A wave of potentially revolutionary anti-police uprisings is sweeping across the United States, with Black America once again at the forefront. These rebellions — taking place during a pandemic and in aftermath of the murders of Breona Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and countless other Black people by the cops and their white accomplices — show the deep anger felt by Black Americans and their allies over how the racist capitalist system specifically brutalizes Black and Indigenous people of color, especially those in the working class.
The response to this explosion of global struggle is predictable: state-sanctioned violence. The far Right and Republicans are more explicit, while liberals and Democratic politicians in power give cover to this by also trying to find channels for anti-racist rage that do not threaten private property, confront the legacy and reality of settler colonialism in the United States, or challenge the foundations of the capitalist state. This follows a classic pattern of setting up the “good” protester vs. “bad” rioter dichotomy, aiming to co-opt the former while brutally repressing the latter.
Liberals, seeking moderate and ultimately end the uprisings, are coalescing around a “don’t riot, vote” message, which has been taken up by corporate media figures, regular white liberals, and even former presidents. They’re selling the idea that the solution to police brutality and all the other ills of the racist capitalist system is to vote for Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden for president in November. If we get Trump out, they argue, things can return to “normal”: no more curfews, no more pandemic, no more police brutality. All these problems are caused by Republicans. Biden will save us!
Joe Biden is a dedicated, lifelong racist. He won’t save any of us, least of all the victims of police brutality.
A Long History of Racism
Biden’s history of enthusiastic racism stretches back decades. From the moment he entered the U.S. Senate in the early 1970s, he vocally opposed busing to achieve school desegregation. Today he disputes this fact, claiming he only opposed federally mandated busing. Nevertheless, “opposing busing” has long been racist code for opposing Black and brown children going to school with white children. At a time when “separate but equal” was beginning to become politically unpalatable, Biden’s leadership against busing, in the most generous possible interpretation, provided cover for segregationists to continue their work.
Biden represented Delaware in the Senate, a state that essentially refused to desegregate schools through a combination of hair-splitting laws and white parents shifting their children to private schools en masse. Private school enrollment in Delaware is now among the highest in the nation, at 17.6 percent in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington — the vast majority of them white. Meanwhile, disproprotionately Black public schools are systematically starved of funds. This kind of de facto segregation is exactly what Joe Biden promoted in his anti-busing campaign.
Ahead of the 2020 South Carolina presidential primary, a focus group was asked about this very portion of Biden’s record. One woman in the group asked “are we honestly being asked to to believe he is a segregationist?” Evidence points to yes.
Twenty years later, having risen to the prominent position of chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden presided over confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas to become the second Black Supreme Court justice. The hearings became a crucible for the particular combination of racism and misogyny at the heart of the United States when law professor Anita Hill, also Black and who had previously worked for Thomas, came forward with sexual harassment allegations against him. The all-male, all-white committee Biden chaired questioned her in brutal detail. He refused to take her allegations seriously, launched no investigation, and failed to accept testimony from multiple other witnesses and survivors of Thomas’s harassment. With Biden’s collusion, Thomas was confirmed and today is one of the Court’s consistent right-wing votes. Reportedly, he’s also Trump’s favorite justice.
Biden’s dismal record here is especially important to note, since one of the main arguments deployed in his favor is that he will appoint better judges than Trump has to various federal courts.
Perhaps the most egregious example of Biden’s racist use of power is 1994’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the crime bill he wrote and continues to support vocally to this day. The bill is a laundry list of the worst aspects of the mass incarceration state. It led to a boom in the number of police officers and prisons, lengthened prison sentences, and created financial incentives to keep people in jail. It created 60 new death penalty offenses as well as the infamous “three strikes and you’re out” rule, which inflicted a life sentence for almost any crime, even ones considered very minor, if there were two prior convictions for “serious” or “violent” crimes. Since then, people have died in prison for things like stealing a dollar in loose change from a parked car, possessing less than 1 gram of a drug, and attempting to break into a soup kitchen. Biden had also co-written the Anti-Drug Abuse Act a few years earlier, during the so-called crack epidemic. It amplified sentencing disparities between crack cocaine users, who were mostly Black, and powder cocaine users, who were mostly white.
All these new laws affected people of color, especially Black and Indigenous people, the most, leading to a massive increase in incarceration, policing, and the destruction of Black communities. While the crime bill was very popular at the time, it came under heavy criticism from those who knew it would worsen carceral capitalism. Now considered widely to be a racist failure, some previous supporters have disowned it. Only someone truly committed to racism would maintain his support of the bill, as Biden still does. “On balance,” he says, “the whole bill … did in fact bring down violent crime.” And, he contends, “The crime bill didn’t increase mass incarceration.”
Biden’s racism can also be viewed through the lens of the infamous “civility” of the U.S. Senate — a body that serves as a playground in which rich and powerful Democrats and Republicans can disagree lightly during working hours while maintaining deep social, political, and financial connections. Biden was an enthusiastic participant in this tradition through his friendship and fruitful working relationship with noted segregationist and vile racist Strom Thurmond, the senator from South Carolina.
