Joe Biden’s Alternative White Reality

Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden is playing with a stacked racial deck. His recent pitch is that, as president, he would be a bipartisan consensus-builder. He cited the “civility” of the Senate in the past, when, as a young senator, he was able to work with avowed segregationists, Senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, both Southern Democrats. “We didn’t agree on much of anything,” Biden said, but, “We got things done.” Unlike, “Today, when you look at the other side and you’re the enemy.” He even lifted Eastland up morally, saying, ”He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’“ ( “Biden Recalling ‘Civility’ in Senate, Invokes Two Segregationist Senators,” By Katie Glueck, The New York Times, June 19, 2019)

Joe Biden’s recollection of such past Senate “civility” led Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is black, to issue a statement, saying that Biden was “wrong” to use such divisive segregationists as examples of how to create common ground. He added, “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’” Booker also said, “I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.” Biden responded: “Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body.” (Ibid; “Joe Biden Called Corey Booker. But Apologize? It’s Not the Biden Way,” By Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein, The New York Times, June 20, 2019)

Evidently Joe Biden is confused about the racial make-up of his own body. Why would Sen. Eastland have called him ‘boy?’ Eastland obviously reserved that depreciating term for black men, whom he reportedly believed were “members of an ‘inferior race.’” (Ibid) Conversely, “Son” is the affectionate name for a member of one’s family – in this case, Eastland’s white family.

Perhaps Joe Biden’s eight years as vice president to black president Barack Obama led him to think that a certain amount of blackness had rubbed off on his “body.” If so, it did not prevent him from invoking these two staunch segregationists as examples of how to create cooperation and “get things done” — and “on the eve of Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the end of slavery.” (“Biden, Recalling ‘Civility’ in Senate, Invokes Two Segregationist Senators,” Ibid)

While Joe Biden says, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” his “body” was apparently numb to Sen. Eastland’s blatant racism. In a New Republic article on “Joe Biden’s Racial Dog Whistle,” Matt Ford writes that “Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate recounts how Eastland spoke to a crowd during the Montgomery bus boycott with the language of a would-be genocidaire:

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. . . . All whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of dead niggers.” (June 20, 2019)

Educator and author Jonathan Kozol writes in The Nation that Sen. Joe Biden not only “took a leading role” in opposing court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools; he “expressed thanks to [Sen.] Eastland for supporting anti-busing legislation that Biden introduced. ‘I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help . . . in attempting to bring my anti-busing legislation to a vote,’” Biden “wrote the Mississippi Democrat, a virulent opponent of civil rights who frequently referred to black people as ‘an inferior race.’” (“When Joe Biden Collaborated With Segregationists,” June 6, 2019)

Jonathan Kozol cites an ingrained reality that has benefited the bones in Joe Biden’s white “body.” “In a nation where residential segregation and unabated patterns of redlining have guaranteed the seemingly eternal sequestration of black and Hispanic children in poorly funded schools within their communities,” Kozol writes, “Biden’s many years of strident opposition to letting children ride the good old yellow bus represent a throwback to the age of Plessy v. Ferguson.” (Ibid) Joe Biden’s “body” inherited and flourished in an historic, white-controlled hierarchy of access to political, economic, legal and religious power.

Mr. Kozol concludes. “As the mainstream media repeatedly remind us, Biden is a likeable man in many ways. . . . But,” Kozol continues, “his likeability will not help Julia Walker’s grandkids and her great grandchildren and the children of her neighbors go to schools where they can get an equal shot at a first-rate education and where their young white classmates have a chance to get to know and value them and learn from them, as children do in ordinary ways when we take away the structures that divide them.” (Ibid)

