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What's happening: Former Vice President Joe Biden is deflecting criticism for his handling of racial issues, both for his past policy positions and for comments he’s made in recent weeks. Much of the pushback has come from his rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Sen. Corey Booker called for Biden to apologize for his comments about working with racist senators during the 1970s and ’80s. Last week, Sen. Kamala Harris gave an emotional rebuke of his opposition to busing policies designed to desegregate schools. Biden has also faced criticism for supporting “tough on crime” bills during his Senate tenure that are seen by some as being a catalyst for the mass incarceration of people of color.
Why there's debate: Biden's left-wing critics believe he holds antiquated views on race. And while his detractors have stopped short of calling Biden a racist, they argue that he routinely took policy positions that were motivated by white racial fears and that had a disproportionate negative impact on black and brown Americans.
Some argue that, when given a chance to distance himself from his past positions, Biden has instead clumsily defended himself, bolstering the argument that he may be behind the times. Biden’s words have been the source of “frustration and even pain,” Booker said.
Biden’s defenders contend he is being unfairly maligned for refusing to pander to the left wing of his party. His past positions, they say, were broadly popular at the time and his current views may in fact be more in line with the attitudes of mainstream Democrats. They also argue that Biden’s record, when taken as a whole, shows him to be a champion of minority rights. As evidence, they point to his leadership in extending and expanding the Civil Rights Act in the 1980s and his work on a number of issues during his time as vice president.
What's next: With Harris receiving a sizable boost after the first debate, Biden can expect she and other Democratic candidates will continue to come after him on the issue of race. Despite his perceived missteps, Biden has held a sizable lead in support among black voters and has recently secured the endorsement of prominent black leaders in key primary states. Whether the criticism will erode his standing in this crucial voting block won't likely be clear for some time.
Black voters no longer have to compromise in their choice of leaders.
"The old days of black people putting up with questionable leaders because they felt like they had no other choice may be over. No more talk about trying to understand white people's racism, forgetting the impact of slavery, moving on from the past because 'this is a time of healing.'" — John Blake, CNN
Trump has caused the Democratic base to put much more weight on racial issues.
"Stories that voters once heard as folksy tales of the last century’s Senate no longer sound so benign to an electorate convulsed by President Trump’s blunt appeals to racial animus. A majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened under Mr. Trump, and liberal constituencies appear far less receptive to the idea that even the worst racists can be negotiated with." Alexander Burns, New York Times
Biden still has ample time to prove himself on race.
"But American politics being what it is, it’s a long and weary campaign trail yet, and Biden still has plenty of time to make his case to voters — particularly the black voters that are the backbone of the Democratic party." — Anne Branigin, The Root
Biden views the 'glory days' of political compromise differently than many Americans.
"If anything, Biden is appealing to an imaginary bygone American era that many Americans don’t recognize. … He sees chummy, Kumbaya-singing bipartisan cooperation with Republicans where many see the highly uncivil efforts of the right wing to strip minorities of their livelihoods and rights and to enshrine discrimination into law." — Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian
Biden's views, then and now, are representative of popular opinion.
"In the 1970s, Biden’s views on mandatory busing brought him in line with arch-conservatives. … But those views also placed Biden decidedly in the mainstream of public opinion. And that’s where he has remained over the last half-century." — Isaac Stanley-Becker, Washington Post
Biden is sparking an important debate about what Democrats stand for.
"The Democratic Party has kicked off a national conversation about where the United States has been, where we find ourselves now, what the future should bring and how to get there. It is a promising start." Editorial, Newsday
Biden is reassuring moderates who are turned off by Democrats' swing to the left.
"Biden’s so-called 'gaffe' might be remembered as groundbreaking in its reassurance to persuadable swing voters, who fear that the Democrats have been taken over by Black Lives Matter, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other far-left progressives in the way that President Donald Trump’s erratic populism has gripped the Grand Old Party." — Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune
The average American won't be convinced by attacks against Biden on racial issues.
"It just doesn’t seem possible for people to believe Biden ever countenanced racism, in any way, shape, or form. It goes against his whole persona, and it also flies in the face of the fact that America’s first black president embraced him as his deputy." — Quin Hillyer, Washington Examiner
More candidates of color means Biden must answer questions he's never faced before.
"Biden stood with a status quo that denied equal opportunity to black students, against the mandate of the Constitution. Whatever her faults as a public figure, it was good that Harris was onstage to confront Biden with what his choices meant for real people. It wasn’t the politics of 'racial strife,’ it was the politics of accountability." — Jamelle Bouie, New York Times