Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the Limits of Representation

Joe Biden began his speech to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination with a quote from the civil-rights radical and Black revolutionary Ella Baker: “Give people light and they will find a way.” Though Baker may have been commenting on her particular approach to organizing, Biden used the line as an analogy for his campaign to replace Donald Trump. Biden’s reference to Baker did not surprise so much as it confirmed that Party leaders have a central fear about his candidacy: that Biden, like Hillary Clinton, fails to excite young Black voters in ways necessary to insure victory against Donald Trump. In the 2016 Presidential election, Black voter turnout declined for the first time in twenty years, dropping from sixty-seven to sixty per cent. But, in his speech, Biden recognized Baker’s person while ignoring her anti-capitalist politics. That choice only accentuated his selection of a Black woman, Kamala Harris, as a running mate without offering an explanation of how such gestures toward change will turn into the material goods that millions of Black women desperately need.

Biden’s selection of Harris is, in many ways, quite remarkable. Black women are, in general, one of the most oppressed and marginalized groups in the United States. The median wealth of a single Black woman in this country is a mere two hundred dollars. Black women are overrepresented in the ranks of the poor, in part because they make only sixty-two cents to every dollar made by white men. Nearly a quarter of Black women live under the official poverty line. If the well-being of Black children may be taken as a barometer of their mothers’, then the facts that twenty-nine per cent of Black children live under the poverty line and that another fifty-seven per cent are classified as low-income are dark reminders that inequality in this country is deeply bound up with race and gender. For any Black woman to rise to become a major party’s nominee for Vice-President of the United States is certainly evidence that some things, indeed, have changed in this country.

But it is surprising, if not ironic, that Biden was the candidate to make this selection. For decades, as Democrats beat a race-baiting retreat from the explosion of civil-rights legislation in the nineteen-sixties, Biden, as a senator from the country’s second-smallest state, Delaware, carved out a space for himself as a cultural warrior who was particularly adept at exploiting racial resentment for political gain. In the eighties, as political winds were blowing to the right, Biden staked out his opposition to welfare as an entitlement. In 1988, he remarked about public assistance in the United States, “Unfortunately, our current system of welfare has failed to meet the goal of self-improvement and has relieved the recipients of the incentive to take control of their future.” By 1996, when then President Bill Clinton signed landmark legislation that ended welfare as a public entitlement, Biden was one of twenty-four Democratic senators who voted for the regressive legislation. The attack on welfare in the nineteen-eighties and nineties used poor Black women as fodder to dismantle the country’s barely existent welfare state. White women were the majority of welfare recipients in 1996, yet when Clinton signed the legislation, he had two Black women who had been recipients standing beside him.

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Biden’s role as the architect of the 1994 Crime Bill has been well interrogated, but his rhetoric painting Black communities as nests of crime has not been properly acknowledged, as part of a pattern of demonizing poor Black women and mothers for political gain. In 1993, as Biden drummed up support for his crime bill, he described Black juvenile offenders—otherwise known as children—as “predators on our streets.” He went on to describe “a cadre of young people, tens of thousands of them, born out of wedlock, without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscience developing, because they literally . . . have not been socialized, they literally have not had an opportunity.” He added, “It doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter whether or not they had no background that enabled them to become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society. The end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take on my sons.”

This, of course, was not only about supposedly out-of-control youngsters; it was also an indictment of Black families and Black mothers as a source of disorder that, if unchecked, threatened to undermine white families as well. Biden has never taken responsibility for his overheated rhetoric and its role in demonizing Black families and thoroughly racializing crime. Unlike Bill and Hillary Clinton, who both accepted some modicum of responsibility for their role in promoting racist narratives about African-Americans and crime, Biden has blithely offered that, “I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried.”

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Finally, consider Biden’s performance at the congressional hearing to adjudicate Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. At the hearing, in 1991, Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would not allow three women to testify in corroboration of Hill’s version of events; he also stood by as white men from the Republican Party verbally pummelled Hill in an effort to discredit and undermine her claims. Last year, in response to renewed criticism of his passivity in the face of the Republicans’ orchestrated harassment of Hill, Biden once again averted responsibility. “I’m sorry for the way she got treated,” he said. “Look at what I said and didn’t say; I don’t think I treated her badly.”

Given this history, it is, as Kamala Harris has said, absolutely audacious that Biden has selected her, a Black woman, as his running mate.

Biden has avoided any clear apology for his role in deepening the systemic racism in public policy that he now pledges to oppose. Nonetheless, his defenders dismiss his critics on the left as puerile and pedantic for rehashing this history. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” they hector. But Biden’s failure to meaningfully acknowledge his role in constructing the “color-blind” racial regime of the post-civil-rights era, structured around calls for law and order and the coded deprecation of poor Black women, has clouded his newfound epiphany concerning racial justice. It has obscured the credibility of his claims that, as President, he would essentially abandon the most notable feature of his political past: weaponizing reactionary thinking about poor Black women in order to curry favor with white voters, during a period when Democrats felt compelled to prove that they could hate Black people, too.

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Biden has pointed to his selection as Barack Obama’s Vice-President, and his dutiful embrace of the role, as evidence that he has abandoned his provocative past positions. Now he has chosen Kamala Harris to perform the same perfuming role. There is an assumption that the selection of Harris means that her racial and gender identities will guide the policymaking of a Biden-Harris White House. This is the heralded power of representation in politics, and it is a powerful corral for the hopes of many Black Americans. The rise of Barack Obama convinced many Black voters that they might finally get a fair shake.

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