Former Vice President Joe Biden appeared on The Breakfast Club for a one-on-one interview with Charlamagne Tha God. What should have been an opportunity to speak to a wide base of Black voters quickly devolved into an awkward conversation that highlighted one of Biden’s biggest weaknesses: his ability to say the absolute worst things at the absolute worst times.
As Charlamagne respectfully pressed Biden with informed and fair questions, Biden responded with condescension and dismissiveness. When he pushed Biden on his support for the Crime Bill, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee slipped into political sophistry, attempting to convince us that his support for the bill (not to mention Welfare Reform) had nothing to do with the growth of the prison industrial complex.
Less than twenty minutes into the interview, a Biden aide cut off the interview due to time constraints. When Charlamagne made it clear that he had more questions for the presumptive nominee, Biden responded: “You got more questions, but I’ll tell you if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
This was bad, even for gaffe-prone Joe Biden.
In fairness, it is worth acknowledging that Biden was joking. No reasonable person thinks that he was questioning the racial authenticity of Charlamagne or any other Black voter. Despite the feigned outrage of the Right, especially Black conservatives, there is no good faith reason to believe that Biden was serious.
But that’s actually the problem.
There are few things more annoying than White liberals who believe they have earned insider status with the community. The folk who always manage to mention that they voted for Obama. The ones who scoff at their White counterparts who “don’t get it” the way they do. The people who expect praise simply for not being overtly or consciously racist.
In a white supremacist world, the bar for White people is so low that basic human decency is treated like revolutionary action. It also makes folk like Biden believe that they possess some sort of “honorary Black” status that allows him to tease us the way we tease each other.
This isn’t the first time that Biden has attempted this type of humor. In a 2012 campaign speech, Biden joked that Mitt Romney wanted to “put y’all back in chains.” Again, such remarks reflect a belief that he has achieved an insider status within the Black community that allows him to say ridiculous and offensive things without a response.
But this isn’t merely about a White liberal who habitually line-steps. It is also about the deeper sense of entitlement that Democrats have over the Black vote. Because Black people overwhelmingly vote Democrat, the party has consistently assumed that we will vote for them each election cycle simply because they are not Republicans.
While there is certainly reason and logic attached that assumption, both for pragmatic Black voters and opportunistic political strategists, it does not nullify our ability and right to make political demands.
Unfortunately, Biden is so used to simply showing up and reminding us that he’s not Trump that he was unprepared to respond to Charlamagne’s questions with seriousness and care. Throughout the interview, he showed why many Black voters feel disrespected by the mainstream political machine. Biden’s ridiculous joke at the end of the interview was unacceptable and disturbing, but it was a symptom of a much deeper problem.
So where do we go from here?
Smartly, Biden has decided to apologize for his comments. Instead of doubling down on his statement or deflecting toward Trump’s more aggressive and dangerous racism, Biden conceded that he was being “cavalier.”
Unlike his response to the Crime Bill or the horrific treatment of Anita Hill, Biden wisely acknowledged his mistake in quick fashion. Whether sincere or not, such an apology goes a long way toward showing Black voters that he will respond to their concerns with care rather than arrogant defiance.
This sends a message to Black voters about our power.
Black voters must continue to hold Biden accountable. At every turn, we have to make demands that speak to our short-term needs and long-term prosperity. More broadly, we must stop giving White liberals “invitations to the cookout” for showing basic knowledge of our cultural traditions and latest fads. When our political needs aren’t met, we must resist by organizing, working, and voting in ways that reflect our interests.
Of course, the 2020 election poses a unique challenge. No matter how tone-deaf or insensitive Biden is, he is undoubtedly a superior option to Trump. Still, this does not mean that we can afford to surrender our needs at the doorstep. If we do, many voters will remain at home or vote third-party on election day, neither of which will serve to remove Trump from office.
To end the reign of Trump, Biden must recognize that he needs to do more than just show up to Black spaces. Instead, he must provide clear plans, thoughtful answers, and sincere respect for the Black community. If he chooses otherwise and repeats The Breakfast Club debacle, it will be another long four years for everyone.
Marc Lamont Hill is the host of BET News. He is also the Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities, and Solutions at Temple University. He can be followed on all social media @marclamonthill.
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