Opinion

Joe Biden's record on race is even worse than Kamala Harris lets on

African-Americans are struggling in part today because of Biden's policy record

The standout moment in either of the first two Democratic primary debates was unquestionably the showdown between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden over school desegregation. Harris came prepared with her own story being bused to an integrated school as a young girl and attacked Biden over his fond recollections of being friendly with the vicious racist James Eastland.

Naturally, this has the Biden camp on the defensive. "We can be proud of her nonetheless, but her ambition got it wrong about Joe," former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Il.) told Politico. But this is an absolute crock — on the contrary, Harris barely scratched the surface of Biden's awful civil rights record.

Let's start with "busing." As I have written before, the focus on busing per se as being the essence of school desegregation is wildly misleading. Buses are merely a way of moving children around; they were common under Jim Crow and they are common now after desegregation efforts have been largely abandoned. The real controversy was over jumbling up school district populations — through boundary adjustments, transportation, or other means — to mix black and white children and thus provide the former the same educational resources as the latter. (It's important to remember that educational equality was the main goal of desegregation, not simple rubbing shoulders between the races.) For a few years after the civil rights victories in the 1960s, there was enough consensus around the horror of Jim Crow that the political class widely agreed on desegregration.

But a huge fraction of white people both in and out of the South didn't want black kids anywhere near their own children, nor did they want to share school resources with black families, and so they ginned up excuses to obscure their real motivations. School integration was smeared as "forced busing," and stopping it a mere defense of "community schools" — thus following the classic American tradition of portraying a change in government policy as the imposition of a new policy and racist whites the helpless victims of Dread Government Coercion.

After being elected in 1972, Biden quickly moved right on desegregation, capitalizing on and heightening this white backlash. In one speech, he called busing a "bankrupt concept," and suggested in an interview that "I think the Democratic Party could stand a liberal George Wallace." He sought support from outright white supremacists like James Eastland, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and James Allen to pass amendments banning federal funding for transport-based school integration. As late as 2007 he called busing a "liberal train wreck" in an autobiography.

So at the debate, Biden straight-up lied about what he really thought about busing, saying he was never against it in principle (in reality, he briefly floated a constitutional amendment to ban it forever), but also endorsed a quasi-states' rights view of the issue. Banning desegregation at the local level was fine "[b]ecause your city council made that decision. It was a local decision," he said.

But as Harris pointed out, this is how Jim Crow worked. Indeed, similar things are happening right now, with conservative Republicans abusing their grip on state governments to entrench themselves in power. Recently Florida's Republican legislature passed a Jim Crow-esque poll tax (requiring payment of all court-ordered restitution, fees, or fines to be able to vote), effectively overturning much of the state constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most ex-cons which passed with 64 percent of the vote in 2018. A million Floridians could lose their right to vote.

Biden's record on crime policy is, if anything, worse. He was a ferocious proponent for mass incarceration, often running to the right of Republicans on crime — criticizing President George H.W. Bush for not funding "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." (He worked with segregationists on this issue too.) He focused especially on the drug war, personally authoring many brutal policies, including the infamous 100-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine.

You don't need a sociology degree to see the racial subtext of the war on crime. Criminals were routinely portrayed as bestial black "super predators" who understood nothing but overwhelming force. Crack was famously popular among poor blacks, because it is much cheaper than the powder version (despite being chemically near-identical). Courts and the police naturally heavily focused their enforcement efforts on black communities. People like Biden are why America imprisons its population at a rate nearly five times the OECD average — and its black citizens at five times the white rate.

And while there was (and is) a real problem with crime in America, Biden was patently uninterested in anything other than brutal punishment. "I don't care why someone is a malefactor in society. I don't care why someone is antisocial. I don't care why they've become a sociopath. We have an obligation to cordon them off from the rest of society," he said in a 1993 speech.

Then there is Biden's broader support of neoliberalism — meaning deregulation, free trade, welfare cuts, and so forth. As "the senator from MBNA" he pushed many of the worst policies personally, especially bankruptcy "reform" that made it much more difficult for ordinary people to declare bankruptcy, and all but impossible to discharge student debt in the process. The direct consequence of the neoliberal turn starting in the 1970s was deindustrialization, higher unemployment, rising inequality, and increased extreme poverty.

And because African-Americans are disproportionately clustered at the bottom of the economic ladder, they were hurt the worst by all these policies. Many majority-black cities were devastated by trade deal-enabled outsourcing. Blacks' unemployment rate is reliably about twice the white rate. They were and are harmed worst by the lack of fair bankruptcy. Their poverty rate is 2.5 times the white rate (and welfare cuts that harmed poor blacks the worst were naturally sold with flagrantly racist stereotypes.)

Now, unlike his Dixiecrat chums Biden was no outright segregationist spouting racist slurs. And to be fair, he did vote for many civil rights bills over the years, like to renew the Voting Rights Act and to boost affirmative action. But on the most thorny, difficult questions — when African-Americans arguably needed his help the most — Biden has repeatedly wielded his power to devastate the black community.

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