Joe Biden on racist colleague: 'He never called me boy'

Kadia Tubman
Reporter

Joe Biden dismissed criticism from “the new New Left” wing of his party that his approach to politics is “old-fashioned” by fondly recalling his experience of “civility” in the Senate as he served with two segregationist senators.

Democratic presidential candidate Biden, 76, speaking at a fundraiser in New York City Tuesday evening, waxed nostalgic for the times of political fellowship when he was a senator in the 1970s and 1980s, contrasting it to today when political rivals are considered “the enemy.” To emphasize his point, Biden cited his ability to work with staunch supporters of racial segregation like the senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, who Biden said was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”

“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said and then, imitating a Southern accent, added that the senator “never called me ‘boy,’” a racial epithet used against black men.

James O. Eastland and Joe Biden. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP)

“He always called me ‘son,’” said Biden.

Another 2020 hopeful, Senator Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, tore into Biden comments in a statement released Wednesday, saying, “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity.”

“Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone,” he continued.

Eastland, who was often referred to as the “the Godfather of Mississippi Politics,” was a wealthy plantation owner who opposed integration — the ''mongrelization'' of the races as he called it — and the civil rights movement during his long tenure as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he led when Biden, a young self-proclaimed liberal from Delaware, was sworn in in 1973.

From 1956 through to his retirement in 1978, Eastland insisted on the blue-slip process, requiring that judicial nominees receive positive recommendations from both of their state’s senators before the nomination could be considered by the committee. The policy has been criticized as abusive and employed by Eastland to give veto power to himself and his fellow Southern senators to block nominees who were in favor of desegregation and civil rights.

Previously, when campaigning for Alabama Democrat Doug Jones in October 2017, Biden, in a call for bipartisanship, invoked his relationship with Eastland, who he said addressed the former lawmaker as “son” instead of “senator.”

“Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists,” Biden said. “You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”

"At least there was some civility,” he said Tuesday, on the eve of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”

“I know the new New Left tells me that I’m — this is old-fashioned,” the former vice president and Democratic frontrunner continued. “Well, guess what: If we can't reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That's what it does. You have to be able to reach consensus under our system — our constitutional system of separation of powers."

On the campaign trail, Biden has been forced to explain to progressive voters not only what he called his “old-fashioned” social behavior, especially around women, but also past actions such as supporting the infamous 1994 crime bill that has been blamed for the mass incarceration of black men and his stance against busing students to desegregate schools in the mid-1970s.

Although Biden ran for the Senate in 1972 as a supporter of desegregating U.S. schools, in office he opposed busing students out of their local districts to promote racial integration. In 1975 he sponsored a major anti-busing amendment.

“The courts have gone overboard in their interpretation of what is required to remedy unlawful segregation,” Biden said in a 1975 interview. “It is one thing to say that you cannot keep a black man from using this bathroom and something quite different to say that one out of every five people who use this bathroom must be black.”

Biden’s position pitted him against the chamber’s only black senator at the time, Edward Brooke, R-Mass., who called one of Biden’s anti-busing amendments “the greatest symbolic defeat for civil rights” since the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.

During that time, Biden defended his support for anti-busing policies in an interview with NPR, describing busing as a means “to integrate people so that they all have the same access and they learn to grow up with one another,” but “all the rest is a rejection of the whole movement of black pride.”

In his 2007 autobiography, "Promises to Keep," Biden wrote that the anti-busing debate was a "liberal train wreck” and recalled how “a few of my colleagues pulled me aside to ask how and when ‘the racists had gotten to me.’”

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