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I am very tired of Joe Biden. My vote for him was already hanging by a thread before his disastrous interview with Charlamagne tha God on Friday. Interrupting the Breakfast Club host’s explanation that black people needed assurances that our communities will benefit from his presidency, Biden asserted: “If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Again, I am very tired of Joe Biden. Not because I am a purist, or have inflexible ideological commitments of what it will take to remove Donald Trump from office. But rather because Biden’s condescension towards black communities is intolerable.
I want to believe that Biden’s condescension started after the respected Representative James Clyburn called the former vice-president an “honorary black man” at a private dinner in March. But his mistreatment of black people, verbally and politically, is decades old, and is a reflection of the Democratic party in general.
Throughout Biden’s career, he has boasted about his ability to bridge partisan divides by sacrificing the needs of black people and poor people in the name of “compromise”. For the last 30 years, Biden has repeatedly talked about freezing, cutting, or raising the age for social security and other benefits – as much as $2tn one time. His response to concerns that these cuts would hurt the poor? “We’re going to do lots of hard things … we might as well do this.”
Social security is an important program for black people, especially as we age. Among African Americans receiving social security, 35% of elderly married couples and 58% of unmarried elderly persons relied on it for 90% or more of their income. The reliance is not due to laziness or spending habits – people of color and white people make similar choices and contributions to retirement – but due to racism, lack of workplace retirement plans and barriers to accessing high-paying jobs.
“They know where my heart is,” Biden has said, of black voters.
But do we?
Senator Kamala Harris was severely scrutinized for her treatment of poor black women as a prosecutor – yet Biden’s criminal justice record makes Harris look like Thurgood Marshall. Biden authored and successfully passed the $30bn 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Besides putting 100,000 additional police officers in the streets, the crime bill distributed funding for new prison construction, encouraged prosecutors to charge children as adults, and even added the death penalty for 28 new areas, including drug-related offenses. Pushing for further criminalization, then senator Biden argued that George HW Bush’s crime plan did not go far enough because it did not “include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time”. An older black generation fought through Jim Crow only for Biden to help make sure that their children and grandchildren lived through a new Jim Crow.
On the House floor, Biden compared his criminal justice approach to Richard Nixon’s law and order stance: “I would say, ‘Lock the SOBs up.’” Black people were arrested in droves following this bill, despite comparable drug use rates to white people; many are still sitting in prison today. Biden has since acknowledged flaws in the bill, but last summer he reiterated his support for the bill. The law spent $30bn but contributed to only a 1.3% decline in violent crime. He has yet to call for it to be repealed.
Today, some cities plan to expunge marijuana records and hope to pay reparations to black people formerly incarcerated for marijuana offenses. But Biden can’t seem to let go; he is inconsistent and ambivalent about marijuana legalization. He has argued it may be a gateway drug, a statement he has since dialed back. Of course, keeping marijuana illegal at the federal level does not mean that people will not use it, but rather that the extra police that he put on the street will send people of color to jail for using it. Ironically, the police were probably nowhere to be found when Biden’s friends George W Bush and Barack Obama used marijuana. If anything, the drug seems to be a gateway to the White House.
Despite attempting to cut social programs and increasing mass incarceration, Biden claims to care about black families. But he doesn’t seem to know many. During the September 2019 Democratic debate he claimed that poor families should put on a record player so their children will know more words. Recently, during an interview with the New York Times editorial board, he argued that poor black parents feel ashamed because they cannot read and skip parent-teacher conferences. He was hoping to encourage them to be better parents. But his assertion is incorrect. Black and white parents have comparable participation rates overall and attend parent-teacher conferences at the exact same rates. In fact, black parents and poor parents are the most likely to check their children’s homework and meet with guidance counselors. Biden instead relied on stereotypes that black people are not involved in their children’s lives.
Harris forced Biden to confront his work with racist elected officials to stop integration efforts using school busing. That was not his only education mistake. Biden played a significant role in creating the student debt crisis, including making student loan discharge “nearly impossible”. This is devastating to black people, who disproportionately carry school debt. While the average school debt for black women with a bachelor’s degree is about $25,000, that level of education does not provide the same level of financial security for black women as it does other groups, including white people with less education (primarily because of sexism and racism).
Again and again, Biden’s relationship with black Americans, like the Democratic National Committee’s relationship, has been patronizing at best and actively harmful at worst.
Biden’s friendship with one black person does not mean that he’s a friend to black people
Some black people will support Biden because of his association with Barack Obama – even though Obama himself doesn’t seem especially excited about Biden becoming president. The Obama days feel distant yet warm compared to Donald Trump’s current presidency. But remember: Biden cycled millions of black people in and out of jail, voted for massive numbers of poor people to go to war in Iraq, threw Anita Hill under the bus to confirm a conservative justice to the US supreme court, and, under Obama’s administration, helped to deport millions of immigrants and bombed brown countries. When Biden was vice-president, black home ownership and wealth declined significantly, even as it rose for other races. Biden’s friendship with one black person does not mean that he’s a friend to black people.
The Democratic party holds black people in an abusive relationship but says you cannot leave because the other option is more abusive. That’s why I don’t believe that a vote against Biden solely means a vote for Trump. Perhaps it is a vote against being captured by the party that makes empty promises every four years when it is election time, and delivers nothing. Perhaps it is a vote against the crime bill, drones and deportations. Perhaps it is a vote against covert and overt racism.
Biden and others will rightfully argue that Trump is worse, and I agree. But what can Biden actually deliver? Will there be fewer drones if he’s president? Maybe not. Fewer deportations? Maybe not. Less money to police departments? No. Will fewer black people die from police? Unlikely. Will black people have healthcare? Unlikely. Will black wealth increase? Unlikely. Will Palestinian lives be safer? Unlikely. Commitments to preserving our climate? Doubtful. If black people have a hard time figuring out the differences between Trump and Biden, then that is Biden’s problem, not ours.
Joe Biden refuses to reckon with the harm that he has caused to people all over the world. His best line is that he is better than the other guy, and that is exactly how abusive relationships function. Black people – all people – deserve better than Biden and the Democratic party. And yes, we are still black.
Derecka Purnell is a social movement lawyer and writer based in Washington, DC. Guardian US columnist