Political analysts dubbed Joe Biden the likely Democratic presidential nominee even before he entered the race.
His supporters believe, Jill Filipovic wrote in The Guardian on April 3, that “only he can win back the white workingclass voters who supported Trump in 2016. The presumption behind that argument is clear: that white votes simply matter more, and are more legitimate, than the votes of those who make up the Democratic coalition: people of color, young people, women.”
But black votes also matter and Biden’s history in the U.S. Senate, as recalled by Adolph L. Reed and Cornel West, on May 1 in The Guardian, and Andrew Cockburn, in March’s Harper’s Magazine, is problematic for African Americans in particular. Cockburn noted that while Biden boasts of a bipartisan prowess, his Republican allies included the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, dubbed by Cockburn “a tireless defender of institutional racism,” and the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a “hall-of-fame racist.” The collaboration was devastating for African Americans.
Biden introduced legislation to block the Department of Health, Education and Welfare from using federal funds to pay for school bussing. It was supposed to be less obnoxious than a proposal from Helms but the only African American senator then, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, called it “the greatest symbolic defeat for civil rights since 1964.”
Biden and Thurmond sponsored the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act which abolished parole for federal prisoners and cut down the amount of time by which sentences could be reduced for good behavior. They also piloted antidrugs laws in 1986 and 1988 that imposed mandatory sentences for some offenses, including a five-year term, with no parole, for possession of even a piece of crack cocaine “no bigger than [a] quarter.” Because African Americans were more likely to use crack cocaine and whites the powdered version, the legislation was inherently racist.
Biden was also a driving force behind the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which, Cockburn noted, “would consign millions of black Americans to a life behind bars.” Reed and West, who are staunch supporters of Bernie Sanders, said Biden was “one of the initiators of what became mass incarceration.”
Biden also tried since the 1970s to make it more difficult for the poor and the working class to declare bankruptcy, culminating in the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. The law severely restricted Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing that allowed a debtor to start over debt-free. It forced them into Chapter 13, “effectively turning borrowers into indentured servants of institutions like the credit card companies headquartered in Delaware,” Biden’s home state. And then there was the saga of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.
When the revered Thurgood Marshall retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, George H. W. Bush could have nominated a worthy successor but instead he offered Thomas, a lawyer with vey limited expe mation hearing, Hill, in graphic terms, accused him of sexual harassment while they worked at the Department of Education and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Biden, presiding over the hearing, allowed Thomas’ supporters on the Senate Judiciary Committee to mock and disparage Hill. Two other women, Angela Wright and Rose Jourdain, supported Hill but were not called to testify. In the end, with Democrats in the majority evidently intimidated by Thomas’ resort to the raceloaded “high-tech lynching” defense, the senate confirmed him 52-48. So, for 28 years now, the country has been saddled with the most conservative justice unrepresentative of the diversity that should exist on the high court, apart from skin color.
Still, Barack Obama must have known about Biden’s background when he picked him as his running mate in 2008 and whether a declared or implied Obama endorsement will persuade African Americans to support him remains to be seen. And if he wins the nomination, his chances of becoming president in this his third attempt will depend largely on whether he convinces African Americans that he has fundamentally changed. He has expressed regret for some of the laws which he helped pass and the way Hill was treated without outright apologizing and she has rejected his attempt at remorse.
He has also hired African political strategist Symone Sanders as a top adviser. Perhaps Biden may even tap Kamala Harris as his running mate if he wins the nomination.
“We are in a war for the soul of America,” Biden said when he entered the race. That is a rebuke of Donald Trump but also, from a candidate who repudiates “socialism,” affirmation of moderate politics. But did Americans hand the House of Representatives to Democrats to restore moderation or to end the Trump presidency? Or both?
If it becomes a choice between Biden and Trump, progressives and African Americans alike will be faced with the assertion of British statesman Henry John Temple – Viscount Palmerston – to Parliament on March 1, 1848: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Or, as some later put it, “There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”