Rahm Emanuel helped Chicago police cover up Laquan McDonald’s murder for more than a year, but ABC viewers Thursday night had to listen to him say he thought Julián Castro had been too unkind to Joe Biden. Since it requires the least analysis and garners the most eyeballs, the punditry after presidential debates tends to be focused primarily upon the most tense moments, not the substantive ones. Castro, an underdog candidate who once served as President Obama’s HUD secretary, gave pundits like the disgraced former mayor considerable grist when he rather bluntly questioned the septuagenarian former vice president’s memory during a discussion about health care.
“I think for Castro — he could have made the point, he had a legitimate point, but it’s a disqualifier the way he handled it,” Emanuel said shortly after ABC began its postgame coverage. “It will come across as mean and vindictive. That’s not who he is.” (He is an expert in “mean and vindictive” himself, so feigning horror at Castro’s attack is pretty rich. Emanuel is clearly better at hiding videotapes.)
I don’t know whether people like Emanuel have forgotten whom these Democrats are preparing to run against. If Castro’s point was correct, which it seems he wasn’t, how is it disqualifying if it’s only perceived as rude? Will they spend all of the general election scolding Donald Trump for being too cruel and obnoxious to their nominee?
Perhaps they will, if it is Biden, a person whom party centrists like Emanuel are already prone to coddling. Treating the 76-year-old front-runner so delicately is arguably more insulting than questioning his mental fitness, especially considering the incumbent whom he is preparing to run against.
Donald Trump is not merely a bully, but a racist one. Bigotry has been the marrow of his presidency, so whoever hopes to face him next year will need to at least be fluent in the language of antiracism, if not be practicing it. It is not enough, as author Ibram X. Kendi writes in his new book How to Be an Antiracist, to simply claim that you are “not a racist.” Democrats, particularly white liberals, have skated on that for generations. There is too much institutional cruelty for the next president to undo should a Democrat defeat Trump next fall.
That is why though they are often contentious and occasionally unpleasant for the likes of Emanuel, debates are essential vetting tests, particularly this time around. Thankfully, ABC seemed to understand this. They had excellent moderators, including Univision’s Jorge Ramos and ABC correspondent Linsey Davis, the panel’s only African American. She asked several questions of the entire field that provoked the kind of frank and open discussion of black concerns and political interests that is rare for a presidential debate. It was fitting, given the setting on the historically black campus of Texas Southern University, but also because Davis said that young black voters consider racism their chief concern.
Davis’ questioning provoked some fascinating responses. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend who has released a comprehensive “Douglass Plan” to attack systemic racism, took note of how often our framework of “working class” defaults to whiteness. The two ex-prosecutors on stage, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, faced questions about their records (with varying success). Cory Booker called out jurisprudence for its simulacrum of enslavement, noting that “we have more African-Americans under criminal supervision today than all the slaves in 1850.” Beto O’Rourke signaled his support for a Congressional inquiry into reparations and took a cue from the recent New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. “Racism in America is endemic. It is foundational,” the former Texas Congressman said. “We can mark the creation of this country not at the Fourth of July, 1776, but August 20, 1619, when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country against his will and in bondage and as a slave built the greatness and the success and the wealth that neither he nor his descendants would ever be able to fully participate in and enjoy.”
However, Davis later directed a question at Biden concerning his alarming 1975 comments on school segregation. She read the full quote, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago,” and Biden smirked oddly as she did so. The correspondent followed up by asking, “What responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?” Without missing a beat, the Democratic front-runner delivered a response that was considerably more disqualifying than anything Castro said all night.
Having just had something offensive that he said 44 years ago quoted back to him, Biden took the opportunity to say something that was arguably worse.
After proposing that teacher raises are the first step to undoing the legacy of slavery, Biden said the following. It’s worth reading in full.
Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need — we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy.
The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have — make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.
It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.
That’s the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination a) first appearing to treat the mere mention of an old segregationist quote of his as ridiculous, then b) responding to a question about repairing the legacy of slavery by saying that the government needs to have teachers go into the homes of kids in poor schools to teach the parents how to raise those children. And what color are the children, disproportionately, going to those poor schools? Nowhere in that answer is a prescription for making the poor families less so, nor for improving the schools. It’s the kind of paternalistic racism that has so long existed in both liberal and conservative circles, and was on Thursday night spilling out of the mouth of the former vice president on the campus of an HBCU. It was all quite a sight to behold.
