Jim Crow Joe

Photograph Source: Chuck Kennedy – CC BY 2.0

It was the days of purple haze and the post-civil rights movement that President-elect Joe Biden cemented his political legacy, yet he was rarely on the right side of history. The era was marked by assassinations of political leaders, spurred a coalition opposing the Vietnam war, and produced police violence carried out on demonstrators. The unrest set the stage for Richard Nixon and advisor Lee Atwater’s southern strategy.

Nixon’s ‘68 campaign strategy relied on polished racist dog whistles and rhetoric promising law and order, which delivered the southern vote along with the White House. With a political realignment — where segregationist southern Democrats found refuge within the GOP — political newcomer, Joe Biden found opportunity.

Delaware’s Dixiecrat

Before the 1972 elections, then a city government official, Biden launched a bid for the U.S. Senate. In his campaign against Delaware’s Republican incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs, Biden set himself apart from his opponent and supported the integration of schools through federally mandated busing. Yet in a few years following his first Senatorial win, he would reverse his stance and sharpen his words.

After a deciding vote that nixed a 1974 anti-busing amendment, the freshman Senator faced backlash and pressure from constituents. Biden’s vote against the ‘74 amendment would stand as his sole exception of supporting school desegregation through federally mandated busing. After his controversial vote, constituent outrage ensued. Parents began to heckle the Senator at a town hall meeting and he would promptly change his position to match his base’s sentiments.

Through 1972 until the end of federally mandated busing, Biden would join staunch segregationists — Senators Strom Thurmond, James O. Eastland, Herman E. Talmadge, and others — backing bills that would prevent the federal government from enforcing school integration.

After the 1975 white anti-busing riots in Boston, Biden joined with former Dixiecrat — North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms — to introduce an anti-busing amendment a year later. The proposal’s aim was to handcuff the enforcement of school desegregation by limiting the federal government from collecting data on integration. As reported by NPR, Biden later said in a 1975 interview he supported a Constitutional amendment to end the busing mandate.

In support of Helms’s amendment, Biden would rise on the Senate floor stating, “I have become convinced that busing is a bankrupt concept.” Helms’s measure failed but Biden introduced a similar and more bipartisan amendment that barred funding for local governments assigning teachers to schools based on race. Later that year, Biden issued a statement on busing in an interview, calling the policy, “[an] asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me.”

The New York Times notes that Biden proposed a 1976 measure that would block the Department of Justice (DOJ) from treating busing as a form of desegregation. A year later the Senator cosponsored an amendment that limited federal funding from busing oversight while leading legislation that would limit court-ordered busing enforcement.

A year later, in 1977, Biden remarked that some federal desegregation policies would “cause his children to grow up in a racialized jungle.” Biden continued with rhetoric that echoed Congress’s segregationists, haranguing against “forced busing” and arguing for states’ rights.

By 1982, Biden joined former Dixiecrats to vote for a DOJ appropriations amendment that included a section labeled “the toughest anti-busing rider ever approved by either chamber of Congress.” He then voted in favor of an amendment that granted DOJ the ability “to remove or reduce the requirement of busing in existing court decrees or judgments.”

A 1991 Supreme Court decision would lead to a series of cases that would ultimately end federally mandated busing. Almost 30 years later, a 2019 report released by Penn State and UCLA showed that classrooms are overly segregated today.

New Jim Crow Joe

From the early 1980s up until present day, racialized mass incarceration took hold — sponsored by the war on drugs, heightened sentencing, and through the empowerment of prosecutors and law enforcement. The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander writes, “Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born.”

Biden’s role in the genesis of the New Jim Crow began during the Reagan years. As reported by The Intercept, Biden lobbied the Reagan administration to beef up law enforcement and adopt harsher sentences. While courting Reagan, the Senator reached across the aisle to find common ground with an old friend.

Biden teamed up with Strom Thurmond to introduce the Comprehensive Control Act of 1984. The bill expanded penalties for marijuana production and trafficking, permitted punitive legal strategies, and included a civil asset forfeiture clause. By 1986 and 1988 he would support and partly author two Anti-Drug Abuse Acts that imposed stricter sentencing on crack compared to powder cocaine and bolstered prison sentences for drug offenders.

