- Ta-Nehisi Coatescritically acclaimed writer. He is the author of several books, including We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.
Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden is under fire for fondly reminiscing about his “civil” relationship with segregationist senators in the 1970s and 1980s. Speaking at a fundraiser at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City on Tuesday night, Biden expressed nostalgia for his relationship with the late Democratic pro- segregation Senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. Biden reportedly said, “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. … He never called me 'boy'; he called me 'son.'” Biden went on to say, “A guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well, guess what. At least there was some civility. We got things done.” Biden was widely criticized by other Democratic presidential contenders, including Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. We speak with acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about Joe Biden’s long record on the wrong side of civil rights legislation, from opposing busing in the 1970s to helping to fuel mass incarceration in 1990s. Coates says, “Joe Biden shouldn’t be president.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden is under fire for fondly reminiscing about his “civil” relationship with segregationist senators in the 1970s and 1980s. Speaking at a fundraiser at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City Tuesday night, Biden expressed nostalgia for his relationship with the late Democratic pro-segregation Senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. Biden reportedly said, quote, “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. … He never called me 'boy'; he called me 'son,'” Biden said.
AMY GOODMAN: Biden went on to say, “A guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well, guess what. At least there was some civility. We got things done.” Biden was widely criticized by other Democratic presidential contenders. He was asked on Wednesday if he would apologize.
REPORTER: Are you going to apologize, like Cory Booker has called for?
JOE BIDEN: Apologize for what?
REPORTER: Cory Booker has called for it. He’s asking you to apologize.
JOE BIDEN: Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career, period, period, period.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Biden spoke after Senator Cory Booker had issued a statement reading, quote, “Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone. Frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should,” Booker said.
AMY GOODMAN: Other candidates also weighed in.
Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted, “I agree with Cory Booker. This is especially true at a time when the Trump administration is trying to divide us up with its racist appeals.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio posted a photo of his family on Twitter and wrote, quote, “It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of 'civility' typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to ’the pursuit of dead [n-words].”
Senator Kamala Harris said, quote, “Yes, it concerns me deeply. If those men had their way, I would not be in the United States Senate.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren said, quote, “I’m not here to criticize other Democrats, but it’s never okay to celebrate segregationists. Never.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, your thoughts?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I mean, it’s just more of the same. It’s just more of the same. I mean, you know, Joe Biden says he’s been—
AMY GOODMAN: Should Biden apologize?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I don’t—I mean, Joe Biden shouldn’t be president. You know? You know, obviously, I don’t think I’m breaking any news here. You know, if he ends up being the nominee, better him than Trump, but I think that’s a really, really low standard.
I think when you have somebody who is celebrating their relationship, the ability of a person who saw no problem depriving an entire population of African Americans in their state of the right to vote, the right to participate as American citizens, the fact that that person was polite to them? I mean, it’s nice that Eastland never called, or Talmadge, whoever it was—never called Joe Biden “boy.” It’s nice that Joe Biden had that privilege. But the fact of the matter is, Joe Biden owes his very presence in the race, right now, to the first black president, to Barack Obama. And if it were up to Eastland, and if it were up to Talmadge, Barack Obama would not only not be in the White House, he actually would not exist.
And so, I don’t know what is going on in your brain where you decide to celebrate the fact these people were polite. They could afford to be polite, because the major opposition in their state, that being African Americans, was effectively, at that time, in their time, through most of their career, wiped out of the political process and erased as an electorate.
You know, Joe Biden says that he’s been involved with civil rights his entire career. It’s worth remembering Joe Biden opposed busing and bragged about it, you know, in the 1970s. Joe Biden is on the record as being to the right of actually the New Democrats in the 1990s on the issue of mass incarceration, wanted more people sentenced to the death penalty, wanted more jails. And so, you know, I’m not surprised. I mean, this is who Joe Biden is. You know there’s that saying: When somebody shows you who they are, believe them. This is who Joe Biden is.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Ta-Nehisi, what about your assessment of the other candidates in the Democratic presidential field? Right after your—
TA-NEHISI COATES: Ah, y’all trying to get me again, huh?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: After your piece was published in The Atlantic—
TA-NEHISI COATES: We did this before!
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —you met with Elizabeth Warren.
TA-NEHISI COATES: I did, yes. I did.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you talk about that?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Um, no. No, not this time.
