Jun 19, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Biden's race backlash

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

On his 3rd presidential campaign, and the 154th anniversary of Juneteenth, the scrutiny has never seemed higher for Joe Biden's history on race.

The big picture: Biden has served in public office for decades — and uses that experience to argue for his candidacy — but his Senate tenure in the 1970s and 80s increasingly looks like it could be a liability.

On Wedneday, Biden cited two former Democratic colleagues — the white supremacist segregationists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge — as examples of how the Senate used to be more civil.

  • “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said at a fundraiser. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
  • "[H]erman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew ... 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."

What they're saying:

  • Sen. Cory Booker fired back at Biden's remarks... "You don’t joke about calling black men 'boys.' Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity."
  • NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio: "It’s 2019 & [Biden] s longing for the good old days of “civility” typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to 'the pursuit of dead n***ers.'"
  • Rep. Bobby Rush to Politico: “Did he really say that? Oh lord.”
  • Biden advisor Anita Dunn on MSNBC: "It's a story he's told many times. And the point of the story is that you have to be able to work with people, even if they hold positions repugnant to you in order to make some progress."
  • Sen. Kamala Harris said in comments filmed by Politico Biden's comments were "misinformed" and "wrong."

But Biden picked up some defenders among other CBC members, per Politico:

  • Rep. James Clyburn: “I worked with Strom Thurmond all my life ... You don’t have to agree with people to work with them.”
  • Rep. Bennie Thompson: “If he was able to work with Eastland, he’s a great person."
  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: "I think we here in the House Democratic Caucus have ourselves taken the position that sometimes you have to work with the opposition to the extent they’re in power without compromising your values if you can get things done.”

The bottom line, per Axios' Alexi McCammond: It's an extreme way to highlight your bipartisanship. In the year 2019, the night before Juneteenth, you intentionally bring up your past willingness to work with segregationists?

Go deeper: At the first House hearing on reparations in 12 years, author Ta-Nehisi Coates sharply criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for claiming "no one currently alive was responsible" for slavery.

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