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The Destructive Politics of White Amnesia

Joe Biden set the stage for Donald Trump's racial scapegoating. Why can't he admit that he was wrong?

Illustration by Diana Ejaita
Arnie Sachs/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Photo (Biden) Jennifer Law/AFP/Getty (Hill)

For all of his bumbling verbosity and avuncular artlessness, Democratic front-runner Joe Biden serves as a remarkably elegant illustration of all that ails the Democratic Party’s bid to retake the White House in 2020.

Trump’s breathtaking weaponization of the Republican Party into the party of white nationalism should, at minimum, make the parameters of the Democratic primary campaign clear. Where conservatives in the past have employed dog whistle rhetoric to mask the manipulation of racial tensions, Trump’s itchy Twitter fingers dole out something more like smart missile rhetoric. The precision-guided invectives hurled at Representative Elijah Cummings, “the Squad,” and civil rights leader the Reverend Al Sharpton represent an escalation that Trump’s eventual general election challenger cannot meet with appeasement.

To counter such terrifying demagoguery, the party must be as unified in its repudiation of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny as the Party of Trump has been in enabling them. One would think, therefore, that candidates angling to become the standard-bearer of the loyal opposition should be capable of articulating not only the danger of this political moment, but also how their own party helped create this tragedy. Democratic candidates will never be able to steer a fresh course so long as they continue decades of denial and dissemblance. Joe Biden’s status as the 2020 field’s front-runner, in spite of his cringeworthy efforts to account for his part in that history, speaks volumes about how far today’s Democrats still have to go before they can meet the challenges of Trumpism head-on. A good deal of Biden’s inflated standing comes from an all-too characteristic Democratic posture of risk aversion, compounded by a talismanic faith in Biden’s mystic “electability.” Many party leaders and voters clearly view a Biden candidacy as the safest post-Trump course correction—and Biden as a pragmatic man of the people with the unique ability to build coalitional bridges between coastal elites and the so-called forgotten men and women of America’s heartland.

As if to underscore the inherent limitations of this posturing, Biden has trafficked enthusiastically in images of good ol’ boy politicking as evidence that he is the right man for the job. As his reminiscences of Senate business in the sepia-toned (but decidedly white) past tripped up his early campaign efforts, Biden has tried, gingerly to grudgingly, to walk his comments back. But those overtures point up a disquieting fear about his bid to defeat Trump: He may well perpetuate the fallacies of elite comity that marked his early career—and that continue to animate Democratic strategies to win back voters who are not as yet scandalized by the racist and misogynist rabble-rousing that is Trumpism. Falling back on that strategy alone may be fool’s gold. Not only is it questionable whether Trump’s heartland faithful will ever return to the Democratic column; the clouds that hang over Biden’s candidacy also suggest that when the going gets tough, the tough might find themselves going it alone. Biden’s missteps present a troubling pattern of sacrificing the interests of the very constituencies that stand to lose the most if the 2020 battle is undercut by the politics of appeasement. Voters who are activated to battle tooth-and-nail against the resurrection of our white supremacist past have every reason to press candidates for evidence that their failing marks on some of the most consequential issues affecting race and gender justice won’t be repeated. So far, the current front-runner has offered little substance in his defense, beyond Obama stardust and affability. That’s not enough in the best of times, and it is certainly not sufficient now.

For starters, Biden has yet to accept any genuine responsibility for how he helped preside over a process that depicted women—African American women—as conniving bottom-feeders. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, Biden actively enabled the humiliation and stigmatization of Anita Hill in that terrible spectacle of patriarchal impunity. He failed to call the multiple existing witnesses who could corroborate Hill’s testimony, while granting future Justice Clarence Thomas the ability to testify both before and after his accuser. From his chairman’s perch, meanwhile, Biden took a sharply inquisitorial line of questioning toward Hill, and reassured the country that Thomas’s character was beyond reproach.

