Joe Biden says he’s running for president to ease the racial divisions of our time.
He says he resolved to run after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Pledging to recover “the soul of America” from the polarizing Trump era, the 77-year-old white man won the Democratic nomination with the endorsements of many Black lawmakers and strong backing from Black voters. He has a unique place in American politics, both for serving as the running mate of the first Black president, and for choosing as his own running mate the first woman of color on a national ticket.
In September’s presidential debate, he called President Trump a “racist” who uses “dog-whistle” language.
Trump, who insisted in the same debate that racial sensitivity training is itself “racist,” launched his campaign in 2015 with an attack on Mexicans as “rapists,” his way of promoting the immigration policies he has pursued ever since. He called for banning Muslims from entering the United States, told American lawmakers who are not white to “go back” where they came from and defended Confederate statues. Yet in the debate, Trump managed to question his opponent’s views on race by digging into Biden’s past.
“You did a crime bill, 1994, where you call them super predators — African-Americans are super predators — and they’ve never forgotten it,” Trump said. The legislation said no such thing; it was Hillary Clinton who used the phrase “super predators” in the 1990s, and later apologized. But Biden was an architect of crime legislation in 1994, widely criticized today for disproportionate harm to people of color. It’s part of a record on race that is as long as Biden’s half-century political career.
Elected to the Senate at the youngest possible age and now seeking to become the oldest president, he has witnessed — and at times influenced — decades of American social change. He has endured long enough that he is still on the stage to see the long-term results of his actions, and sometimes to receive the judgment of history.
‘Somebody give me a sign’
Biden came of age in the protest-filled 1960s in Wilmington, Del. Its neighborhoods, schools and businesses were effectively segregated. As a young man he had a formative experience, traveling from his family’s white neighborhood to a Black area to work as a lifeguard at a swimming pool. It’s now named after him.
As a young lawyer with political ambitions, he sometimes joined civil rights protests. He would later be criticized for exaggerating his involvement, and in an NBC event this month he was careful to downplay it. “No great shakes,” he said. “But that’s how I got involved with politics.”
The kind of role he played comes through in the stories of Bebe Coker, an activist affiliated with the NAACP, who befriended him in the early 1970s. She recalls him driving up to a protest, though “he never had his own protest sign,” and had to borrow one.
He deepened his connection to the Black community with visits to Delaware State College (now a university), a historically Black institution. Tony Allen, a former Biden speechwriter who is now the university president, says Biden “spent a lot of time here in the early years of his political career just engaging with faculty, staff and students. … He wanted to get to know us and make sure that we knew him.”
Biden’s visits appear to be what he was referring to when, in a 2019 campaign speech, he declared that “I got started” at Delaware State. A conservative news outlet later used the remark to suggest Biden had claimed that he attended the school. Trump turned that into a taunt in the September debate: “You forgot the name of your college,” the president said.
‘Can he be against the Constitution?’
Biden’s early interest in diversity did not prevent him from parting ways with the mainstream civil rights movement on a major issue. After his election to the Senate in 1972, he became a critic of desegregating schools through busing.
The Supreme Court had outlawed segregated schools with its Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. The struggle to enforce it started in the Deep South, and later moved North — where schools weren’t legally segregated but neighborhoods, and thus neighborhood schools, were effectively so.
Starting in the 1970s, judges ordered busing as a remedy, sending Black students to white-dominated schools, and sometimes the reverse. Historian Matthew Delmont, author of Why Busing Failed, says white residents resisted even in cities known for liberal politics. “It was a classic liberal position to say, ‘I’m in favor of school integration in Little Rock or Montgomery and Selma, but not so much in Boston, Chicago, New York or Wilmington.’ ”
Delmont says some white parents objected out of overt racism. Others knew historically Black and Latino schools were starved for resources.
Biden became a leader among liberal lawmakers who tried for years to craft legislation limiting judicial authority to order busing. He even talked of amending the Constitution. He said busing wasn’t working, and liberals should admit this even if it aligned them uncomfortably with “the racists” who resisted integration in the South. “There is academic ferment against it,” he said in a 1975 NPR interview. “There are young Blacks and young white leaders against it. There is social unrest which highlights it.”
His stance drew criticism from the only Black senator at the time, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. “He can be against busing,” Brooke said, “but can he be against the Constitution?”
Studies eventually showed busing helped Black students without harming white students. But it never grew popular among white voters, and the Biden campaign referred NPR to Black supporters in Wilmington who also opposed it.
Delaware State President Tony Allen, born in 1970, said he was bussed for years and is skeptical of the concept. “The notion that you can simply put a Black kid with a white kid, and somehow that will make the Black kid perform better, says something about what you think of the Black kid.” Activist Bebe Coker says she was part of “a very small group that opposed busing.” She urged Biden instead to support fair housing laws, since integrated neighborhoods would produce integrated schools. He did.
Historian Matthew Delmont says Biden was “right” to focus on housing, but “you can’t say you’re in favor of housing integration and not also be fighting for school integration at the same time.”
