By the time you read this Virginia Governor Ralph Northam probably will have resigned—as he should. Last Friday, the same day that we learned about Northam’s racist yearbook page, I learned about some of Joe Biden’s old racist behavior.
I hold the position that what Joe Biden did “back in the day,” opposing federally mandated busing is worse than what Northam did. Northam’s actions were racist to the core, but symbolic, while Biden’s actions were real behaviors affecting people’s lives.
Let’s look at what each did. Northam’s medical school yearbook page from 1984 contained two racist pictures—a person in blackface and another in a KKK costume. This is reprehensible, and he should resign from office, regardless of who is in the pictures.
About Joe Biden. In 1975 he opposed the federally mandated busing policy designed to end segregation in schools. Facing a backlash against busing from white voters, Biden began to voice concerns not just about the strategy of busing, which he had supported in 1972, but about the impact of desegregation on American society.
He supported an anti-busing amendment to a federal bill that was proposed by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a widely perceived racist who welcomed Biden as he called it, “to the ranks of the enlightened.”
According to Alana Goodwin of the Washington Examiner Biden supported another anti-busing bill by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. He argued that segregation was good for blacks and was what they wanted, an argument against desegregation that anti-integrationists often made. Taken alone, I would not necessarily have called Biden’s actions racist; however, his persistent explanations of his new position against busing defined them as such.
Northam’s act fanned the flame of racism and pushed white supremacy but had no direct effect on African Americans. On the other hand, Biden’s actions had a potential impact on the lives of African Americans directly. They had the objective of excluding African Americans from their rightful places in society.
Northam’s act was sordid and indefensible, but the actions of the medical school may have been more consequential. The school was a place that could produce a yearbook like that. And we have learned there were other blackface pictures in the yearbook. Here we may be seeing the effects of institutional racism.