AMY GOODMAN: But, Ta-Nehisi, what are you paying particular attention to with these candidates? I mean, it was interesting yesterday, after Biden made his comments to donors on Tuesday night and said, you know, “Eastland didn’t call me 'boy': he called me 'son.'”
TA-NEHISI COATES: Oh god.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, again, Senator Eastland, who talked about African Americans as the inferior race, was called “the voice of the white South.” Yes, as you pointed out, obviously, he didn’t call him “boy.” Joe Biden is white. But your—the first two people to speak out, as far as I could tell, were, first, Cory Booker—and then he referred to Cory immediately as Cory and said Cory should apologize to him, Joe Biden—and then, as well, you had Kamala Harris speaking out, the African-American senator from California. And then, of course, Warren and Biden—rather, Warren and Bernie Sanders and de Blasio. But what are you looking for in these candidates, the stands you want to see them taking?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I think I would like to see somebody—listen, it’s understandable where a large portion of this country is. They want to see somebody who can beat Trump. I get that. And there is, you know, a feeling, I think, among certain people that Joe Biden can out-white-man Donald Trump. I’m not convinced of that. I don’t think anybody can out-white-man Donald Trump. I hope that what we’ll see eventually is something more than “I can beat Donald Trump.” Like, “I can beat Donald Trump” should be the floor. I get that beating Donald Trump is extremely, externally important. I get that. But I just hope that that’s the floor and not the ceiling.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the leading contenders is Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2020 upcoming elections. So, I’d like to go to him being questioned about the issue of reparations by The View’s Sunny Hostin earlier this year.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I happen to believe that at a time of tremendous disparity—the wealth gap, for example, between the white community and the black community is like 10 to 1. Health disparities are terrible. Environmental disparities are terrible. Flint, Michigan, comes to mind.
SUNNY HOSTIN: Yeah.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: So, I think what we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities, black communities, Latino communities and white communities, all over this country. And as president, I pledge to do that.
SUNNY HOSTIN: Why not—why support reparations then?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, what do you mean by “reparations”?
SUNNY HOSTIN: By reparations for slave descendants.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I know, but what does that mean exactly?
SUNNY HOSTIN: Money.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I think that right now our job is to address the crises facing the American people in our communities. And I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Senator Bernie Sanders. Your response, Ta-Nehisi, to his position on reparations?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I think I should say before I say that, my understanding is that Senator Sanders now supports H.R. 40. I think that’s where we are now. So I’m obviously pretty pleased about that.
You know, listen, when we had this dust-up a few years ago, what I was repeatedly told was, you know, it’s not class or race, it’s both. And I agree. So, I think all of the things that Bernie Sanders just listed about paying attention to distressed communities should be done. And we should also have reparations. So, I don’t see those two things as in conflict. It’s not clear to me why both can’t be on the agenda. In fact, it was never clear to me why both can’t be on the agenda, why one can’t associate themselves with the massive gaps in the wealth, that don’t just exist in the African-American community, but exist in communities across the country, and at the same time recognize that there’s something specific about the gap in the African-American community that’s tied to the specificity of American history. But, you know, as I said, I’m happy Senator Sanders now supports H.R. 40. I think that’s progress.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, where does the bill go from here? And talk about even its name, H.R. 40, where it comes from.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. I mean, obviously, it comes from the field order given by General Sherman, the whole 40 acres and a mule. This is a reference back to that.
I don’t know where this goes. I don’t know where this goes. I’m shocked we’re here. I’ve said that repeatedly. I’m surprised we’re even here. I am a writer and a journalist, you know, soon-to-be novelist. Those are my preoccupations. That’s my disposition. I’m not a very good prognosticator. I would not have told you that you would have had a black president in 2008. I would not have told you that there would have been hearings on the House floor on reparations, on H.R. 40. I would not have predicted any of that. So, I don’t know where we go. I think, you know, in my mind, I try not to get too high and try not to get too low, as it’s said. In my mind, this is still a generational struggle. And that’s how I’m seeing it. I expect that generations after I’m gone will continue to fight this battle, because it’s always been a generational struggle.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, we want to thank you for being with us, writer-in-residence at New York University, author of a number of books, including We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Between the World and Me and his upcoming book, a novel, The Water Dancer. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.