The words “fine people” have a very specific context in our national debate over race these days, and you’re likely to hear them more than a few times during this presidential campaign. That’s hardly surprising.
What’s surprising is that you may hear them being thrown Joe Biden’s way, too.
That three-word construct is usually attached to President Donald Trump’s remarks after the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. The common misconception remains that he used the words “very fine people on both sides” to refer to the white nationalists at the event, but over the next few months that’s probably going to undergo another few spells of reevaluation on various cable shows where people tend real screamy.
That far-right rally, you may recall, was prompted by the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
In December, it just so happened that a curious video of Joe Biden related to the Confederacy started making the rounds on social media.
At the time, though, the Biden campaign was on the downswing and the focus was far from being race or the Confederacy. Thus, its circulation was short-lived. Given it’s content, it could come back with a vengeance this year, however.
And considering Biden sewed up the number of delegates necessary to win the Democratic presidential nomination with his June 6 victory in Guam, according to Politico, it’s relevancy has returned.
?Joe Biden once said people who “display the Confederate flag” are “fine people.” pic.twitter.com/Nqout82fPk
— Trump War Room – Text TRUMP to 88022 & get the APP (@TrumpWarRoom) June 12, 2020
Biden made the remarks during the 1993 confirmation hearings of current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
A bit of context: Biden, then a senator from Delaware, was referring to a speech by Alabama Democrat Sen. Howell Heflin on the floor of the Senate in support of Democrat Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who was looking to deny a Confederate flag patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a Southern women’s organization that promotes the commemoration of Confederate history.
“I, too, heard that speech and, for the public listening to this, the senator made a very moving and eloquent speech,” Biden said.
“As a son of the Confederacy, acknowledging that it was time to change and yield to a position that Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun raised on floor of the Senate, not granting a federal charter to an organization made up of many fine people who continue to display the Confederate flag as a symbol.
“The charter would have given them the right, the imprimatur of the federal government to do that,” Biden continued, according to the New York Post. “It had nothing to do with the First Amendment, judge, so don’t worry. But the senator made a very significant speech rivaled only, in my view, by a private speech given to me personally by a man whose office I now occupy, Sen. John Stennis from Mississippi,” he continued.
That doesn’t look too good, particularly given Biden’s history of remarks and positions that Democrats now find troubling.
There were his 1970s positions on busing, which had him making common cause with segregationists (he would ignite this controversy when he talked about the “civility” of their working relationship). In the 1990s, he would help author the crime bill which the left has correlated with the mass incarceration of people of color.
And then there’s this doozy of a comment from his busing days, which he’s been trying to live down all election cycle long: “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,’” Biden said in 1975. “I don’t buy that.”
And then there’s the fact that the senator Biden referred to, the late John Stennis of Mississippi, was a vocal segregationist who signed “The Southern Manifesto” a 1956 reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision that outlawed segregated schools in the United States.
“We pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation,” the manifesto stated, among other words of defiance.
Back in December, when the video first gained attention for the presidential election, Biden still had tentative support among black voters. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until Democrat South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, an African-American, endorsed him right before his state’s Feb. 29 primary did Biden’s comeback begin in earnest.
If Clyburn’s endorsement acted as a deus ex machina for Biden’s troubled campaign, many Democrats have assumed galvanizing the black vote for Biden wouldn’t be necessary in the general election. Biden said as much when he gaffed his way into another crisis by saying that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black” during a May appearance on the black-centric radio program “The Breakfast Club.”
And now there’s this video, which reappears just as the statues of contentious historical figures — particularly Confederate historical figures — is again a matter of pitched debate.
It’s also relevant because Biden began his campaign with a video that focused on Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville.
The core values of this nation… our standing in the world… our very democracy…everything that has made America — America –is at stake. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for President of the United States. #Joe2020 https://t.co/jzaQbyTEz3
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 25, 2019
Reached for comment by the New York Post about Biden’s 1993 remarks, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates could only point the paper toward a tweet of Biden’s that said, “You don’t want to bring up the phrase ‘fine people’ in any context.”
If you’re Joe Biden, no you don’t, particularly since it’s virtually the same thing Trump said after Charlottesville. Different sort of moment, yes — but clearly the same sentiment.
At a low point in Biden’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, he needed Clyburn to get his momentum back. Biden is not quite at the point where another endorsement — or even a black vice presidential pick — is going to wallpaper over things like this.
A lukewarm black vote could end up dooming the Democratic ticket. One way you would get that is certain clips like this resurfacing at inopportune times.
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