Biden’s long-overdue apology for his central role in the Hill-Thomas fiasco was typical Biden—that is to say, the rough equivalent of a reckless driver’s acknowledgment that a hapless bystander may have been harmed while he was behind the wheel. But well into the #MeToo era, Biden’s entire driving record warrants explaining, in close detail. Almost three decades after the Thomas hearings, he seems unaware of how his penchant for Senate friendliness made him a prime choreographer of a cultural debacle steeped in the toxic brand of white-male privilege that Moya Bailey and Trudy have come to call misogynoir.

The harm done to Anita Hill, to Black women, and to sexual harassment victims overall is not the half of it. The mishandled hearings put Thomas on the Supreme Court, and Thomas has gone on to be the most influential justice currently sitting. Any basic review of the long train of recent high court decisions dismantling the modest protections erected to safeguard our democracy against the unlicensed rule by the wealthy and racially privileged can’t help but highlight their common thread: The majority are 5–4 opinions in which Thomas’s vote has turned the country inside out.

In the same discursive vein, Biden’s wistful recollection of working alongside segregationists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge sent up clear alarms. To be sure, from a certain realpolitik vantage, one can defend Biden’s collaboration with white power as a necessary evil. At the same time, however, Biden’s nostalgia for his pragmatic former alliances with segregationist lawmakers bespeaks a foreshortened moral compass, one prone to equate bigotry with collegial rascalry.

Rather than citing abhorrent figures like Eastland and Talmadge as exemplars of a bygone civility, Biden might just as easily have lamented the many ways in which the postwar Senate majority amplified the power and influence of segregationists—a pivotal fact that Biden only glancingly acknowledged after the public uproar greeting his comments. This glib moral embrace of unyielding racists for the sake of “getting things done” buttressed a vicious anti-Black social and political order for generations on end. When those who think of Black people as subhumans are the arbiters of policy, it’s no great surprise to see them endorse policies that are at best indifferent and at worst inimical to the interests of Black people. When it came to defining issues like busing and, subsequently, mass incarceration, Biden was an accommodating enabler in the regressive politics of race.

Biden’s selective—and at times flatly deceptive—invocation of his history of course mirrors the countless ways in which American political culture at large relies on robustly denying the truth about our own collective past. His very candidacy, pitched on a vice presidential tenure under the glorious “post-racial” interregnum of the Obama years, elides much of his public career. American leaders can indulge in such self-exculpating flights of fancy via a stolid ideological refusal to deny the true implications of a state built on racial power. However much we love to pretend otherwise, the legitimacy of segregation and chattel slavery is inscribed in many of our most hallowed rhetorical and constitutional traditions—and extend right up into the present, as the Trump White House and the rise of the alt-right remind us nearly every day.

Biden’s difficulties are not personal; rather, like many of our white leaders, he’s inherited them from institutional, societal, and cultural patterns of denial. In our near-schizophrenic consensus view of racial progress, this legacy of denial operates to celebrate the nation’s preferred self-image as a clearinghouse of equal individual opportunity, open to all, while obsessively rationalizing away slavery, colonialism, and extermination as the singular, hermetically contained responsibility of the individual bad actors long ago who perpetrated these harms. This very denial is what has set the stage for the riotous resurrection of white entitlement and scapegoat politics.

Before there is reconciliation, there must be truthful engagement with the conditions of Trumpian reaction. If Biden’s campaign fails to channel and instead diminishes the energies of constituencies mobilized to resist 45, Trumpism still wins.

The playwright Eve Ensler recently referred to the American inability to confront the country’s past injustices as a form of “diabolical amnesia.” This forgetfulness so dulls the tip of progress that we repeat the same unjust narratives over and over again. At a minimum, defeating the existential menace of the Trump movement means waking up, once and for all, from the many fatally compromised half-measures—and worse—that make up Joe Biden’s fond imaginings of bipartisan comity. The good old days of the good ol’ boys were never good. No one equipped to stem the MAGA tide would pretend otherwise.