Along with their shared anti-busing stance, Sen. Biden and Sen. Eastland, chairman of the powerful Judicial Committee, held similar beliefs about crime and punishment. Biden is reported to have “courted” Eastland, “who helped him land spots on the committee and subcommittees dealing with criminal justice and prisons, and became a close friend and legislative partner of another, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. At Biden’s request, Eastland “put him in charge of overseeing prisons and sentencing.” Soon, “with Mr. Eastland’s support, he pushed for mandatory minimum sentences that would limit judges’ discretion in sentencing.” (“’Lock the S. O. B.s Up’: Joe Biden and the Era of Mass Incarceration,” By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Astead W. Herndon, The New York Times, June 25, 2019)

Unlike other Democrats, Sen. Joe Biden was quoted as not being interested in dealing with the “ ‘root cause’ theory of crime,” such as “poverty and other social ills that breed criminal activity.” When violent crime was rising in 1989, he “lamented that the Republican president, George H.W. Bush, was not doing enough to put ‘violent thugs’ in prison. In 1993, he warned of ‘predators on our streets.’” Also, “in a 1994 Senate floor speech he likened himself to another Republican president: ‘Every time Richard Nixon, when he was running in 1972, would say, ‘Law and Order,’ the Democrats match or response was, ‘Law and order with justice’ – whatever that meant. And I would say, ‘Lock the S. O. B.s up.’” (Ibid) In 1993, Biden said, “It doesn’t matter whether or not they are victims of society . . . I don’t want to ask, ‘What made them do this?’ They must be taken off the street.” (Ibid)

For Sen. Biden, criminal justice was about adding police and building prisons, not addressing the systemic political, economic and legal discriminatory forces that keep doors of opportunity closed and suffocate aspirations. As reported, he and segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond “co-authored . . . a string of bills that effectively rewrote the nation’s criminal justice laws with an eye toward putting more criminals behind bars.” Those bills include “the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which dictated harsher sentences for possession of crack than for powder cocaine; and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a vast catchall tough-on-crime bill.” With a number of Democratic presidential candidates “calling for ambitious criminal justice reform,” it is assumed that Biden “must answer for his role in legislation that criminal justice experts and his critics say helped lay the groundwork for the mass incarceration that has devastated America’s black communities.” (Ibid)

What motivated Delaware’s Sen. Biden? “Harmon Carey, director of Wilmington’s Afro-American Historical Society, said, “Joe’s a decent fella, but he is doing what his white constituents wanted . . . The white people wanted to send people to prison. They wanted cops. And that’s what he did.” (Ibid)

Mr. Carey is believed to present a clue to Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. Biden appears to be unveiling his own version of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, by appealing to the white nationalist element in President Trump’s base. Thus Biden is quoted as saying that “he will win Republican-leaning states in the South,” like “’Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, believe it or not’” — and even “’Texas and Florida.’” (“Joe Biden says he’ll win Republican-leaning states in the South,” CBS NEWS. June 17, 2019)

It is assumed that Joe Biden’s Southern strategy helps to explain him lauding the “civility” he was able to establish with Southern segregationists Senators Eastland and Talmadge. And his, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” is shared by many white persons who chose not to be aware of their historic white-favored access to privilege and power in American society. Even President Trump often says to his base, “I am the least racist person that you have ever met.” If he is, so is his admiring base.

In a Delaware newspaper interview dug up by The Washington Post, Joe Biden expressed the denial of many white persons regarding their imbedded entitlement in society: “I do not buy the concept, popular in the 60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and . . . in order to even the score, we must now give the black man’ – no reference to black women – ‘a head start or even hold the white man back . . . I don’t buy that.’” (“When Joe Biden Collaborated With Segregationists, Ibid) Spoken like a man who doesn’t have a racist bone in his body – or in his country’s.

“No reference to black women.” Anita Hill would not be surprised. Here also the emphasis is on “hold[ing] the white man back,” not on helping black people catch up.

