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Joe Biden's Eastland comments show he doesn't get Democrats need black voters to win in 2020

Republicans know that the last three Democratic presidents  won because they motivated black people to vote in huge numbers. Why don't Democrats?
Former VP Joe Biden At Harvard University
Former Vice President Joe Biden with the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, at Class Day Exercises in Cambridge, Mass., on May 24, 2017.Photo by Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Joe Biden — apparently yearning for a kinder, gentler politics — this week recast staunch racists like Sen. James O. Eastland, D-Miss., as partners in democracy, conveniently forgetting that Eastland’s policies resulted in trauma, oppression and poverty for generations of black families.

His (and others’) white supremacist handiwork is still being felt in Mississippi, which TalkPoverty ranks in the bottom 10 nationwide for poverty, unemployment and gender wage gap.

In his walk down memory lane, Biden remembered that Eastland never called him “boy,” only “son.” (One wonders what Eastland called Sen. Edward Brooke, R-Mass., who became the first black man elected to the Senate since Reconstruction in 1966, in the nearly 12 years they served together.)

“Boy,” of course, is a racial insult historically used by white men like Eastland to emasculate and demean adult black men. It wasn’t Biden’s civility that saved him from the slur — it was his whiteness.

It also wasn’t Biden’s diplomacy that earned Eastland’s respect; it was his whiteness. And it wasn’t Biden’s bipartisanship that fostered Eastland’s cooperation; it was his whiteness.

Perhaps one translation of Biden’s story is simply this: He believes that 2020 voters have decided that beating President Donald Trump is a job for a white man.

But the last Democratic candidate to win the presidency with more than 50 percent of the white vote was Lyndon Baines Johnson, which makes Joe Biden’s praise of segregationist Eastland’s “civility” in the 1970s even more ill-advised.

There is, though, no question that some Democratic voters are worried about winning “back” white voters; a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times national poll reported that 56 percent of Democratic voters are worried enough about Trump in 2020 to feel the safest best for winning is a moderate white male.

But in the fear and confusion, those Democrats ignore the facts. A majority of white voters always vote Republican. A June 11 Quinnipiac University poll reported that Trump would win the white vote against every Democratic candidate; a Morning Consult/Politico national tracking poll similarly found that even white voters who disapprove of Trump will still vote GOP in 2020.

Meanwhile Democratic candidates running in the Democratic primary are building entire presidential campaigns around “winning back the average working American.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for instance just completed his “Blue Wall” tour, asserting that he alone can recoup votes lost to Trump — by which he means the white working class.

Newsflash: We Democrats haven’t had a majority of those voters in 55 years. When Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s, white Democrats who opposed integration — especially in the South — ran to the GOP and never looked back.

The last three Democratic presidents  —  Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama  —  won because they inspired and motivated black people (and, more recently, voters from other marginalized communities) to vote in huge numbers.

But in a recent survey, the Black Census Project found that black voters — while generally voting Democratic — feel ignored and marginalized by their own party. They feel, in many cases, like candidates are so busy pandering to white people (who aren’t going to vote blue anyway) that they are ignoring the people who actually can return a Democrat to the White House: black voters.

Candidates don’t need to convince masses of Trump voters to change their minds; they need black voters coming out in big numbers. And black voters will turn out in big numbers because a candidate addresses our issues — not just spouting policies on health care and employment and climate change and gun violence, but policies that address how people of color are disproportionately affected by these  (and all )  of society’s ills.

We’ll turn out for a candidate who realizes that any genuine attempt to combat poverty and social injustice must focus on systemic racism as much as economic policy — and isn’t afraid to say so out loud — to other white people.

But what leaders in both parties have in common is their internalized belief that what only affects white communities is “neutral,” and the concerns of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups are dismissed as “identity politics,” and dealt with separately (and often later).

Asserting that our concerns are separate from the country’s concerns — and that we should wait for leaders to get around to them, if they care at all — is an ultimately futile attempt to attract white Republicans, and will only depress the black vote. Dealing with our issues will get us out to the polls; ignoring our issues will only give the other team another four years to rampage.

Political strategists carping about white voters “lost” to Trump or economic anxiety only prove that some Democrats still can’t hear the music: The white voters you’re chasing have already left the building. The only way any Democratic candidate has won the presidency in five decades is by getting out the black vote.

The Republicans know this: It’s why they gerrymander in North Carolina, purge the voter rolls in black precincts in Wisconsin, close polling places early or open them late in Florida, use broken machines in Georgia and “find” ballots in trunks of cars weeks after elections are over in Ohio. It’s why they block federal legislation to mandate uniform election processes and to protect the system from foreign interference.

The Republicans know how Democrats win.  Why don’t the Democrats? And if they do … why aren’t they acting like it?