It’s been just over two months since Kamala Harris and Cory Booker tag-teamed Joe Biden at the Democratic primary debate in Atlanta. Both U.S. senators and then-presidential candidates were struggling to break through with black voters. Their strained campaigns had never seriously considered making a play for the party’s left wing, which Bernie Sanders seemed to have locked up. But their backgrounds (both are black) and cachet among the party’s more conservative supporters and donor class provided an opportunity to chart a moderate ideological lane, anchored by black voters in the South. Their staunchest competition was the 77-year-old former vice-president. Biden’s polling dominance with black voters had been resilient thus far but seemed like a soft target, given his often racist legislative record and seeming inability to form a coherent sentence.
The resulting exchange went poorly for Biden. Just five months removed from having his anti-busing record exhumed by Harris on live TV and Booker demanding an apology for his fond reminiscences about working with segregationists, the former VP had yet to produce a more compelling rebuke to criticism of his record than catalouging how many black people still supported him. As it turned out, he didn’t need to. Booker upbraided Biden over his opposition to legalizing marijuana, casting him as out of touch and married to drug laws whose racist application still devastates. Harris homed in on his befuddlement. Biden claimed that he was endorsed by “the only … African-American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate”; Harris objected on the grounds that two black women had been elected, she was one of them, and she hadn’t endorsed him. Neither attack did him in. Even months later, after Booker and Harris were forced to drop out due to lackluster fundraising and polling numbers, Biden’s front-runner status was challenged only briefly: when Sanders won the New Hampshire and Nevada primaries.
The former vice-president has since dominated elections in South Carolina and ten Super Tuesday states. Several of his former challengers are now his surrogates. The windfall of endorsements that Biden received in the brief window between the two voting days might’ve been determinative, particularly in states like Texas and Minnesota. (El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar both endorsed him.) Now Harris and Booker are among them. The California senator offered her cosign on Sunday, calling Biden “a public servant who has always worked for the best of who we are as a nation.” Booker added his on Monday, citing how Biden “[understands] the issues of race and frankly racial reconciliation and racial justice.”
Neither of these statements is true. Biden has worked repeatedly for the worst of who we are as a nation — whether by indulging our punitive impulses to enact racist criminal-justice legislation or working alongside segregationists to thwart school integration. Much of what he understands about racial reconciliation is tied opportunistically to his latest run for the presidency and stops short of holding himself accountable for his own role in deferring it. In addition to being outrageous, these fabrications are unlikely to sway voters one way or the other. A Democratic electorate whose main rationale for supporting Biden is that he’s their surest bet to beat Trump, regardless of whether his values actually align with theirs, is not interested in whether the former vice-president understands racial reconciliation. Harris and Booker know this, or at least recognize the argument’s salience — their own broadsides against Biden during the debates demonstrate as much. Their behavior to the contrary suggests a belief that their endorsements are only as meaningful as the lies they’re willing to tell about why they gave them.
There’s a degree of wishful thinking and projection to be expected in any political race. Candidates are often pressured to act as human beings and as symbols. This is especially the case in an election like 2020, where the outcome’s terms are understood to be moral as well as political. If the greater good (beating Trump) requires drawing starker delineations than actually exist between dueling progenitors of racist policy, then so be it, the thinking goes. Black supporters have faced a special pressure to act out this rationale. Over the course of the 20th century, largely in response to the civil-rights movement, Democrats and Republicans have realigned along racial lines. The GOP’s base is almost 90 percent white, and the party advances a reactionary and unapologetically white-nationalist agenda. The Democrats command support from more than 90 percent of black voters and majorities of the other nonwhite ethnic groups, while pursuing expanded health-care access and greater civil-rights protections. The choice for most black voters is no choice at all — even as they recognize the arrangement’s inequities.
But this hasn’t stopped the party Establishment from regularly protecting monied interests and law enforcement — Wall Street, the health insurance industry, police, and prisons — at the expense of their most loyal constituents. Biden’s career in the Senate, which lasted from 1974 to 2008, aptly illustrates these efforts. He’s generally adopted the party line wherever it strayed, and in the 1980s and 1990s, that meant outflanking Republicans from the right on criminal-justice issues. He became an outspoken proponent for meeting crime with harsher sentencing guidelines, an expanded death penalty, and broader discretion for ushering people into prison. This disproportionately meant black people. And he wasn’t alone or without black allies. But where many of them tempered their zeal for more imprisonment with calls for comparable investments in social services, Biden ushered into legislative reality the Democrats’ outsize focus on the former at the latter’s expense.
The party’s self-conception as a guardian of egalitarian multiracial democracy will be marred by this legacy as long as it refuses to rectify it. Biden’s commitment to status quo politics and role in constructing said legacy leaves him uniquely ill-equipped to do so. Neither point is divisible from the fact that the party remains the institution best positioned to hold an autocratic Trumpian ethnostate at bay. Reasonable people can disagree about whether these stakes occasion outright lies about what Biden has stood for. Less arguable is that an institution whose most influential black figureheads feel compelled to rewrite its past to legitimize its present is not an institution where black people are equal stakeholders. The Democratic Party remains confident that it will continue winning majorities of nonwhite voters as long as it’s less monstrous than the GOP — and Biden has few qualms about exploiting this dynamic. Why Harris and Booker chose to pretend he’s something that he’s not anyway has several possible components: a sincere belief that party unity in the face of cataclysm requires their special imprimatur as black officials; a careerist impulse to shore up their influence by endearing themselves to the man who might be their next president. Either way, they are lying. And if Democratic success at the ballot box or being ensconced in the party machinery requires such dishonesty about its racism, it’s hard to imagine the party facilitating racial justice even in a post-Trump America. It’s been a long two months since Harris and Booker dismantled Biden at the Atlanta debate. It’ll be much longer before enabling centrist Democrats by laundering their racist legislative records produces the changes that both senators claim to want.