During Biden’s first bid for the White House, a 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer piece reports that he gloated about receiving an award from Alabama’s former segregationist governor George Wallace in 1973. Shortly thereafter, Biden delivered a stump speech in Alabama, stating, “we [Delawareans] were on the south’s side in the Civil War.” Continuing on the campaign trail, he further remarked that he participated as a civil rights activist in the 60s, yet the claim was unfounded.

After the Reagan-era, a 1991 peak in national crime escalated calls for law and order and was followed by a media frenzy. In the ‘92 Presidential campaign, Bill Clinton rebranded the Democratic Party as tough on crime, which paid off and delivered the White House. Shortly after the Clinton victory, Biden introduced The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, also known as the ‘94 crime bill.

Biden was a substantial contributor to the legislation and shepherded it through, rising on the Senate floor boasting that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party was responsible for 60 new death penalties, 70 enhanced penalties, 100,000 more cops, and 125,000 new prison cells. The Senator continued the next year, standing in support of the bill, “We have predators on our streets who are beyond the pale….We have no other choice but to take them out of society.”

The bill passed and was signed into law by Clinton, imposing mandatory minimum sentences, the “three strikes you’re out rule”, and increased federal spending for newly militarized law enforcement and prisons nationwide.

As the policies took shape, the war on drugs and mass incarceration exploded, delivering the U.S. the world’s largest prison population. No secret — by the 2000s, with only 5 percent of the globe’s population, the U.S. had 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Data from the U.S. Census shows that black people are five times more likely to face incarceration than white people, while a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed police murders skew excessively towards people of color.

Late Senate and Obama Years

Towards the twilight of Biden’s Senate career, he pursued neoliberal economic reforms and championed financial deregulations. For over 40 years — from 1984 until 2018 — Biden would support proposed freezes and cuts to Social Security spending, while people of color are disproportionately served by Social Security income benefits.

He continued with deregulation through the ‘90s and ‘00s. In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act was introduced and proposed to eliminate Great Depression-era financial regulations formed through the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The sweeping deregulatory bill paved the way and further incentivized finance capital to pursue predatory lending, redlining, and fiscal trickery which disproportionately disadvantaged people of color. Biden supported and voted for the bill.

Following the erasure of Glass-Steagall, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA), known as the bankruptcy bill, was introduced. Through BAPCPA’s time in the legislative process, Biden would offer three amendments that hallowed existing statutes. The law would unequally impact people of color, and down the road, exacerbated the student debt crisis, impacting people of color at more costly levels.

During the Obama-Biden years, videos and reports of police murders of black people would surface. Ferguson and Baltimore became centers of the uprisings that ensued in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and were precursors to the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Yet the two-term administration didn’t deliver the change that was promised in the ‘08 campaign.

Abroad it was also business as usual for the Obama-Biden White House. The foreign policy apparatus during the administration actively destabilized regions, causing crises in Yemen, Honduras, Syria, Somalia, and Libya, while continuing W. Bush-era operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

The drone program would also surge under Biden’s White House years. Since the drone warfare-era, the administration amassed the highest number of civilian drone strike casualties. As reported by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 380 to 801 civilians in the Middle East and Africa were killed by drone strikes during Obama and Biden’s tenure.

For Latin Americans, the White House also managed one of the largest deportation efforts in U.S. history, while mass graves of Latin American migrants went unchecked by the administration. Over two and half million migrants were deported and the infrastructure was left for Trump to inherit and bolster.

A May 2020 CNN interview with Harvard professor, Dr. Cornel West, succinctly summed up the Obama-Biden years. “The system cannot reform itself. We’ve tried black faces in high places. Too often our black politicians, professional class, middle class become too accommodated to the capitalist economy.” West continued, “The Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a black President, a black Attorney General, and a black Homeland Security, and they couldn’t deliver.”

On The Campaign Trail

Biden didn’t launch his campaign with much backing from the Democratic base, bundlers, or much of a vision. The core of Biden’s messaging appealed to white suburbanites, offering nothing more than a return to normalcy and an alternative to Trump. Top Democrats, much like the base and donors, were also initially skeptical of Biden’s path to victory.

