Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

"During pivotal moments in the history of race relations in this country, from the 1970s to the 1990s," writes Solomon, "Biden’s hot air manifested as pitches to white racism." (Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

Will Biden’s Dog Whistles for Racism Catch Up with Him?

Apt to be a big political liability among voters who normally vote Democratic in large numbers, the presumed frontrunner's troubling past on these issues is an incontrovertible reality

Norman Solomon

In a party that officially condemns dog-whistle appeals to racism, Joe Biden is running on Orwellian eggshells. Whether he can win the Democratic presidential nomination may largely depend on the extent of “doublethink” that George Orwell described in 1984 as the willingness “to forget any fact that has become inconvenient.”

It is an inconvenient fact that Biden has a political history of blowing into dog whistles for racism. More than ever, the Democratic electorate is repelled by that kind of pitch. If his dog-whistling past becomes a major issue, the former vice president and his defenders will face the challenge of twisting themselves into rhetorical pretzels to deny what is apparent from the video record of Biden oratory on the Senate floor that spanned into the last decade of the 20th century.

Biden is eager to deflect any prospective attention from his own history of trafficking in white malice and racial division. When he tweeted this week that “our politics today has become so mean and petty—it traffics in division and our president is the divider in chief,” Biden was executing a high jump over the despicably low standards set by Donald Trump.

A key question remains: Does it matter that Biden was a shrill purveyor of tropes, racist stereotypes and legislation aimed at African Americans? During pivotal moments in the history of race relations in this country, from the 1970s to the 1990s, Biden’s hot air manifested as pitches to white racism. From the outset of his career on Capitol Hill, he even stooped to reaching out to some of the worst segregationist senators from the South to advance his legislative agenda against busing.

As Adolph Reed and Cornel West noted this month in the Guardian, Biden began his racially laced approach to lawmaking soon after arrival in the Senate, when he “earned sharp criticism from both the NAACP and ACLU in the 1970s for his aggressive opposition to school busing as a tool for achieving school desegregation.”

That was no fluke. “In 1984,” Reed and West recount, Biden “joined with South Carolina’s arch-racist Strom Thurmond to sponsor the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which eliminated parole for federal prisoners and limited the amount of time sentences could be reduced for good behavior. He and Thurmond joined hands to push 1986 and 1988 drug enforcement legislation that created the nefarious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine as well as other draconian measures that implicate him as one of the initiators of what became mass incarceration.”

It's likely that no lawmaker did more to bring about the mass incarceration of black people during recent decades than Joe Biden. In an understated account last week, The Hill newspaper reported that Senator Biden “was instrumental in pushing for the [1994] crime bill, which critics have said led to a spike in incarceration, particularly among African Americans.”

Yet Biden is now eager to project an image as a longtime ally of people of color. In short, journalists Kevin Gosztola and Brian Sonenstein wrote recently, he is in a race between his actual past and his PR baloney.

As the leading advocate for what became the infamous 1994 crime bill, Biden stood on the Senate floor and declared: “We must take back the streets. It doesn't matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter or my son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents, 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.”

And Biden proclaimed with fervor that echoed right-wing dogma: “I don't care why someone is a malefactor in society. I don't care why someone is antisocial. I don't care why they've become a sociopath. We have an obligation to cordon them off from the rest of society.”

Paste writer Shane Ryan pointed out the unsubtle subtexts of Biden’s speechifying: “This is the language of demonization, and even without the underlying racial element, it would be offensive to describe Americans this way, and to brush aside the societal conditions that lead to violent crime as though they're irrelevant. But, of course, the racial element is not just present, but profound. It's impossible to read these remarks, complete with dehumanizing rhetoric, without coming to the conclusion that Biden is, in fact, talking about black crime.”

At the time, even some of the members of Congress who ended up voting for the crime bill loudly warned about its dangerous downsides. One of them was Bernie Sanders (who I actively support in his run for president). While swayed by inclusion of the Violence Against Women Act in the bill, Sanders said in an April 1994 speech on the House floor: “A society which neglects, which oppresses and which disdains a very significant part of its population—which leaves them hungry, impoverished, unemployed, uneducated, and utterly without hope—will, through cause and effect, create a population which is bitter, which is angry, which is violent, and a society which is crime-ridden. And that is the case in America, and it is the case in other countries throughout the world.”

In 2016, Biden was continuing to defend his key role in passage of the landmark crime bill. During recent months, gearing up for his current campaign, Biden acknowledged some of the law’s negative effects while still defending it and denying its huge impacts for mass incarceration. And Biden has avoided copping to—much less expressing remorse for—the toxic, racially laced rhetoric that he used to promote the bill. He simply refuses to renounce the Senate-floor oratory that he deployed to propel the legislation to President Clinton’s desk.

Unfortunately for Biden, online video is available that conveys not only his words but also the audibly arrogant tone with which he delivered them.

What does all this add up to? Anyone who doubts that Biden methodically mined racist political shafts for decades should read the well-documented New York magazine piece “Will Black Voters Still Love Biden When They Remember Who He Was?” It’s devastating.

The New York article, by journalist Eric Levitz, begins with the tip of a very cold white iceberg: “Biden once called state-mandated school integration ‘the most racist concept you can come up with,’ and Barack Obama ‘the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.’ He was a staunch opponent of ‘forced busing’ in the 1970s, and leading crusader for mass incarceration throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Uncle Joe has described African-American felons as ‘predators’ too sociopathic to rehabilitate—and white supremacist senators as his friends.”

Such clear overviews of Biden’s racial behavior in politics have been rare. And news media have not illuminated what all this has to do with “electability.” Turnout from the Democratic Party’s base will be crucial to whether Trump can be defeated in November 2020. Biden’s record of dog-whistling is made to order for depressing enthusiasm and turnout from that base, especially among African Americans.

Apt to be a big political liability among voters who normally vote Democratic in large numbers, Joe Biden’s historic dog-whistling for racism is an incontrovertible reality. Denial of that reality could help him win the party’s nomination—and then help Donald Trump get re-elected.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Hold My Pearls': Debbie Dingell Lets Marjorie Taylor Green Have It Over Abortion Rights

The Michigan Democrat engaged in a verbal altercation with the far-right Republican lawmaker from Georgia on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Jon Queally ·


Dems Who Opposed Pentagon Cuts Received Nearly 4x More Donations From Weapons Makers

The latest passage of the NDAA "is particularly strong evidence that Pentagon contractors' interests easily take precedence over national security and the public interest for too many members of Congress," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo