Joe Biden has officially entered the 2020 presidential campaign, and the mainstream media will inevitably tap him as the frontrunner. Most polling data would support this, but we’re too early in the primary season to really determine if he will win the Democratic nomination.
But one thing is certainly clear: Biden has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do—especially to black people.
While serving as Barack Obama’s number two, he was referred to affectionately as “Uncle Joe,” the type of older man we all know of in our families who didn’t take no shit and was ready to box if somebody disrespected his homies. Uncle Joe was a G, the man who served as Obama’s body man, who would say what Obama really wanted to say but couldn’t. Standing in the cool of Obama’s shadow, Biden’s troubling past history with race was largely ignored—at least by those too busy following America’s first black president to think about it too much.
Not anymore. Uncle Joe got some ‘splainin’ to do. Now.
He is going to have to explain why he championed a 1994 crime bill that set the stage for mass incarceration of black people across the nation. He will have to explain how his mind has changed on criminal justice reform since the 1990s, and why black people should trust him to work within the framework of a Black Lives Matter Movement that rejects the notion that policing can be reformed or, in the case of former President Barack Obama, that mere recommendations or toothless federal guidelines will be sufficient to curb cops who prey on minority communities with near impunity.
He will have to explain these words from his speech in 1993 in which supported the 1994 crime bill, per CNN’s KFile:
“... [A] cadre of young people, tens of thousands of them, born out of wedlock, without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscience developing because they literally ... because they literally have not been socialized, they literally have not had an opportunity.” He said, “we should focus on them now” because “if we don’t, they will, or a portion of them, will become the predators 15 years from now.”
His spokesperson tried to explain Biden’s wording to CNN saying:
“Then-Senator Biden was referring specifically to violent crimes in the selected quotes. He was not talking about a kid stealing a candy bar, but someone who committed sexual assault, manslaughter, or murder,” Russo told CNN in an email. “In contrast, he says in the same speech that we need a different approach for nonviolent crimes. Specifically, he says we ‘need to keep people who are first time offenders, non-violent offenders, or potential first-time offenders who in fact are people getting themselves into the crime stream from the first time — that they should be diverted from the system.’”
Indeed, some Congressional Black Caucus members and black leaders supported the 1994 crime bill, too. At the time, “Tough On Crime” was sold to black communities as a way to make their communities safer. Of course, that was never true. The issue is that for too long, politicians of all races have offered un-creative ways to deal with crime that did little to address the white supremacist structures that allow crime to flourish.
Black politicians who feared backlash from angry constituents over how to deal with high crime rates responded viscerally—by giving those fearful black residents more police and promises of stiffer drug possession penalties and longer sentences. It was a horrible idea offered by politicians who lacked a nuanced understanding of how to deal with crime and who were looking for a quick fix to a very complicated problem. Black people have suffered severely as a result.
So Biden, like many of his white and black peers, should explain how his thinking has evolved since then. It will not be an easy conversation, but he can get through it if he shows the capacity to self-reflect.
Note: men, especially white men, are extremely bad at this.
Biden will likely compete for coveted black female votes in South Carolina on Super Tuesday, but he will not be able to earn them easily. Most black women over 40 years old remember the Anita Hill hearings in which Biden oversaw arguably the most sexist, dehumanizing questions directed toward a woman by public officials in television history. (If you have time, go over to YouTube and watch the hearings. They are much worse than you’ve heard.) Most people will want an apology, which he has not truly offered to Hill or the public.
Biden will have to explain why he was for busing while running for the U.S. Senate in 1972, but voted against it as a congressman because, as Politico reports, his white constituents were against it.
New York Magazine had this to say about Biden’s anti-busing history after he won his 1972 Senate race:
Once in the Senate, Biden continued to triangulate, voting for most, though not all, of the anti-busing amendments that came before him. But for his overwhelmingly white constituents, nothing less than massive resistance to busing would suffice. The New Castle County Neighborhood Schools Association booed Biden off the stage at one event in 1974. One year later, the Delaware senator broke ranks with northern liberals— and joined his virulently racist North Carolina colleague Jesse Helms in voting to kneecap all federal efforts to integrate schools, anywhere in the country. Specifically, Biden voted to bar the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from requiring schools to provide information on the racial makeup of their student bodies — thereby making it nigh-impossible for Uncle Sam to withhold federal funds from school districts that refused to integrate.
He will also have to deal with recent allegations that he does not recognize women’s personal boundaries. His video explaining that he will do better has not put an end to worries that he doesn’t get it and will continue to dog him unless he can demonstrate growth on the matter in real time.
Stacey Abrams said as much when asked about the allegations.
“We cannot have perfection as a litmus test,” Abrams, a Democrat, said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “The responsibility of leaders is to not be perfect but to be accountable, to say, ‘I’ve made a mistake. I understand it and here’s what I’m going to do to reform as I move forward.’ And I think we see Joe Biden doing that.”
He’ll need to keep this up if he wants the questions about his boundary issues to abate.
To be sure, none of the candidates running for office are without baggage. Kamala Harris is still trying to prove to people that she was not a cop hell-bent on throwing black people in jail during her time as a prosecutor. Pete Buttigieg has questions to answer about how people of color in South Bend, Ind., feel about his mayoral record. Bernie Sanders, who also supported the 1994 crime bill, is still perceived to be tone-deaf on black issues. Everybody’s got baggage, so it is not like Biden can’t overcome any of his challenges. He actually can.
The problem is that Biden will have to prove that he is capable of doing what most white men worldwide have shown they are incapable of doing: say he is sorry. Apologize.
Symone Sanders, who has signed on to be a senior adviser for his campaign, is an experienced operative who knows a thing about national politics and has earned respect for navigating Bernie Sanders through his own issues with race back in 2016. Sanders is an essential addition and he will be wise to heed her advice.
But no black woman can save Joe Biden. Joe Biden can only save himself.