In a presidential debate in 2019, Biden encountered a starkly critical perspective. Sen. Kamala Harris, his future running mate, said that as a child she had been part of the second class to integrate a school in California. She pressed Biden: “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America?”
Biden did not agree, insisting that he had only opposed federally mandated busing.
Today, integration by busing has largely faded. The Obama administration tried a more subtle approach: offering school districts grants to support their voluntary efforts at diversity. But many schools are still effectively segregated. Should Biden become president, he would confront some version of the problem that many cities faced in the 1970s.
‘He did call it the Biden crime bill’
Before Trump attacked the 1994 crime bill, Biden’s fellow Democrats did. In a primary debate, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey blamed it for increasing the number of Black people behind bars.
The legislation — formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — came in an era of soaring crime nationwide; in 1990, for example, New York City set a record with more than 2,000 murders in a single year. By 1994, the crime rate was dropping but still high. And Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declared that “my wife, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, me, and everyone else in America, are literally changing their lifestyle.”
His legislative response was a collection of proposals by different authors, assembled in an election year and reflecting clashing approaches to crime. It included an assault weapons ban and money for social programs and crime prevention. Biden supported protections for women — known as the Violence Against Women Act — tucked into the crime bill.
President Bill Clinton favored federal funds to help cities hire more police. But Clinton also supported a populist provision called “three strikes you’re out,” directing that any person convicted of three crimes of certain kinds would be imprisoned for life. It was one of several punitive provisions. The bill created new federal crimes and expanded the number of crimes to which the death penalty applied.
Researcher Inimai Chettiar of the Justice Action Network says the bill did something more harmful: it offered billions to states to build more prisons.
Biden’s defenders say he was skeptical of prison spending, but he took ownership of the legislation. “He did call it the Biden crime bill,” Chettiar says.
Though one provision made it easier to release nonviolent drug offenders, the overall bill reinforced a longstanding trend toward incarceration. The U.S. prison population, already high in 1994, continued growing until it peaked at 1.6 million people in 2009.
Then as now, people imprisoned in America are disproportionately Black.
Crime fell dramatically in the generation after the bill’s passage. But Chettiar, whose group pushes to reduce the prison population, credits factors other than prisons: economic growth, demographic change and better policing. Imprisonment, she says, may “increase that person’s likelihood of committing another crime upon release. We don’t do a very good job at all of helping people get back on their feet.”
Biden’s defenders note that many Black lawmakers supported the measure at the time. “I voted for that crime bill,” says Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, whose endorsement boosted Biden days before his state’s vital 2020 Democratic primary. But he acknowledges the bill had “unintended consequences.”
In recent years a bipartisan consensus has concluded that imprisonment went too far. The Obama administration offered clemency to some offenders. In 2018, even President Trump, better known for demanding the death penalty for five innocent Black suspects in New York, signed sentencing reduction legislation.
And while the 1994 crime bill offered states money to build prisons, Biden’s 2020 crime plan proposes offering states money for alternatives to prison.
‘Second place to a Black man’
On the surface, it can seem unusual that Biden would find a place in history as the running mate of the first Black president. In his early career, he built pragmatic relationships with Southern segregationists who were among the most powerful figures in the Senate. In 1991, he presided over a famously uncomfortable spectacle. He chaired the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, a Black man accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, a Black woman. Biden’s all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee sat in judgment during the televised confrontation.
He later recruited Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman in the Senate, to join the committee. But as the years passed, he was criticized for jarring remarks on race, as in 2006 when he was recorded saying, “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” He was even accused of patronizing Obama in 2007 by describing him as a “clean and bright and articulate” Black man.
When he accepted Obama’s offer in 2008, perceptions of Biden changed.
His friend Bebe Coker, the NAACP activist in Wilmington, says she was moved by his decision because “I’ve never known any white male that would take second place to a Black man.”
Black voters have voiced similar appreciation ever since. “Biden’s loyalty to the country’s first Black president,” reported NPR’s Asma Khalid from the 2020 South Carolina primary, was why older Black voters showed “such a willingness to forgive and defend him.”
But his role on Obama’s ticket was less to appeal to people of color than it was to reassure white people. As the New York Times put it earlier this year, “Obama was deeply worried about a backlash against a Black man at the top of the ticket, and believed that an older white running mate would ease fears in battleground states.”
Biden was soon campaigning on his white working-class roots in Scranton, in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Obama and Biden twice won Pennsylvania, along with other Rust Belt states.
In 2020, Biden stands at the head of a diverse coalition, in an ever more diverse nation, and has chosen the first woman of color to be a vice-presidential running mate. But part of his task is still reassuring the white majority.
Trump has appealed to “suburban housewives” using old racist code, claiming that under Biden, “low-income housing” would “destroy our suburbs.” Biden tells white voters they have nothing to fear.
At a campaign stop in Johnstown, Pa., early this month, Biden made it explicit. “A lot of white, working-class Democrats thought we forgot them and didn’t pay attention,” he said. “I want them to know — I mean sincerely — that I’m going to be your president.”