Many white persons reduce racism to interpersonal relationships with persons of color, convincing themselves that they are not racist because they have black friends and acquaintances. Perhaps Joe Biden didn’t believe he had a “racist bone” in his body because of his reported ability to “quickly position himself as a new type of white politician: always approachable, with meaningful relationships in black communities.” As Mr. Carey, Wilmington’s Afro-American Historical Society leader, testifies: Biden “often struck a careful balance, using personal relationships to maintain his good standing in Delaware’s black community, while carefully legislating in the more conservative interests of white voters and law enforcement.” (“’Lock the S.O.B.’s Up’: Joe Biden and the Era of Mass Incarceration,” Ibid)

The issue of racism in America is not about people getting along better, but getting by better. It is not just about interpersonal relationships, but about undoing America’s institutionalized white-favored hierarchy of access and power and creating a level economic, political and legal playing field.

Joe Biden is not up to this challenge, as he is reported to want it both ways. On the campaign trail, “he implicitly suggested that bold actions on a range of issues could be achieved without anyone being ‘punished,’ including the wealthy.” He said, “I got in trouble with some of the people in my team, on the Democratic side, because I said, ‘You know what I’ve found is rich people are just as patriotic as poor people . . . I mean, we may not want to demonize anybody who has money.” Then he did a shift: “At the same time, he warned, ‘when we have income inequality as large as we have in the United States today, it brews and ferments political discord and basic revolution.”,. (“Biden, Recalling ‘Civility’ in Senate, Invokes Two Segregationist Senators,” Ibid)

The issue is not about being “patriotic,” but about being in poverty. The wealthiest Americans have used their money to influence policies, including tax cuts, that have created “income inequality.” Biden is redefining the problem in favor of the “rich” in saying they should not be “punished.” This is the same presidential candidate who, years ago, said, I don’t buy . . . the concept . . . ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and . . . in order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start . or even hold the white man back.” It is not about “hold[ing] the white man back,” but enabling people of color to catch up. The fact that Biden does not want to “punish” the rich reveals who butters his capitalistic bread – and where his lucrative campaign funds come from.

“Rich people are just as patriotic as poor people.” They are probably more “patriotic’ than poor people, especially those whose wealth comes from their investment in the military/industrial/intelligence/complex. Their profits depend on America’s so-called “global war on terrorism” never ending. Regarding poor families, the only way most of their sons and daughters can hope to afford college is to join the military, which offers college education benefits – providing they don’t sacrifice their bodies and lives on the altar of American imperialism.

Joe Biden’s patriotism should give voters pause. In a Progressive article titled “The Other Reason Biden Shouldn’t Run,” political and international relations scholar Stephen Zunes writes, “As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002, Biden stated that Saddam Hussein had a sizeable arsenal of chemical weapons, as well as biological weapons . . . despite inspectors reporting that Iraq no longer appeared to have any weaponized chemical or biological agents.” Biden refused to hear testimony from “leading anti-war scholars familiar with Iraq and the Middle East . . . nor . . . call some of the dissenting officials in the Pentagon or State Department who were willing to challenge the alarmist claims.”(April 2, 2019)

Prof. Zunes continues, “Even after the U.N. inspectors had been engaged in months of unfettered inspections in early 2003, Biden expressed no objections when Bush decided to invade anyway.” And when it became clear “that Iraq didn’t actually have these weapons, or weapons systems, Biden continued to falsely claim ‘everyone in the world thought he had them.’” And he “insisted that he still didn’t regret voting ‘to give the president the authority to use force in Iraq. I still believe my vote was just.’” Zunes ends: “Biden’s role in making possible the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the carnage and destabilization that resulted, is something for which he needs to be held accountable. It should be a central issue in the upcoming campaign.” (April 2, 2019)

At that first debate on June 27, Joe Biden’s final words were, “God bless you all and may God protect our troops.” (“2019 Democratic Debates, Night 2: Full Transcript,” The New York Times, June 28, 2019) His last words sound imperialistic, not conciliatory. Too bad Biden did not say, “May God protect all human beings everywhere.” This is the inclusive world view political leaders need that will keep “our troops” home and safe, with their families where they belong.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is