The Biden disaster
Daniel Lazare recalls the consistently reactionary politics of the Democratic presidential candidate
Another week, another disaster. As Joe Biden’s “You ain’t black” comment goes racing across the internet (see below), there has been a tendency to write it off as yet another verbal gaffe by a politician famous for letting his mouth rip before his brain is fully engaged. But it is not. In reality, the remark is a Freudian slip that pulls back the covers on the dismal relationship between the Democratic Party and the black Americans they supposedly champion.
The relationship goes back to Thomas Jefferson, the party’s distant progenitor, who somehow managed to preach democracy, while defending slavery to the hilt. By the time Andrew Jackson entered the White House in 1829, Democrats had positioned themselves as the party of both northern workers and southern planters - a stance that would prove untenable even before the civil war came along. But, a century later, the relationship underwent a sea change when Franklin D Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ reforms began attracting mass black support during the depression.
Suddenly, Democrats were the party of white and black workers up north and segregationists down south - a straddle that proved more untenable still. In 1948, southern Dixiecrats bolted the party under South Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond. In 1965, they rose in a fury when Lyndon Johnson pushed through an epic civil-rights bill, as mass black uprisings swept the urban north. In 1968, they deserted en masse when Richard Nixon set about winning them over to the ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP) via his famous ‘southern strategy’.
Democratic fortunes plummeted as a consequence. But then Biden set about placing the old alliance on a new footing. Winning a long-shot bid for the Senate from the former slave state of Delaware, he slowly pieced together a three-part programme based on (1) an end to desegregation, (2) affirmative action and (3) a reinvigorated war on drugs.
The first contributed to the growing isolation of impoverished black communities, which in turn enabled black Democratic bosses to build political machines rivalling the old white Democratic machines of decades earlier. A new generation of powerful black Democratic leaders arose from Newark and New York to Chicago and San Francisco. The second rewarded the black middle class by allowing its sons and daughters to enter the professions, while doing nothing to benefit the black masses below, whose conditions in the wake of the 1960s riots were going from bad to worse.
War on drugs
But it was the third plank that was critical. Following peacenik George McGovern’s smashing defeat in 1972 and then America’s humiliation in Vietnam in 1975, it allowed centrists to appeal to pro- and anti-war Democrats by presenting themselves as somehow both: ie, hostile to US intervention in central America, but more militant than thou when it came to a growing drug war at home. The result by the 1980s was a strange inversion, in which black Democrats like New York Congressman Charlie Rangel pushed for the appointment of a drug tsar so as to ramp the drug war up to ever higher levels, while Ronald Reagan did his best to resist the Democratic onslaught.
For centrist Democrats, it was a win-win strategy that enabled them to outflank the GOP on the right by putting thousands of troublesome young black males in prison. Everyone was pleased - white suburbanites, middle class blacks reeling from rising crime rates, and black politicians looking for a new club with which to bash the GOP. Charlie Rangel never sounded more like an old-time racist than when railing against young black drug dealers. He said in the mid-90s:
These young entrepreneurs are so stupid that they can’t even count their money with a money counter. They have no idea what to do with the money, I mean after they get their mother a big television set and they buy some stupid Jeep with a boom system in it and they get every girl there is to like some gold teeth and some chains. If you told them, ‘Why don’t you go to Europe?’ it’s, ‘Which way is Europe?’1
Young black men were thus stupid, greedy and violent, which is why Democrats were happy to lock them away. But the drug war had an added benefit: it actually made matters worse by coming down harder on smugglers of soft drugs, as opposed to hard substances that were more compact, more profitable and easier to conceal. Ounce for ounce, marijuana was more expensive than gold by the time Bill Clinton took office in early 1993, while cocaine was completing its journey from a high-priced drug of the Hollywood elite to a cheap but ultra-potent high for the strung-out urban masses in the form of crack. More crime ensued, along with more hysteria, more arrests and more feverish rhetoric from Rangel and his white Democratic allies.
In 1975, Biden teamed up with arch-segregationist Jesse Helms of North Carolina to introduce a bill aimed at halting school bussing. Seizing on drugs and crime, he reportedly told fellow Democrats following Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980: “Give me the crime issue … and you’ll never have trouble with it in an election.” The next step was to turn the tables on the incoming Reagan administration by blasting it as too soft: “Violent crime is as real a threat to our national security as any foreign threat,” he said in 1982. “We have a military budget of $253 billion in 1983, and yet in 1983 we’ll spend less than $3 billion a year to fight crime.”2
Reagan’s problem was not that he was too militaristic, evidently, but that he wasn’t militaristic enough. Joining with another southern segregationist - Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina - Biden introduced a bill in 1982 that stepped up drug penalties, eliminated parole and reduced access to bail. Fortunately, Reagan vetoed it. Two years later, he introduced a modified version of the same bill that Reagan signed. In 1986, he introduced an anti-drug bill that lengthened sentences yet again and set sentencing standards for crack users that were a hundred times greater than standards for ordinary powdered cocaine. Movie execs went free, while poor blacks went to prison in droves.
