As luck of the DNC lottery would have it, Cory Booker was not onstage for the debate-defining exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, in which the California senator called out the former veep’s “hurtful” comments on working with segregationist Democrats to oppose busing. But on an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Booker weighed in, stating that Biden’s language “has caused a lot of hurt and harm.”
Booker, New Jersey’s first African-American senator, also called out an even-for-1994 culturally insensitive comment made by Biden on Friday, when the former vice-president attempted to defend his record on race and civil rights: “We’ve got to recognize that kid wearing a hoodie may very well be the next poet laureate and not a gangbanger.” In response, Booker said, “This isn’t about a hoodie. It’s about a culture that sees a problem with a kid wearing a hoodie in the first place.” On Meet the Press, Booker expanded: “Again, as a guy growing up as a young black guy in America, who was followed and surveilled, faced that indignity and even the danger of that, being perceived to be a threat, again, this is just another example of just conversations or lessons that Joe Biden shouldn’t have to learn.”
Biden’s political record and past comments on race and criminal justice have long been considered a weak point in his candidacy: His authorship of the mass-incarceration-inducing 1994 crime bill and ownership of “predators on our streets” rhetoric has aged poorly in a party that has since embraced systemic reform. And as shown by the first Democratic debate, Biden’s refusal to apologize on busing will be a black eye on his campaign if he continues to defend his past stance from the lens of states’ rights. (Other outstanding issues include the candidate’s vulnerability in the primary for his record on abortion access, his refusal to apologize to Anita Hill, and the recent conversation — and his own continuing jokes — on his history of unwanted touching.)
Dovetailing with Kamala Harris’s standout moment from the second debate, Booker’s comments show a new willingness to reject the “conciliatory pose” that black candidates have taken toward Biden’s record on race, as New York’s Zak Cheney-Rice writes:
Biden can attribute many of his professional high points to black voters and politicians willing to overlook the stains on his record to advance their own goals … Thursday marked a departure from a long-standing norm. Harris’s remarks were acutely lacking in the kind of trepidation that defined past campaigns, namely Obama’s. The wages of racist policy have rarely been invoked with such precision by a black candidate to indict a white opponent. Whether it was prudent remains to be seen. But it was a long time coming.
Booker’s comments are also the kicker on a weekend of self-ownership for the former vice-president. In addition to the “hoodie” anecdote, in Seattle on Saturday, in an attempt to show the progress of LBGTQ rights in the last decade, Biden said that if someone at a business meeting five years ago “made fun of a gay waiter,” it would be overlooked. Delivered on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the comment bombed as crowd members pushed back, yelling “Not in Seattle!” But, as Senator Lindsey Graham warned on Face the Nation this weekend, it may be a mistake for Democrats who think “it’s not his time and that he’s not up to the task” to dismiss Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate: “Underestimate Joe Biden at your own peril.”