Joe Biden believed he had something to say. His Friday appearance on The Breakfast Club, a nationally syndicated Black radio show, was ending, his handler was rushing him off the call, and the former vice president and apparent Democratic presidential nominee wanted to get across a message.
“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” Biden said. He had a look of accomplishment on his face as if he had just done something noteworthy.
And he had, but not in the way he thought. Instead, he’s unleashed a fury against his own halting campaign to beat President Donald Trump in 2020. Team Trump and other well-known conservatives seized on the moment. Democrats were, understandably, pissed. And Black folks online were, well, also pretty pissed! By the afternoon, Biden had followed up by saying he “shouldn’t have been such a wise guy.”
But the moment, as jaw-dropping as it was, was simply the coup de grâce to a very … let’s call it interesting interview.
At the outset of Biden’s conversation with Charlamagne tha God, one of the show’s hosts, the former vice president expended an elevated amount of energy to paint himself as the Paul Revere of the coronavirus pandemic. He pointed to a study saying if the government had acted just one week earlier, the number of deaths resulting from the coronavirus would have decreased substantially. “If he had listened to me and others and acted just one week earlier to deal with the virus, there would be 36,000 fewer people dead, dead, dead!” Biden shouted. He followed up by pointing to an article he wrote back in January outlining the ways in which Trump’s administration would hinder the upcoming U.S. pandemic response before going into a monologue about how the virus is affecting the Black community where he, correctly, noted that the root of all the disparities we’re seeing is racism.
It was pretty typical, if loud, political interview banter to that point. But things got trickier when Charlamagne asked Biden about the 1994 crime bill and the subsequent spike in America’s prison population. Now, it’s generally acknowledged as fact that the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act played a role in bolstering “tough on crime” policies and accelerating incarceration—which disproportionately landed Black and brown Americans in prison. But in Biden’s world, this is not the case.
“[The] crime bill didn’t increase mass incarceration,” he said. “Other things increased mass incarceration.”
That’s just not true, and it isn’t worth dedicating any more energy explaining why. It is, however, worth noting that Biden pointed to the fact that there was Black support for the bill at the time, without delving into any particulars. In the ’90s, Black folks, particularly those in law enforcement, were a part of calls for law and order out of a desire for anything that would help reduce the impact of crime on their communities. People who hold a different outlook on the criminal justice system’s role today were, at one point, loudly advocating for tougher prosecution in hopes of quelling drug influx and violence in Black communities.
When Charlamagne asked about Democrats taking the Black vote for granted, Biden admitted that was a concern before going into another monologue about how he’s consistently won over Black voters—“more than Barack” even! Biden continued to point to his bona fides: his time as a civil rights attorney and his subsequent work in Black communities. Still, we have to remember that even this history has been shadowed by Biden’s infamous verbal mishaps. Perhaps most prominently, in the mid-1970s Biden said he “didn’t buy” that Black people needed a head start in order to equate hundreds of years of systemic racism and policy oppression.
Throughout the interview and his career, Biden has displayed an unwillingness to accept his role in mass incarceration and the creation of policies that have been destructive to Black communities. He opted instead to point to his Black friends and the Black people who have supported him before saying if Black people don’t do what he wants them to do—and which happens to be in his favor— then they aren’t Black.
A senior adviser to Biden tweeted that the comments were “in jest.” But negating the Blackness of people who vote for whomever they please isn’t a joke for a white man to make—especially one with Biden’s record and who hasn’t indicated that he can even look past incredibly antiquated ideas about race. Biden’s run of success in the Democratic primaries, starting in South Carolina, was widely credited to the fact that Black voters knew him and were comfortable with him. Friday morning, he mistook that comfort for familiarity.
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