Former Vice President Joe Biden speaking in his “Aw shucks, I’m just Joe” style has set off a firestorm within the ranks of the Democratic presidential contenders.
During a June 18 fundraiser with wealthy potential donors, he lamented the lack of civility in government. To make his point, Biden recalled how well he got along with Southern segregationists in Congress, such as former Sens. James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. This struck a sour note with many progressive and left-leaning Democrats.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey issued a statement calling for Biden to apologize for his insensitivity. New York City Mayor and presidential candidate Bill de Blasio also weighed in, pointing out that the segregationists with whom Biden had a civil relationship thought that his multiracial family was illegal and that his children should not exist.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, an African American Democrat from S.C., argued that you have to work with people with whom you disagree in order to get things done.
Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi gave a more careful statement about Biden and said, “If he was able to work with Eastland, he’s a great person.”
Several of the hosts of the television show “The View” jumped to the former vice president’s defense and resolutely declared that Biden is not a racist.
Biden’s comfort level
But the issue here is not that Biden is a racist, and Booker did not call him a racist. What gives so many people concern about Biden is that he can be comfortable with racists without realizing that he is normalizing their hateful views.
The most glaring example of the tone-deafness of some of the advocates joining this debate is a statement made by TV host Joe Scarborough during the MSNBC show “Morning Joe.”
Scarborough likened Biden to former President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he said Roosevelt “had to deal with the same segregationists as we moved toward World War II to defeat Hitler.”
Think about it
President Roosevelt was willing to work with segregationists for the sake of the war effort. But Roosevelt, unlike the African American soldiers stationed in Southern states, was not humiliated and disrespected because of the color of his skin.
Black G.I.s suffered the indignity of watching Nazi prisoners of war they were guarding sit down and eat meals in restaurants where the Black soldiers themselves were barred by law.
Neither Roosevelt nor Joe Biden nor Joe Scarborough had a relative treated with less respect than the enemies fighting to destroy our country – a country that African Americans were giving their lives to defend.
People like Franklin Roosevelt, Joe Biden and Joe Scarborough can survive in the depths of a racist nation because they, like the segregationists they “work with,” are configured for survival.
Protective skin cover
They are “Creatures of the Deep.” They live and thrive in a racist America that is like the bottom of a deep ocean – an environment where such great pressure is exerted, only those equipped with protective shells can survive.
And while that protective cover may be the hard exoskeleton of a lobster at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in America, that protective cover is White skin.
If Joe Scarborough gave an ounce of consideration to this issue, would he conclude that all Americans were setting aside their differences and prejudices in order to defeat Hitler during World War II?
Of course, Joe Biden could be civil with Sens. Eastland and Talmadge – because Joe Biden is White. But if Biden gave the slightest bit of thought to the matter, would he really believe those staunch segregationists would have shown the same civility and respect to a Black senator?
The criticism of Joe Biden is not that he is a racist, but that he is a creature of the deep, blithely swimming around without noticing that others are being crushed by the enormous weight of racism.
And if he does not have enough empathy to recognize human suffering, why should anyone think that he deserves to lead a nation as diverse as America?
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.