Joe Biden and the Sticky Issue of Segregation

So in hindsight I might have jumped the gun in posting my June entry when I gave Joe Biden a tepid thumbs-up rating on the like-ability meter. Of course hindsight is 20/20, and new information often comes to light that prompts us to question the motives or decisions of those we previously admired, or at least “liked”. In this case, I posted before Biden’s first debate and watched his like-ability start to waver when questioned by senator Kamala Harris about his messy history with racial segregation and bussing.[1] For those who missed the exchange, here is a summary below:

HARRIS: I’m going to now direct this to Vice President Biden. I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But, I also believe—and it’s personal. And I—I was actually very—it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose bussing…So, I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among democrats. We have to take it seriously.”

BIDEN: “I did not oppose bussing in America. What I opposed is bussing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”

Biden has since apologized for diminishing the impact of segregation in this reply but I still think it merits further discussion. First off, it’s worth considering that a career politician with a history as long as Biden’s is bound to have accumulated a few skeletons in his closet. Times change, and we change with them. The first problem with Biden’s initial response is that he seemed reluctant to learn from his mistakes. And yes, I do strongly believe that this was a mistake.

Intentionally or not, Biden’s response contained echoes of the popular narrative that conservative American activists have touted for centuries to defend the disenfranchisement and abuse of African Americans. The Civil War, these people argue, was not about slavery per se, but “states’ rights”. The problem with this civil war defence was been well-documented by people much smarter than me, so I’ll leave it to them to completely debunk any lingering beliefs you hold that the Southern cause was somehow a noble challenge against state tyranny. But I would like to reiterate one critical point: The real problem with the ‘state’s rights’ defense of the Civil War is that it is incomplete. After all, southern states had no problem deferring to the Federal government during the Nullification crisis and slave-holding states reaped huge benefits from the federal government’s decision to override states’ rights by implementing the Fugitive Slave Acts. The Civil War began because slave-holding states believed that they had an inherent right to own, trade, abuse, and disenfranchise slaves, on account of race. And if any state tries to enact laws or policies that defy the principles that America was founded upon then yes, I do believe that the federal government has a moral duty to intervene.

I am not trying to create a moral equivalency between slavery and segregation; that will only belittle the horrors and significance of slavery. However, both institutions are underpinned by a common assumption that African-Americans should receive inferior treatment on account of their race. And while African American activists are doing everything they can to remind us that black lives matter, we cannot risk electing a president who listens to their cries with deaf ears.

Last year, America and the world at large held its breath during the Alabama senatorial election where accused child-molester Roy Moore squared off against Democrat Doug Jones in a traditionally red state. Jones won the election, largely thanks to support from African American voters. 98 percent of black women voted for Jones, as did 93 percent of black men and are largely credited with having secured his victory. Multiple supporters and pundits were interviewed in the aftermath of the election but I think it was NBA-superstar and Doug Jones supporter Charles Barkley said it best in his closing appeal to the Democratic party.

BARKLEY: “Well, this is a wake-up call for Democrats… They’ve always had our votes and they have abused our votes and this is a wake-up call…for Democrat to do better for black people and poor white people.”

Yes, that was a supporting actor from the movie Space Jam demonstrating a greater understanding of African-American political engagement than a man who served as Vice President to the first black president in American history. Is it too late to phone in Barkley for President? Scratch that, the leadership race is full enough as-is. How about Secretary of State? After all, Dennis Rodhman informally served as America’s self-appointed ambassador to North Korea so yeah, basketball player-turned-politician wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Let me be clear and say that I agree with Harris in that I don’t think Biden is a racist. However it’s not good enough to oppose racism on a personal level if you are complicit in programs and policies that keep racial segregation alive. After all, if I can squeeze in one more Civil War parallel, Lincoln has been historically lauded for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and evidence suggests that he personally opposed slavery. However, in a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, he famously stated:

“I have no purposes directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

Abraham Lincoln – 1958

So yes, mea culpa. Biden’s history of turning a blind eye to segregation was well-documented and I should have been more vigilant in my research. The difference here is that I’ve demonstrated a willingness to learn from my mistakes and take responsibility when I was wrong. And it only took me one month! Joe Biden’s been sitting on more than a few lapses of judgement for decades but it’s 2019, and the ‘it-was-a-different-time’ defense is no longer acceptable. Time to step up, Joe, or fail to do so at our peril.


[1] Bussing refers to the practice of transporting students to schools in different neighbourhoods in an effort to address racial segregation, as segregated schools received much less funding and undermined the academic performance of minority students.

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