Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and a few other 2020 presidential candidates have criticized Joe Biden for bragging about how well he worked with segregationists, but for the most part, his fellow Democratic politicians have given him a pass.
“I think that authenticity is the most important characteristic that candidates have to convey to the American people, and Joe Biden is authentic,” House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday morning.
She added that while “an issue like this” is “important,” it’s “not central to what the election is about.”
“I’m not sure he needs to apologize,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who has endorsed the former vice president.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American member of Congress, said he worked with the notorious segregationist senator Strom Thurmond his whole life: “You don’t have to agree with people to work with them.”
At a fundraiser Tuesday night, Biden talked about the importance of reaching a “consensus” in politics and being civil to one another, using his relationships with the late Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) as a model. The two men both fiercely opposed desegregation.
Biden, who was elected to the Senate in 1973, bragged about how Eastland treated him with respect: “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
A major part of Biden’s pitch to voters is that he’s able to work across the aisle and get things done. And he’s long touted his relationships with unlikely allies, including former segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms and former Vice President Dick Cheney. In 2003, he delivered a eulogy at Thurmond’s funeral, calling him “a product of his time” who later moved “to the good side.”
But the part of Biden’s comments that was newer ― and made him seem more tone-deaf ― was his boast that Eastland never called him “boy.” And it’s a comment that many Democrats, conveniently, aren’t addressing.
“Boy” is racist and condescending term white people use to refer to black men. Therefore, the reason that Eastland perhaps treated Biden with respect and didn’t refer to him as “boy” is obvious — except perhaps to Biden himself. Other types of people were less able to fit into the back-slapping club that was the U.S. Senate in the latter part of the 20th century.
Booker, the only black man who is running as a serious contender in the 2020 presidential race, called Biden out more forcefully than anyone else:
You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity.
Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone. I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together.
And frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.
Biden’s response? To tell Booker he was out of line and should apologize, emphasizing that there wasn’t a “racist bone” in his body:
Although he said Biden didn’t need to apologize, Jones did acknowledge that the “boy” boast was not appropriate.
Yet most Democratic politicians have been rushing to defend Biden, with whom many have a long working and personal relationship.
“If he was able to work with Eastland, he’s a great person,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), another Congressional Black Caucus member, told Politico.
Fellow CBC member Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) said Biden has experience and he’s “tested with it, he’s been there, he’s lived it and he’s done well with it.”
Biden has faced criticism for how he’s referred to black men in the past. In 1984, he referred to Jesse Jackson as “that boy,” although he denied his comments were meant to be racially derogatory. In 2007, Biden apologized for saying of Barack Obama: “I mean, you’ve got the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”