I should mention that there is a c): Biden never truly gave Davis’ question any serious consideration. Whether or not white political candidates like Biden consider repairing slavery’s legacy to be a more abstract and amorphous notion than protecting Obamacare or ending Trump’s policies of migrant persecution, it is at the very heart of the fight to end systemic racism and white supremacy. Metastasizing both have been top agenda items for the Trump administration. Yet the top contender appears not to have even the vocabulary to engage in an antiracist conversation, let alone combat Trump’s agenda properly. He chose to use that stage to proselytize about record players in the homes of poor families of color who need the teachers to raise their kids for them. Who chooses to do that in a party that needs black voters to win?
Even worse, Biden’s terrible quote was just part of his evening’s racial disaster. He showed that he is not only unprepared to take on Trump, but that he is actually starting to emulate some of his worst traits. When Ramos inquired what he’d done to stop the record 3 million deportations during the Obama administration, Biden responded with a purely false statement. “We didn’t lock people up in cages. We didn’t separate families. We didn’t do all of those things, number one.” They did do all of those things. Though not to the grotesque extent of the Trump administration, certainly, but Biden is fighting photographic evidence here. Ramos had asked him, openly, “Why should Latinos trust you?” And the first thing Biden did was lie.
Biden’s thinking on incarceration may have evolved his thinking since his Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, known more infamously as the crime bill, was signed into law 25 years ago today by President Bill Clinton. However, it was jarring to see the man behind the legislation that helped explode mass incarceration in this country, especially on the state level — and who said in a 1994 Senate floor speech, “I would say, ‘Lock the S.O.B.s up” — stand last night in Texas and claim that “Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime.” Considering who was mostly hurt by the crime bill, I’ll paraphrase Ramos: why should African Americans trust you?
Despite Biden’s swelling poll numbers with black voters, we don’t have to trust him. In fact, the former vice president should do the honorable thing after that disgrace of a debate and remove himself from contention for the nomination. Yes, even with him leading most polls. It isn’t about him winning. It’s about the party winning, then having a successful presidency undoing Trump’s racist policies.
Democrats will need an antiracist candidate to defeat Trump because Trump is a white nationalist with white-nationlist policies. Good poll numbers with the black electorate do not make one antiracist. A moderate, milquetoast criminal-justice plan that largely seeks to repair some of the damage he did with the 1994 crime bill does not make one antiracist. Biden not only isn’t picking up what it means to fit the definition, but his debate remarks provide evidence that he is actively rejecting it. As such, he should leave the race to contenders who have the party’s most loyal constituency, black voters, in mind.
Near the end of How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi, the author, relates the fight to end racism with his own recent battle with cancer. “What if we treated racism in the way we treated cancer? What has historically been effective at combating racism is analogous to what has been effective at combating cancer,” Kendi argues. “Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities, that kill undetectable cancer cells.”
But as Kendi writes after his metaphor, the important thing, as with medical treatment, is belief. We must believe that all is not lost, and that this racist society can be transformed. However, I doubt sincerely that I can be convinced that the current Democratic presidential front-runner is equipped to carry out that transformation, if he were even lucky enough to defeat the white-nationalist incumbent lying in wait.
Thursday’s debate was indeed a defining moment, but not for the candidate most pundits claim. While some may cry that the low-polling Castro blew his chance at a V.P. selection or clamor for him to step out of the race, it is the man he targeted whom we need to be focused upon. The former vice president can trumpet his Obama associations all he wishes, but after that debate, it comes across merely as the “I have a black friend” excuse. Biden is not only deficient as an antiracist, if he ever was one, but he is saying things — at a Democratic debate on an HBCU campus, no less — that make it absolutely impossible to trust him to be the party’s best candidate to address systemic racism and to ameliorate the nation the current administration leaves behind.
If defeating Trump in 2020 is as important to Biden as he so often claims, he should end his campaign and remove himself from contention for president.