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Joe Biden’s Segregationist Controversy: What You Need to Know

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Joe Biden made remarks stressing the importance of “civility” in politics, and somehow found himself embroiled in another controversy. The issue: while touting his ability to work with his Senate colleagues during a Tuesday night fundraiser in New York, Biden cited his good working relationship with two defenders of segregation in his own party, Senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.

“We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done,” Biden said of his late former colleagues, quipping that Eastland, “Never called me ‘boy’; he always called me ‘son.’”

This sparked the biggest clash between Democratic 2020 candidates in the primary so far, with Senator Cory Booker calling on Biden to apologize, and several other candidates decrying his remarks. The former vice president hit back at his critics on Wednesday night, saying he had nothing to apologize for – and in fact, “Cory should apologize.”

Here’s a recap of the clash between the Democratic front-runner and his challengers, which seems unlikely to fade anytime soon.

What Biden said

According to the pool report, written by the Wall Street Journal’s Ken Thomas, Biden began by defending his belief that Democrats should keep trying to work with Republican lawmakers:

I know the new New Left tells me that I’m — this is old-fashioned. Well guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That’s what it does. You have to be able to reach consensus under our system — our Constitutional system of separation of powers.

Then Biden offered some examples from his decades in the Senate:

Mr. Biden then recalled his time serving in the Senate. “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Mr. Biden said, briefly channeling the late Mississippi senator’s Southern drawl. Mr. Biden said of Mr. Eastland, “He never called me boy, he always called me son.”

Mr. Biden then brought up a deceased Georgia senator, “a guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”

Biden’s history of coziness with racists and racially questionable policies

Joe Biden entered the U.S. Senate in 1973, at a time when ex-segregationists from both parties, exhibiting varying degrees of redemption, represented many southern states. Backlash to civil rights progress – notably judicially forced school integration – was common all over the country. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Biden found ways to work closely with long-time committee chairman Eastland, a Democrat, and with Strom Thurmond, the infamous 1948 Dixiecrat candidate for president and in later years the ranking Republican on Judiciary. He spoke warmly of Thurmond at his memorial service in 2003. He has also touted his relationship with Eastland’s long-time Mississippi Democratic colleague John Stennis, and with North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, who continued the southern tradition of race-baiting well into the late 20th century.

Biden’s own record on racially sensitive issues has been spotty. In his early Senate tenure he was a national leader in the fight against “school busing,” a very unpopular method of compelling integration of school populations segregated by neighborhood schools that many federal judges insisted upon to overcome the legacy of separate-but-equal facilities. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when decades-long rising crime rates were spiking, he was a zealous advocate for “get tough” anti-drug and anti-crime policies, culminating in his authorship of the eternally controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This law, which most Republicans opposed because it included crime prevention measures they considered too “soft,” represented the zenith of Democratic efforts to insulate themselves from law-and-order criticism, and has since been blamed by criminal justice reformers and civil rights advocates for accelerating the mass incarceration of African-American men.

Nevertheless, Biden has strong support among African-American voters. In an Economist/YouGov poll released earlier this month, 50 percent of black Democratic primary voters surveyed said they back the former vice president, with other candidates trailing far behind.

Democratic rivals criticize Biden

Senator Booker, one of three black Democrats running for president, offered the strongest criticism of Biden’s remarks on Wednesday, saying he was disappointed that he had yet to apologize.

A short time later, Booker made a lighter jab on Twitter:

Senator Bernie Sanders said he agreed with Booker:

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio offered his own harsh criticism of Biden’s remarks, saying the time for apologies had passed:

And when questioned by reporters, Senator Kamala Harris, another black Democrat running for president, said she found Biden’s comments concerning, but declined to say whether he should apologize:

I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Biden. He’s done very good work, and he has served our country in a very noble way. But to coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who if they had their way I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate, is, I think, it’s just misinformed and it’s wrong.

Biden’s response: “Apologize for what?”

Team Biden’s initial response was a series of tweets from campaign senior adviser Symone Sanders, in which she argued that Biden wasn’t praising segregationists, he was arguing that sometimes one has to work with terrible people to get things done:

Biden offered a sharper take when questioned by reporters before a fundraiser in Maryland on Wednesday night. Per the New York Times:

“Apologize for what?” he said Wednesday evening before appearing at a fund-raiser in Maryland, adding that he “could not have disagreed with Jim Eastland more.”

Asked by reporters about Mr. Booker’s demand that he apologize for his remarks, Mr. Biden said: “Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career, period, period, period.”

Biden alters speech rhetoric

Despite his defiant response to Booker and company, the Times notes that Biden was more clearly critical in his description of his racist colleagues during another fundraiser later on Wednesday:

“We had to put up with the likes of like Jim Eastland and Hermy Talmadge and all those segregationists and all of that,” he said. “And the fact of the matter is that we were able to do it because we were able to win — we were able to beat them on everything they stood for.”

“We in fact detested what they stood for in terms of segregation and all the rest,” he continued.

Cory Booker calls Biden’s demand that he apologize “really problematic”

Booker responded to Biden’s claim that he’s the one who deserves an apology during a CNN interview on Wednesday night, saying it’s “insulting” and even Trumpian. Per the Washington Post:

“The fact that he has said something that an African American man could find very offensive and then to turn around and say, you know, ‘I’m not a racist, you should apologize to me’ . . . is so insulting and so missing the larger point that he should not have to have explained to him,” Booker said. “He knows better. And at a time when Donald Trump never apologizes for anything . . . I know Joe Biden. He’s better than this.”

In a Wednesday night phone call, the New York Times reports that Booker tried to reiterate the reasons why the comments were offense. “Cory shared directly what he said publicly — including helping Vice President Biden understand why the word ‘boy’ is painful to so many, Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for Booker, told the Times. “Cory believes that Vice President Biden should take responsibility for what he said and apologize to those who were hurt.”

Biden’s Segregationist Controversy: What You Need to Know