As the nation he seeks to lead has spiraled deeper into chaos, former Vice President Joe Biden this week has called for a whole-of-country effort to combat racism and police violence against black Americans.
“I ask all of America to join me—not in denying our pain or covering it over—but using it to compel our nation across this turbulent threshold into the next phase of progress, inclusion, and opportunity for our great democracy,” Biden said in a late-night post on Instagram on Saturday, as a fifth night of protests and riots spread to cities across the country in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25.
On Friday, in livestreamed remarks from his home in Delaware, Biden called the pain of racism “too immense for one community to bear alone,” adding that “it’s the duty of Americans to grapple with it, and to grapple with it now. With our complacency, our silence, we are complicit in perpetuating these cycles of violence.”
In the days following Floyd’s death, Biden has repeatedly told supporters, donors and reporters that the onus of healing the “wound” of systemic racism falls, in particular, on white Americans. Biden’s focus on the work that must be done by those benefiting from white privilege, rather than those who suffer because of it, is a marked change in tenor from similar moments during the Obama administration, when the then-vice president typically framed issues of racial violence as a failure for law enforcement and minority communities to come together.
“Number one, cops have a right to go home and see their families at night. And number two, everyone—regardless of race, ethnicity or immigration status—has a right to be treated with dignity and respect,” Biden said during an NAACP fundraiser in 2015, a few weeks after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore. Gray’s death—which led to six arresting officers to face charges of which they were controversially acquitted—sparked major unrest in the city, culminating in riots and the deployment of National Guard troops.
“We need to recognize, they need to recognize that that black kid on the corner is also a kid that likes to draw and maybe has a future as an architect,” Biden said at the 2015 dinner. “The community has to realize that cops are… the same mothers and fathers who tuck their children in bed before they go out on a night shift to protect their children on what otherwise become victims in a crime-ridden neighborhood.”
Earlier that year, in a speech commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Biden again called for Americans to “bridge that separation” between minority communities and police, who, he said, often feared for their lives.
“At times, I’ve seen in their eyes the uncertainty and fear that comes with being asked to put their lives on the line, them wondering, ‘who has my back?’” Biden said, again using the line that “cops have a right to go home at night.”
But as outrage over Floyd’s death in Minneapolis—compounded by the deaths of more than 104,000 Americans from the coronavirus pandemic and a resultant economic collapse, both of which have disproportionately affected black communities—has spread, Biden has foregrounded the concerns of protesters, rather than put them on equal footing with those of law enforcement.
“People all across this country are enraged, and rightly so,” Biden said on Thursday evening before an online fundraising event. “Every day, African-Americans go about their lives with constant anxiety and trauma of wondering ‘Will I be next?’ Sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not.”
That change in messaging reflects a half-decade’s shift in Democratic orthodoxy about criminal justice and violence against black people at the hands of law enforcement, as well as blistering criticism of Biden’s own record on criminal justice during the 2020 presidential primaries.
The former vice president, the author of the 1994 crime bill that supporters of criminal justice reform say led to the mass incarceration of a generation of young black people, was frequently criticized by rivals for the Democratic nomination like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who said that she would repeal the landmark legislation if elected. Biden, in turn, has expressed regret for some aspects of that bill, calling legislation that created a sentencing disparity for the possession of crack cocaine “a big mistake,” and releasing a plan last summer to reduce mass incarceration.
But like Biden’s campaign thesis statement—that he is running to “restore the soul of our nation”—the change in messaging is inextricably linked with the increasingly violent and racist rhetoric of the man Biden hopes to replace, one former adviser said.
“Horrible violence against black people, against people of color, is unfortunately nothing new in the United States,” Moe Vela, who served as a senior adviser on immigration and Latino issues to Biden during the Obama administration, told The Daily Beast. “What is new is that we have a president who—through his racist words and actions and policies—has brought that racism and that violence out into the open.”
Other Democrats, both in Minnesota and nationally, are largely in lockstep with Biden’s messaging on emphasizing the toll that police violence has taken in black communities. On Friday afternoon, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party announced that it was postponing its state convention—set to take place over the weekend, with Biden himself as a featured speaker—in favor of working to support racial-justice nonprofits.
“This was the only appropriate course of action given the grief and anger gripping much of our state,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin in a statement on Friday. “Instead of putting on various events during our convention weekend, the Minnesota DFL Party is going to support the efforts of black-led organizations and community organizations on the ground that are doing the work of addressing racial injustice.”
Biden has also repeatedly expressed support for Floyd’s family, with whom the former vice president spoke late in the week.
“George seemed to be the glue that held so many of them together,” Biden told CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday evening, noting that he shared his own experience with grief following the death of his elder son in 2015. “George was everybody’s brother in that family.”