fellow conservatives to weaken civil rights protections. Biden’s failure was compounded four years later with the Clarence Thomas nomination, when, at Republicans’ behest, he did everything humanly possible to undermine Anita Hill’s testimony about the judge’s sexual harassment.
All the while, Biden lectured Democrats to forget the multiracial coalition that formed the bedrock of their party and move closer to the politics of the suburban South. “You have been where the Democratic Party was, and now the Democratic Party must be where you are,” he told Democrats in North Carolina as he toured with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). At one stop in Alabama, he dropped from his stump speech references to police brutalization of civil rights protesters and his (nonexistent) civil rights activism.
Key to his argument was that Democrats had “lost the middle class” by becoming beholden to “special interests” and “interest groups,” who “had a stranglehold on us.” But Biden meant something very specific with these innocuous-sounding terms. Even earlier in his career, he had referred to “minorities and other vested interests” and blamed unchecked growth in federal spending on constituent interest groups who wouldn’t give up on programs they benefited from. As he told the NAACP Convention in 1986: “You can’t try to pit the Rainbow Coalition, blacks, Hispanics, poor whites, gays, against the middle class.” For good measure, he pointedly snubbed Jesse Jackson by publicly ruling him out as his running mate. Jackson hit back, griping about unnamed deficit-cutters “combing their hair to the left like Kennedy and moving their policies to the right like Reagan.”
“It’s about time politicians stop making pro-black speeches before pro-black groups and pro-labor speeches before the labor groups,” Biden once said. “People don’t want to hear what they think you think they want to hear.”
Yet throughout his career, Biden would routinely and cravenly change his talking points depending on whether he was speaking to a black audience. Upon receiving a 1978 endorsement from Howard Jarvis, the anti-tax businessman who had backed California’s Proposition 13, Biden’s office issued a statement that he was “delighted,” and that Jarvis had “recognized the fact that I have consistently voted for lower taxes and lower government spending.” Days later, talking to a mostly black audience, he warned them about the consequences of measures like Proposition 13, before saying he didn’t “have any feeling about [Jarvis’s] endorsement.” Twenty-four years later, after spending the whole of 2002 pushing for war with Iraq (a conflict hugely unpopular with black voters) and suggesting Saddam Hussein was connected to Al-Qaeda, he turned around a month after voting for the war to tell an audience of African-American columnists that it was “the dumbest thing in the world,” and that he didn’t “consider the war on Iraq the war on terror.”
Then there’s Biden’s infamous 2003 eulogy of segregationist and sexual predator Strom Thurmond, the man with whom Biden had worked to shift the US criminal code in a more punitive, unforgiving direction. Today, Biden’s South Carolina eulogy is viewed as an uncomfortable relic of a less enlightened era; in reality, it was unusual even then. Not only was Biden one of only two Democrats to show up to the funeral (the other, Fritz Hollings, had served with Thurmond for thirty-six years in the state), he was one of a mere seven of 225 living former and sitting senators to do so. Thurmond, who had famously filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act into oblivion, was a “brave man” whose “lasting impact” was a “gift to us all,” Biden told attendees.
That’s not to mention Biden’s long history of taking aim at entitlements like Social Security, a program of enormous importance to African Americans, and which large numbers of black Americans rely on to survive.
It’s one of those strange ironies of history that Biden, having spent a career betraying African Americans on key, consequential issues, now counts them as the main reason for his electoral viability; and that after insisting to Democrats that the party could only survive by prioritizing conservative white voters in the South over its multiracial base, he has been rescued from oblivion by mostly older black voters in the South. The fact that most of those in South Carolina backed him while telling pollsters that the US economic system needs a “complete overhaul” reveals this irony to be a tragedy.