Up till now, the agenda for the 2020 presidential race has been set through an ad hoc process where dueling campaign messages get sorted out in opinion polling and media coverage. With the first presidential debate arriving on Sept. 29, though, we have our first official program of issues, on a docket announced by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.
The schedule of topics includes the past records of President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and the Supreme Court pick. But the subject that got the most attention was the one listed as “race and violence in our cities.”
The wording sounded as if it could have come from Trump’s Republican National Convention, when the party tried to rouse its white base with false imagery of lawless Black cities rising up to endanger white suburbs. But—in large part because of that message, and the president’s approach to governing the parts of the country that voted against him—the subjects of race and of violence in America’s cities are genuinely crucial to politics in 2020. Protesters have taken to the streets to call for an end to police violence, and the police have met them with more violence, with the president’s approval and federal manpower behind them.
And the truth is, these two old white men have been sharing their thoughts about race and about violence in our cities for a long time. Both of them, at various times, have been deeply invested in the political posture known as “law and order.” Biden entered the Senate in the early 1970s, as the Democratic Party was trying to square the commitments it had made to civil rights in the previous decade with its fear of the white reaction that elected Richard Nixon, and he spent decades trying to assuage the anxieties of white suburban voters. Trump, from his early years as a publicity-minded businessman, staked out bombastic positions on the white side of racist strife in New York City, and as he inched closer to running for office in the 21st century, he seemed to be anticipating he could make use of the white backlash to a Black president.
Over time, Biden has cautiously distanced himself from his prior views—while still managing to hold the line between a true progressive and a white man who won’t turn off older white voters—and acknowledges racism openly as an ill that plagues this country at every level of society. Trump has opted to go full demoguage while continuing to further codify racism, often choosing to couple race with violence as a bullhorn to the more extreme factions of his base.
Here’s what the candidates have said and done about “race and violence” through their long public lives, and how the discussion has arrived in its current form:
October 1973: Donald Trump and his father, Fred Trump, are sued by the Justice Department for violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent to Black people.
1975: A young Senator Joe Biden solidifies his position against “forced busing” during an interview with a Delaware-based newspaper. “The courts have gone overboard in their interpretation of what is required to remedy unlawful segregation,” said Biden. “It is one thing to say that you cannot keep a Black man from using this bathroom, and something quite different to say that one out of every five people who use this bathroom must be Black.” He also said busing policies were inherently racist.
1985: Biden praises Sen. John Stennis, a staunch opponent of civil rights, and compares him to Stonewall Jackson.
April 1989: Following the violent rape of a jogger in Central Park and the arrest of five Black teens in the case, Trump takes out full-page advertisements in various New York City newspapers stating: BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK THE POLICE!
September 5, 1989: Biden criticizes then–President George H.W. Bush for not being tough enough on crime—mainly not hiring “enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”
“Quite frankly, the President’s plan is not tough enough, bold enough or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand,” said Biden said in response to a new anti-narcotic plan from the Bush Administration. “We don’t oppose the President’s plan—all we want to do is strengthen it.”
1991: Trump allegedly says “laziness is a trait in Blacks” in reference to a Black accountant working at Trump Plaza.
June 20, 1991: From the Senate floor, Biden boasts his and Dixiecrat-turned-Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond’s role in Congress passing legislation that imposed a five-year minimum sentence on anyone caught with a quarter-sized amount of cocaine. He also pats himself on the back for civil asset forfeiture and continues to slam the Bush Administration for not locking up enough drug dealers.
October 1991: During Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, Biden, as head of the Judiciary Committee, leads an all-white, all-male panel in a graphic interrogation and defamation of Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual misconduct. Biden also refused to call on any corroborating witnesses who could have bolstered Hill’s allegations.
November 18, 1993: Biden delivers a speech with racist undertones while encouraging his peers to vote for what would become known as the 1994 crime bill. One comment of note singles out 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.”
1999: In an interview with Playboy, Trump concedes that he probably did say Black people were inherently listless.
December 19, 2002: The Central Park 5 are exonerated after DNA evidence and a confession clears them of guilt.
February 7, 2007: Biden, as he was about to announce his second bid for president, calls President Barack Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
March 2011: Trump goes full birther, seizing on the right-wing conspiracy that Obama isn’t wasn’t born in the U.S.
August 2013: Trump says Paula Deen was “wrongly crucified” following a lawsuit where a former employee accused her of using the N-word.
August 2014: Michael Brown is killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His death reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born following the death of Trayvon Martin two years prior.
May 3, 2015: In a speech during the NAACP’s 60th annual Fight for Freedom Fund, Biden advocates for stronger ties between the community and the police while still maintaining his stance on high-crime rates. “We need to recognize, they need to recognize that that black kid on the corner is also a kid that likes to draw and maybe has a future as an architect,” said Biden. “The community has to realize that cops are…the same mothers and fathers who tuck their children in bed before they go out on a night shift to protect their children on what otherwise become victims in a crime-ridden neighborhood.”
June 16, 2015: Trump calls Mexican immigrants “rapists” during a speech announcing his presidential bid. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
February 2016: Trump is slow to denounce former klansman David Duke.
July 18, 2016: Trump falsely accuses the Black Lives Matter movement for stoking violence against police and fueling a spate of cop killings.
January 17, 2017: Trump signs an executive order banning immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
August 15, 2017: “You have people who are very fine people on both sides,” said Trump following a clash between white supremacists and anti-racist protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“You had a group on one side who was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now,” said Trump. “You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”
April 2017: The Trump Administration proposes to cut a program that would protect children from lead poisoning, a move that would cause disproportionate harm to Black Americans.
April 2019: Biden apologizes to Hill and admits she wasn’t treated well during the confirmation hearings. He does not expound on how, exactly, she was mistreated.
June 18, 2019: Trump refuses to apologize for comments he made about the Central Park 5 and falsely claims that “people on both sides of that” have “admitted their guilt.”
May 22, 2020: Biden says, in an interview with a Black radio host, if you vote for Trump over him then “you ain’t Black.”
May 25, 2020: George Floyd is killed after a police officer placed his knee into the man’s neck. Floyd’s death sparks the largest known anti-racist uprising in the nation’s history.
June 2020: Biden says he doesn’t support defunding the police following calls to do so after Floyd’s death. “I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency … and are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.”
Late June 2020: Trump begins referring to COVID-19 as “kung flu.”
July 14, 2020: Trump snaps “so are white people” in response to a question about the disproportionate number of Black Americans killed by police. “What a terrible question to ask,” he continues. “So are white people.” Further ignoring the disproportionality, he adds: “More white people by the way. More white people.”
August 2020: Biden likens being asked if he’s taken a cognitive test to asking a Black reporter if they’ve been drug tested. In a separate instance, Biden says: “Unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes about different things.”
August 11, 2020: Biden asks Sen. Kamala Harris to be his running mate, making her the first Black woman, first Asian woman, and the first HBCU graduate to join a major-party ticket as vice president.
September 22, 2020: Trump expands a ban on racial bias training to include federal contractors after he prevented federal employees from taking part in these programs earlier this month.
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