In South Carolina on Monday, Joe Biden marked the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by noting that racist power announced itself differently in the slain activist’s lifetime than it does now. Back then, in Biden’s estimation, it was embodied by bigoted police who used physical violence against protesters. “The Bull Connors of today don’t stand in the street with fire hoses and dogs,” he said during a speech in Columbia, referencing the notorious former Birmingham, Alabama, commissioner of public safety, according to the Washington Post. Today, by contrast, racism is the province of lawmakers in suits. “They wear nice suits. They wield their power rolling back rights, punishing the poor, denying access to health care and quality education, and turning away refugees and asylum seekers.”
A prominent feature of Biden’s presidential campaign is delusion. Its central argument is that things were okay until Donald Trump derailed them. The 2020 election is a battle to “restore the soul of America,” he insists — a chance to reject Trump’s “poisonous, divisive politics” and return a sense of comity to political discourse. To Biden, this means leveraging his personal relationships to cut deals with reticent Republicans. His faith in the merits of this outcome is shaped by his 36 years in the Senate, where he found a bipartisan community eager to help him move on after the deaths of his wife and daughter in 1973. His nostalgia for the civil working relationships that resulted, and often spanned ideologies, underscores the blueprint for his ideal American politics. With Trump gone, Biden can go back to pretending that the truly irredeemable racists are anywhere but the congressional office next door, and that good legislation stems inevitably from finding common ground with one’s adversaries.
The reality is that the suit-wearing Bull Connors of today — Biden’s shorthand for the most virulent bigots granted official sanction by the state — are part of the same governing class that unleashed the actual Bull Connor on civil-rights protesters in 1963. As has long been the case: America’s racist caste system was a manifestation of the early colonists’ efforts to consolidate wealth and stave off underclass insurrection. For centuries, racism’s most insidious practitioners were the landowners who built fortunes on the backs of enslaved black people; countless held elected office. All dressed nicely on occasion. Many wore suits. Few had to physically subdue people of color to protect their place in the social hierarchy because they’d empowered local bureaucrats and law enforcement officials to do it for them. They populated legislatures and governed states and commanded the support of vast swathes of white voters. Far from novel, the demagoguery that Biden credits to Trump is part of a tradition extending back to the antebellum era.
And Biden knows this. He’s boasted about working with these very bigots as recently as last year. He was compelled to apologize in June after waxing nostalgic about his legislative work with James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge, both segregationists. Along with Strom Thurmond — another subject of Biden’s fond recollections — these men were all Democrats at a time when the party’s tent was big enough for Jim Crow apologia. Theirs was a mutually beneficial partnership, endearing the young Biden to older committee chairmen while bolstering the latter’s good standing: “For southern Dixiecrats, good relationships with the broader Democratic Party were the currency of southern power,” Vox’s Ezra Klein writes. “So long as they had seniority and allies, they could protect the South. The moment they didn’t, they were endangered.”
Among the fruits of this partnership was successful opposition to school integration in the 1970s, which featured another Biden hallmark: bipartisan coalition-building toward racist outcomes. His main partner against busing — specifically, amending an education bill to withhold federal funds from districts that used race as a criterion when assigning students or teachers to schools — was the segregationist North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms. It wouldn’t be the last alliance of its kind. Biden’s efforts to one-up Republicans on punitive criminal-legal policy produced the 1994 crime bill, which he authored. Its dramatic empowerment of an already congenitally racist system included expanding the death penalty and curtailing education opportunities for federal inmates — shifts that devastated a disproportionate share of black lives and whose damages continue to reverberate today.
These are the accomplishments wrought by Biden’s comity with his purported ideological foes. It goes without saying that offers to resurrect such a politics should be greeted with suspicion, if not hostility. But their dubiety is underscored further by the idea that the bigots of yesteryear weren’t suit-wearing lawmakers who rolled back rights, punished the poor, and denied access to health care and quality education. In an effort to illustrate what he views as a shift, Biden hasn’t just described the modern Republican Party; he’s described the upper echelons of the Jim Crow regime, and similar governing regimes spanning centuries of U.S. history. He’s described the political forces to which he happily capitulated when he was a senator. Few illustrations of the well-heeled properties of racism in the 20th century are more vivid than Biden’s own career.
If there’s been any shift in understanding around this issue, it’s that many Americans now seem unable to conceptualize racism that’s less overt than a slur-laced tirade or police hosing down black people in the name of segregation. (That today’s law-enforcement reality can be a perilously short trip — police teargassing black people in cities like Ferguson for demanding better treatment — appears to be equally lost on them.) One convenient feature of narrowing racism’s definition such that Alabama good ol’ boys with badges come to mind before George Wallace swearing into office is that the people pulling the levers are often exempted. The governors and members of Congress who’ve dog-whistled and demagogued their way into office on racism’s coattails are relegated to background status in stories about the workers obeying their directives. Rich racists in suits are the oldest kind. Attributing their rise to the Trump era gives the president too much credit. He is, at best, an inheritor. His forebears are the very men Biden credits with honing his coalition-building skills in the Senate. If anyone should know firsthand that today’s racists are little different than yesterday’s, it’s him.