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Joe Biden’s Racial Dog Whistle

Why does he think Republicans will work with him after they obstructed Obama for eight years? His praise of a segregationist offers a clue.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

On the eve of Juneteenth, Joe Biden made the perplexing decision to praise two long-dead segregationist senators for their civility. “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” he told a room of donors at a New York fundraiser, referring to the racist Mississippi Dixiecrat. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’” He also praised Herman Talmadge, a Georgia Democrat who staunchly opposed civil-rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. “At least there was some civility,” Biden said. “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’ve written before on how the former vice president is mounting a surprisingly Trumpian campaign for the White House. Both men built their campaigns on nostalgia for a bygone era that may have never existed. Biden also shares Trump’s habit of never admitting error or apologizing for mistakes. His remarks on Wednesday show how he’s mirroring another strategy that propelled Trump to victory—one that sets him far apart from any of his Democratic rivals.

That Biden would praise rather than condemn Eastland is jarring. Whatever civility the Mississippi senator extended to a young white Northerner like him did not reach his own black constituents. Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate recounts how Eastland spoke to a crowd during the Montgomery bus boycott with the language of a would-be genocidaire. “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used,” he said. “Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives.... All whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of dead niggers.”

Biden’s rivals took the opportunity to criticize the frontrunner. “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’” Cory Booker said in a statement, calling on Biden to apologize. “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.” Bernie Sanders shared Booker’s statement on Twitter, adding that Booker’s point was “especially true at a time when the Trump administration is trying to divide us up with its racist appeals.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered perhaps the most visceral response. “It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of ‘civility’ typified by James Eastland,” he wrote on Twitter. “Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to ‘the pursuit of dead n***ers.’” Booker and de Blasio won’t be sharing the debate stage with Biden next week, though Sanders will.

Some Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, rose to Biden’s defense. “I worked with Strom Thurmond all my life,” Representative James Clyburn told reporters. “You don’t have to agree with people to work with them.” Hakeem Jeffries, one of the top-ranking Democrats in the House, also stood by the meaning behind Biden’s comments: “I think we here in the House Democratic Caucus have ourselves taken the position that sometimes you have to work with the opposition to the extent they’re in power without compromising your values if you can get things done.”

Biden’s campaign declined to discuss the comments on the record on Wednesday, but the former vice president briefly defended his remarks to reporters that evening. “The point I’m making is, you don’t have to agree, you don’t have to like the people in terms of their views, but you just simply make the case and you beat them,” he explained. “You beat them. Without changing the system.” When asked about his fellow Democrats’ criticism, Biden struck an incredulous note. “Apologize for what?” he replied. “Cory [Booker] should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body and I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period.”

It’s tempting to describe Biden’s remarks as an Uncle Joe gaffe. What they actually reflect is the overarching theme of his campaign: that he has the experience, skill, and willingness to work with his Republican opponents, overcoming hyper-partisanship where other Democrats can’t or won’t. Last week, he made the improbable argument that he could convert Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s arch-obstructionist majority leader, into a reasonable, good-faith negotiator. As I noted then, Biden’s claim that the Kentucky senator and his fellow Republicans will “see the light” after Trump stretches all credulity. As Biden knows all too well, McConnell spent eight years blocking the Obama administration’s agenda whenever possible, and now brags about turning the chamber into a “graveyard” for House Democrats’ legislation.

Serving as Obama’s vice president for eight years didn’t just give Biden a front-row seat to the persistence and wreckage of Republican partisan warfare. It’s also redounding to his benefit with Democratic voters today, in spite of his mixed history on race.

Biden’s track record on civil rights isn’t as straightforward as he suggests: Though he supported racial integration in Delaware, he clashed with local black leaders on busing in the 1970s. In the Senate, Biden helped craft the passage of laws that became the scaffolding for mass incarceration and presided over the Senate Judiciary Committee when it mistreated Anita Hill in 1991. But Biden remains extraordinarily popular among black voters, especially among the older generations. His proximity to the first black president is undoubtedly a boon.

What explains Biden’s confidence that he can succeed where Obama failed? Invoking his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge offers a clue. I’m reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s description of whiteness as an “ancestral talisman” and a “bloody heirloom,” one that “cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.” Past presidents who carried that metaphorical token of racial identity usually wielded it in more subtle ways. But Donald Trump, Coates wrote in 2017, “cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.” The president’s willingness to define himself through his whiteness set him apart from his rivals in 2016, eventually helping to elevate him to the White House.

Biden carries that talisman, too. He hasn’t unleashed its power in full; he does not share Trump’s antipathy toward immigrants and people of color. But the self-described working-class son of Scranton, Pennsylvania, is more than willing to brandish it to win the presidency. How could Biden build bridges in Washington where everyone else has failed? Why does it matter in 2019 that a Dixiecrat called him “son” and segregationists treated him with civility? Why would McConnell, of all people, work with him after a decade of all-out partisan warfare against Obama? Biden’s answer is always implied and never spoken aloud: because he’s like them.