“I disagreed deeply with Strom on the issue of civil rights, and on many other issues, but I watched him change,” Biden said as he eulogized his racist friend in 2003. However, it’s not clear that they disagreed all that much. They worked together early in Biden’s Senate career on the 1983 Comprehensive Forfeiture Act, which increased the use of civil asset forfeiture by police departments across the country. Civil forfeiture is legalized theft, allowing cops to seize and sell any property they say is involved in a crime, even if the owner is never even arrested or convicted. It is used mostly against working class and poor people, especially if they are Black. Since 1999, the federal government alone took in $36.5 billion in assets through civil forfeiture, a percentage of which was used to buy military grade weaponry that was then allotted to local and state police agencies and has been deployed against protesters. Biden played a pivotal role in ensuring the law was passed, whipping the Democrats into voting for it and ensuring that Thurmond got the credit for the law.
“We don’t treat the opposition as the enemy,” Biden said while campaigning for president recently. “We might even say a nice word every once in a while about a Republican when they do something good.” Apparently, Biden thinks the police stealing from Black communities in order to repress them more thoroughly is good.
Another line of argument Biden’s supporters use to divert attention from his racism is that he was vice president under Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States. It doesn’t just smack of “I have a Black friend” side-stepping, it’s even more flimsy.
Obama’s own record on race while president isn’t a glowing one. He often relied on symbolism, rather than material action — such as with the infamous “beer summit” between a white police officer and the Black Harvard University professor the cop arrested for entering his own home. When he wasn’t ignoring race, he insisted it was a “both-sides” issue. For instance, in his famous 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, Obama spoke about solving racism in America if only everyone forgave each other. It’s the same “both-sides-ism” whenever a white liberal shares a photo on social media of a cop and a protester hugging (often minutes before the cops turn violent).
During the anti-racist, anti-police uprisings in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, Obama criticized the protesters. “There are productive ways of responding and expressing those frustrations, and there are destructive ways of responding. Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk — that’s destructive and there’s no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts. And people should be prosecuted if they engage in criminal acts.”
Those words are echoed in how liberals are talking about protesters today. Obama, though, had more power than most liberals and used it to expand a racist system. It cannot be a defense of Biden that he served as vice president — a stepping stone to power in itself — under a Black president who pursued mass incarceration, surveillance, the war against drugs, imperialism, land theft from Indigenous people, and other policies of neoliberalism that disproportionately target people of color.
On May 22, Biden sat down for an interview with “The Breakfast Club,” a popular radio show. Near the end of the interview, as he was questioned on policy by host Charlamagne the God, Biden said, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Black people on social media were quick to point out the absurdity of a white man feeling entitled to determine who is or is not Black. In response to the swift backlash, Biden gave the requisite milquetoast apology. However, Charlamagne zeroed in on the problem. “I don’t ever care about the words and the lip service and the apology is cool, but the best apology is actually a black agenda … They’ve got to make some real policy commitments to black people. We’ve got to stop acting like the fact that blacks are overrepresented in America when it comes to welfare, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, crime, coronavirus—that’s no accident. The whole function of systemic racism is to marginalize black people.”
While Biden may have learned the right words to say in 2020 to avoid accusations of racism, as in his “plan for Black America,” he lacks the policies, actions, or record to back them up. Racism isn’t what you say; it’s what you do. And Biden continues to advocate for racist action worldwide, from criminal penalties for immigration to increased military spending, even after his recent and calculated about-face on prisons and sentencing.
Biden doesn’t really stand with Black Americans. Faced with the clear choice to stand with protesters fighting racist state violence or with the police brutalizing them, it is no surprise that he sought a pseudo-middle ground, saying, “The idea that instead of standing there and teaching a cop when there’s an unarmed person, coming at him with a knife or something, to shoot him in the leg instead of in the heart. There’s a lot of different things [policies] that can change.”
Apparently, Biden thinks the things that can change are limited to what part of an unarmed protester’s body the police should aim to shoot. The only way to read this is that Biden, an enthusiastic proponent of state violence, just wishes the cops would carry it out a bit more politely and with more plausible deniability. Either way, given his long support for racist policies and his blithe dismissal of any questioning of that record, there is no reason to believe Biden in any way stands with the protesters against racist state violence, or that the way the police terrorize Black communities would be different under a Biden administration than under Trump.
Joe Biden has said, “I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done.” We should take him at his word, and look at his record. Even if a bourgeois politician could or ever would “solve” racism in America, Joe Biden is not that person. He has spent his life fighting for policies that make life worse for Black, Indigenous, and white working-class Americans. Why should anyone believe he will do anything different as president?
What Is the Real Solution?
The problem isn’t just Joe Biden. When you look across the United States at where police are responding to protests with brutal force, you’ll find many places with Democrats in power. Take New York City, with Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio. Black New Yorkers and their allies in the streets have been beaten, run over, and had chemical weapons deployed against them by the police — and he has defended the NYPD and established a curfew that has served as a cover for arbitrary police violence.
Instead of relying on powerful Democrats to solve problems they have helped cause, we should look to the uprisings. Socialists should work to show the people in the streets that our anger and outrage have an answer — and it won’t be found in voting for Democrats. The protests are in danger of being co-opted by calls for mild reforms such as asking cops to tell people before they shoot them or making minor budget cuts. We must hold the line against such compromises, which are a betrayal of all those who have risked their lives to stand up against the racist state and are especially a betrayal of all Black Americans who have no choice about whether to risk their lives.
Joe Biden won’t stop the violence. While we must always fight to make things better, ultimately there are no lasting reforms possible in a racist capitalist system that is functioning just as intended. The only lasting solution is to abolish the police and abolish capitalism the world over.