When George Bush I called for yet another drug-war escalation in 1989, Biden’s response was the same: it wasn’t enough. “America is under attack, literally under attack by an enemy that is well-financed, well-supplied and well-armed,” he said in the official Democratic response. “Here in America,” he continued, “the enemy is already ashore, and for the first time we are fighting and losing a war on our own soil”. He continued:
What we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam, not another limited war fought on the cheap and destined for stalemate and human tragedy ...
In a nutshell, the president’s plan doesn’t include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.3
A few years later, he boasted: “The truth is, every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the state of Delaware: Joe Biden.”4
Significantly, Biden was still dovish in foreign-policy terms. He opposed aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, attacked Reagan’s loopy ‘Star Wars’ Strategic Defence Initiative, and voted against the first Persian Gulf War in 1990. But, as the drug issue began to fade, he abandoned one war for a growing list of others, reinventing himself as a Clintonite hawk by backing Nato intervention in Bosnia in 1994-95, the bombing of Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, ‘shock and awe’ in Iraq in 2003, intervention in Libya, Syria and Yemen in the wake of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, and covert assistance to al Qa’eda throughout.5 If it no longer paid to be pro-war at home, then Biden would be doubly pro-war abroad.
Which brings us to 2020. While continuing to outflank Republicans on the right by accusing Trump of being soft on China, he now insists that his ferocious anti-drug laws of the 1980s and 90s had nothing to do with the world’s highest incarceration rate and that black Americans should vote for him in November regardless, because the alternative under Trump is even worse.6
This is the backdrop for Biden’s comment in his May 22 interview with a hip-hop radio host named Charlamagne tha God (né Lenard Larry McKelvey): “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
The comment was revealing, because it suggests that Biden thinks Democrats own blacks to the point of determining who is in the fold and who is not. It implies that they can treat them as badly as they wish as long as Trump is even worse. It shows that they do not see voting as the matter of critical analysis, but as a function of identity. If you see yourself as African-American, then you should follow your instinct by voting for whomever the nation prefers. Where other ethnic or racial groups are subject to the usual political and class divisions, blacks are exempt. They alone must vote as one.
“I think it’s racist (and essentialist) to tie someone’s racial or cultural identity to their politics,” tweeted Briahna Joy Gray, former national spokesman for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Quite right - and the fact that Biden felt obliged to put on a phony street accent made it all the more preposterous. Since black Americans are homogeneous, it seemed to say, they must all talk the same way, so I’m going to show that I can speak the same lingo.
Imagine if Trump told American Jews - in a vaudeville Yiddish accent, no less - that they’re not Jewish if they don’t vote Republican because of all he’s done for Binyamin Netanyahu. The reaction would be fast and furious. But after a pro-forma apology for being “so cavalier”, Biden thinks he can get away with it because he’s a Democrat and black Americans have nowhere else to go.
Biden said a number of other things in the interview that were no less ridiculous. “I wrote an article back, I think, the 27th of January,” he declared. “Said this pandemic’s here, we should act.” But the article said nothing about the face masks and social distancing that have since proved so controversial,7 while the only thing he could come up with at a presidential debate a month later was to promise to get tough with China:
I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, ‘We are going to need to be in your country. You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what’s going on. We have to be there with you,’ and insist on it.
(Needless to say, America would welcome with open arms a Chinese medical team that needed to be in the US to monitor Trump’s anti-Covid response.)
He insisted that he was not responsible for mass imprisonment, and he waffled for the umpteenth time on the question of marijuana legalisation, saying he would not act until its long-term effects are fully understood: “We should wait until the studies are done,” he said. “I think science matters.” But the issue has been studied to death, and, while Biden waits for yet another study to be completed - and then another and another - users will wind up behind bars, as more and more lives are ruined.
In the end, Biden’s message to black Americans is simple: vote for the Democratic plantation, because the GOP version is even worse.
The speech is available at www.c-span.org/video/?8997-1/democratic-response-drug-policy-address.↩︎
As chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Biden played a key role in winning approval for the Iraqi invasion, which he continued to support for years after. As for al Qa’eda, he told a Harvard audience in 2014: “the Saudis, the emiratis, etc, what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qa’eda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” Barack Obama’s only response was to order Biden to telephone officials in Riyadh and Dubai and apologise for being so indiscreet. Quote starts at 53:35 at youtube.com/watch?v=dcKVCtg5dxM.↩︎
With 2.2 million people behind bars and another 4.4 million on probation or parole, the number of Americans under the control of the criminal justice system in one form of another has increased 250% relative to population since 1980. See sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf.↩︎