According to Politico, Biden’s former running mate Barack Obama allegedly remarked, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up.” Obama then supposedly told one Democratic candidate in Iowa, “And you know who really doesn’t have it? Joe Biden.”

Before Biden was thrusted into the Democratic front runner spotlight, the former Vice President clashed with future running mate, Kamala Harris, regarding his record on busing during the debates. While Vice President-elect Harris has her own controversial record on criminal justice, the Biden camp deflected and muddied the waters.

During the campaign, Biden would falsely and repeatedly claim that he was arrested after meeting with Nelson Mandela while protesting apartheid in South Africa. He would also state in an interview, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” which he later apologized for.

Peculiar phrases and malarkey aside, it didn’t matter for the Biden coalition. The centrist candidates dropped out and consolidated to crush an insurgent Bernie Sanders challenge, delivering Biden key wins and the nomination.

Surrounding his primary victory were potentially the largest uprisings and movement in U.S. history. Following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, mass rebellions stormed nationwide — continuing ever since. The majority of Americans support the BLM movement and the rebellions against U.S. institutions.

With popular support behind BLM, Biden didn’t seize the moment like during the post-civil rights political realignment. Nonetheless, the black vote turned out to deliver him the White House. With that said, recent indications show a Biden administration will take the black vote and the energy around BLM for granted.

Following the police murder of Walter Wallace Jr. — a young black man experiencing a mental health episode in Philadelphia — the then Presidential nominee condemned the uprisings. Biden would then appear for remarks on the campaign trail to address the hopelessly frustrated crowds, “There is no excuse whatsoever for the looting and the violence. None whatsoever.” The campaign also issued a written statement in response, adding in a qualifying “but at the same.”

The President-elect previously denounced demonstrators in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere. Prior to issuing statements, Biden has also called for police to “shoot ‘em in the leg” and doubled down on that remark during a town hall when asked about police de-escalation techniques.

The Biden transition team was also considering former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a top cabinet slot but walked his appointment back after criticism. In 2014, Emanuel attempted to cover up the police killing of black Chicagoan, Laquan McDonald, along with gutting the city’s social infrastructure for vulnerable communities.

Biden’s “Tranquilizing Drug Of Gradualism”

Two years before Malcolm X was assassinated, he delivered a speech skewering white liberals, “The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor; and by winning the friendship, allegiance, and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or tool in this political “football game” that is constantly raging between the white liberals and white conservatives.”

Martin Luther King Jr. would share similar sentiments on white centrists in his letter from the Birmingham jailhouse, writing, “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

The warnings issued by X and King ring true today.

Opposing full school integration and using rhetorical pitches reminiscent of Atwater’s southern strategy gave Biden the political capital he needed to rise through the ranks and develop bipartisan favor. The racist war on drugs, mass incarceration, rampant disenfranchisement, the prison industrial complex, exploited labor, and militarized police forces didn’t magically appear.

Austerity and financial deregulation further empowered conservatives and incentivized debt profiteers to prey on vulnerable people. The continuation of endless wars and coup d’états, building a mass deportation system, and failing to leverage power to yield change had someone behind those policies and inactions.

The policy failures that have perpetuated a white supremacist society weren’t just lazily passed and implemented — they were championed and safe-guarded. Biden’s career has been built on working for white supremacy.

While securing the election by placating voters of color and appealing to comfortable white suburbanites — like his strategy in the early throes of his career — has proven he will not build long-overdue and necessary systematic justice. Rather than championing a popular and righteous cause, he has countlessly gone out of his way to support and pay homage to white supremacist notions and institutions, twisting his record to the public. Though Biden’s record and words are clear, “nothing will fundamentally change.”

Like Biden, the U.S. has yet to repent for its past and present. For any significant change to occur in the Biden years and beyond, it will take a sustained mass movement constantly agitating institutions. During the Biden years and throughout Democratic strongholds, there will still be brutality, police murders, and white supremacy. The only possible way for meaningful change to occur — not symbolic victories — is for all decent people to continuously take to the streets and, by any means necessary, demand justice and freedom.

As put by Martin Luther King Jr., “this is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Jack Delaney is a former policy analyst. He worked on issues relating to health care, disability, and labor policy, and is a member of the National Writers Union.