In the midst of a pandemic that is killing black, indigenous, and Latino people disproportionately, we do indeed have larger things to be concerned about right now than Joe Biden and what he said to Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club. Still, since not every conversation needs to be about The Most Important Thing in the World Right Now, we should talk about it.
First, here is what he said.
If you are familiar with The Breakfast Club, you know Charlemagne doesn’t throw softballs. It was a challenging interview for Biden, during which he was tested on matters including: whether his polling lead over Trump is an illusion, as we saw in 2016 (“totally different, man,” Biden protested); the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on black communities; Biden’s marijuana sentencing policies; and black voters’ displeasure over Thursday’s news that Amy Klobuchar is being vetted for his running mate. (“I guarantee you: There are multiple black women being considered. Multiple,” Biden replied.)
After that answer, an offscreen aide cut off the interview for time. Charlemagne, seemingly both joking and not, said, “You can’t do that to black media!” With a smile, Biden offered that he does the same to white media as well, saying that his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, needed the feed. After Charlamagne invited Biden back onto the show later this year, Biden replied:
“You got more questions, but I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
This country has a rather fraught history of white people, in particular, determining who is and who isn’t black. One-drop rules and paper bags not only assigned value by shades of melanin to the skins of our ancestors, but to their very humanity. I realize that Biden has not historically had too many barriers on his tongue and is prone to say much of anything. However, I would expect that the white man who served as vice president under the first black president — at a time when President Obama’s blackness and cultural authenticity were often unfairly called into question — might keep all of that in mind.
Campaign spokeswoman Symone Sanders tweeted after that Biden “was making the distinction that he would put his record with the African American community up against Trump’s any day. Period.” However, that simply doesn’t wash with the actual syntax, joke or not. Biden said that black Trump voters “ain’t black” in that remark, plain and simple. And though I disagree with every single one of those people, cannot comprehend their support of that man, and believe that support ultimately does injury to black people, I do not go to the lengths of questioning their blackness.
I realize that he prides himself on his intimate relationship with black voters, and how, as one voter described it to the AP in December, “I know Joe’s heart.” He even told Charlamagne, who said he’d been critical of Biden, that “I know you have. You don’t know me.” Knowing Joe, in this calculus, is all that seems to be required.
I cautioned against this attitude back in August when I wrote about the need for him to re-introduce himself to black electorates throughout the country, especially to deal with issues in his record on which many African Americans would challenge him. (When asked about my column in a later interview, he brusquely said, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”) It may have required this episode for him to understand what I was talking about.
Early in Charlamagne’s interview with Biden, he asked Biden about what he planned to give black communities in exchange for their vote, citing what Diddy told Naomi Campbell in April (“The black vote is not going to be for free…in order for us to vote for Biden, we can’t be taken for granted like we always are because we’re supposed to be Democrats. Or because people are afraid of Trump.”) Biden responded by citing the usual: his strength with black communities, in his home state of Delaware and elsewhere, and then defending the heavily-criticized 1994 crime bill, which he wrote. He claimed he opposed the money in the bill that eventually gave money to state prisons — which, contrary to what Biden says, did metastasize mass incarceration throughout the country.
Biden will get nowhere with these arguments. But in his apology for the “ain’t black” comment, he seemed to get it. “I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” he said after dialing into a call with the U.S. Black Chambers Friday afternoon. “I shouldn’t have been so cavalier.” Though he protested that he had “never, ever taken the African American community for granted,” per reporting, Biden then went on the offensive, criticizing Trump’s Charlottesville praise of violent neo-Nazi demonstrators and blasting his advance of policies that hurt black communities. “I am prepared to put my record against his. That was the bottom line,” Biden added.
Ultimately, the former vice president needs to do more of this. Less than six months from today, the Most Important Thing in the World will be ensuring Donald Trump doesn’t win re-election. We should not consider a different choice. However, the lack of options does not excuse us from a citizen’s duty of critical thinking. In fact, if Biden is as close to black people as he claims, invited to proverbial cookouts and prematurely given the labels of “Uncle” and so forth, then he should understand what happens in families. You should expect tough love. In fact, demand it. It is most often what keeps your ass out of trouble.