/Biden, McConnell, and the Shadows of Segregation

Biden, McConnell, and the Shadows of Segregation

Joe Biden at a time when segregationist James Eastland was a Senate colleague.
Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the continued call for a commission to study slavery and reparations, Sarah Sanders’s possible run for the Arkansas statehouse, and New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s Trump op-ed.

Congress held a hearing this week on HR 40, a bill that would create a commission to study the lingering effects of slavery as well as proposals for reparations. The bill has been introduced at Congress every year since 1989, though it has not had a hearing in more than a decade. Is it time for HR 40 to pass?

The time for this bill to pass was when it was introduced 30 years ago — and at least 30 years before that — and every year since. Most people, politicians certainly included, still don’t understand what the bill says: It does not mandate cash payments to the descendants of slaves as if they were Powerball winners, but is first of all a call for a commission to study the impact of slavery and all its subsequent discriminatory repercussions on African-Americans to this day. Until there’s that reckoning and accounting, there cannot be a just, let alone informed, debate about what kind of restitution might be made.

The political backdrop to this week’s hearing revealed just how urgently this bill is needed. The level of ignorance at the top level of both parties is staggering. I am not talking here about the hopeless case of Donald Trump, who is so ignorant of American history that he blunders even when he tries to praise a black hero (e.g., thinking that Frederick Douglass is still alive), and who has revealed himself to be an out-and-out bigot whether he’s defaming NFL players or scheming to suppress minority turnout at the polls or presiding over the banishment of Harriet Tubman from the 20-dollar bill.

I am talking instead about Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, neither of whom is a bigot as far as I know, but both of whom, for all their years in Washington, have limited knowledge of or sensitivity to the slavery-dictated inequities, both economic and cultural, that still cleave the country.

This week McConnell described slavery as “something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible.” He represents Kentucky and was born in Alabama, for heaven’s sake. Does he really believe that the injustices born in slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and that they were only committed by those Americans born before 1865? Has he forgotten the violence, the educational deprivation, and the outright theft committed against black Americans that he witnessed throughout his formative years? To take just one example: He was 21 years old when four young girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in the state of his birth in 1963. My guess is that McConnell does remember such historical horrors, but such is his utter cynicism that he is happy to redact or misrepresent the history of Jim Crow if it allows him to score some political points against Democrats, especially those of color, to pander to the GOP’s MAGA (a.k.a Make America White Again) base.

We’re supposed to expect better from Biden. His Trump-like refusal to apologize for his tone-deaf remarks about the civility he enjoyed with segregationist colleagues in the Senate shows that he really is clueless. He keeps protesting that he’s not a bigot and that he (mostly) supported civil-rights legislation. True, but that’s changing the subject. His behavior this week reminds us that there are fundamental failures of empathy and historical sophistication that explain why he was flummoxed by the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings and why he championed the 1994 “tough on crime” law that contributed to the rise of mass incarceration. It’s why, in 2019, he actually considers it an accolade that a viciously racist senator called him “son” instead of “boy.”

Biden’s tipping of his hat to the Senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia for their “civility” in getting “the job done” in the Senate suggests he has no idea of who they were beyond their staunch support of racial segregation. Their adamant opposition to civil rights, toxic as it was, doesn’t begin to describe what they believed and what they did in public office. When the three civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, Eastland tried to float a hoax that they were “voluntarily missing,” until the bodies were found. Just read Robert Caro’s 2002 Master of the Senate, the best history book ever written about the United States Senate — as one might think Biden might have, given his professed love for the institution. In its pages, you learn that Eastland referred to bus-boycotting civil-rights protesters in Montgomery, Alabama, as “black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers.” He declared that “all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.” For good measure Biden’s beacon of civility, Eastland, dressed down the Jewish New York senator Jacob Javits, a Republican advocate of civil rights, by telling him, “I don’t like you — or your kind.”

Back then Lyndon Johnson observed that “Jim Eastland could be standing right in the middle of the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he’d say that the niggers caused it, helped out by the Communists.” Yet as the Senate’s Democratic leader, LBJ supported Eastland’s bid to become Judiciary Committee chairman anyway, despite fierce opposition from the NAACP, the Times, and other liberal quarters. Doing so was a mistake Johnson would outgrow later in his career: Caro writes that his Eastland endorsement was among the threats that thwarted his ambition of securing the Democrats’ presidential nomination in 1956. That Biden thinks he can get away with praising Eastland as a legislative partner even as he decries his racism in a Democratic presidential campaign more than 60 years later could not be a better argument for why HR40 is essential.

The publisher of the New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal yesterday in response to Donald Trump’s comment that a recent Times national security story amounted to “a virtual act of treason.” Is Sulzberger, and the Times, correct to draw the line here, or will this simply play into Trump’s war against the press?

Yes, he was correct to draw the line. Sulzberger’s response was pitch-perfect in argument and tone. Publishing it in the Journal is a plus; if he’d published it on the Times op-ed page it would look self-serving and, in any case, would be preaching mainly to the converted. And, according to an interview the Times publisher has since given to Vanity Fair, his piece may have moved a few hearts and minds among the conservative elites who read Rupert Murdoch’s flagship paper. But we have to face the reality that those Trumpians most likely to take the law into their own hands and commit violence against a reporter for what the president deems “treason” are more likely to be consuming Murdoch’s less-cogent outlets, starting with Fox News.

Outgoing White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is, according to reporting in Politico“extremely serious” about running for governor of Arkansas, though her first opportunity would not be until 2022. Considering the legacy she’s left in Washington, how would she make the case for her state’s highest office?

Let’s face it, the bar for a successful Republican campaign in deep-red Arkansas is not exactly high. Sanders’s voluminous record as a scowling, lying, ever-resentful defender of her boss, not to mention her Huckabee name, should stand her in good stead should she have to clear a GOP state primary to face a Democrat. And strange as it may seem, she may have one of the more pristine records among Trump appointees. After all, there is no evidence that she used her office to try to rip off taxpapers for her personal gain — something that cannot be said of Trump, his daughter, son-in-law, and much of his present and former Cabinet. Nor has she ever been accused of sexual misconduct or violence — something that cannot be said of the week’s other exiting White House flunky, the acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, not to mention the former speechwriter David Sorensen, the former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, the would-be Secretary of Labor Andrew Puzder, the reporter-shoving former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, the Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, or the president himself. Next to this crowd, Sanders starts to look like Mount Rushmore material — or if not that, at least worthy of a plaque in, say, Hot Springs.