Joe Biden’s Racial Awakening

For those of us who recall Senator Biden’s leadership in crafting the most racially biased drug and incarceration policies throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it is difficult to take him seriously when he claims to believe that black lives matter to him.

Biden did not seem to worry about black lives in 1984 when he joined Strom Thurmond in co-sponsoring the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

Biden did not seem to worry about black lives in 1986 when he co-sponsored the racist Anti-Drug Abuse Act which ushered in much harsher sentences for those arrested for possession of crack than for powder cocaine.

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And Biden seemed to worry even less about black lives when he gave a racially charged national speech in the Senate in 1989, castigating Republican President George H. W. Bush for not doing enough to take the “violent thugs” off the streets.

Until recently, Biden has presented himself as the “law and order” senator—tougher on crime than his Republican colleagues. In that same 1989 speech, Biden demanded that “more police” be hired to patrol our out-of-control cities. And even though drug use was declining, Biden demanded “more prosecutions of drug dealers” that would punish them “swiftly, surely and severely.” He also demanded that “we hold drug users accountable.” Decrying the fact that “six out of ten drug criminals who are arrested on drug charges have their cases dropped,” Biden demanded prison construction because “there are not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”

Indeed, the Biden bluster on urban violence was well known by those of us who have spent the last three decades teaching and warning about the over-incarceration of young black men. A Special Report to Congress in 1995 by the United States Sentencing Commission on “Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy” revealed that as a result of the legislative action following the Biden-led 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, blacks accounted for 88.3 percent of federal crack cocaine distribution convictions in 1993, Hispanics 7.1 percent, whites 4.1 percent, and other 0.5 percent. The racial breakdown for powder cocaine distribution offenses sentenced in 1993 shows 32.0 percent white, 27.4 percent black, 39.3 percent Hispanic, and 1.3 percent other. On the other hand, the 1991 Household Survey shows that 52 percent of those reporting crack use in the past year, as opposed to distribution, were white, 38 percent were black, and 10 percent Hispanic; 75 percent of those reporting powder use in the past year were white, 15 percent were black and 10 percent Hispanic.

Much of the blame for the over-incarceration of black offenders in the 90s was due to the 1986 Biden-sponsored legislation which required a five-year mandatory minimum penalty for 5 grams or more of crack, or 500 grams or more of powder cocaine—and a ten-year mandatory minimum penalty for 50 grams or more of crack cocaine, or 5,000 grams or more of powder cocaine. This is a 100 to 1 quantity ratio which punished low-level crack dealers far more severely than their high-level suppliers of the powder cocaine that served as the product for conversion into crack. Biden had to know that powder cocaine and crack cocaine are two forms of exactly the same drug, containing the same active ingredient. The only difference is that crack is made from powder cocaine in a simple process that requires baking soda, water, and a stove or microwave. Both are psychologically addictive, neither is physiologically addictive. But for Biden and his co-sponsors in Congress the only difference between the two drugs was the racial demographics of the users.

Undeterred by racial disparities in sentencing, Biden continued the war on urban crime by helping President Clinton promote his “Three Strikes and You’re Out” proposal which would incarcerate repeat offenders for life. As recently as 2015, in an essay on community policing for a book on bipartisan reform proposals put together by the Brennan Center for Justice, Biden referred to the legislation as the “1994 Biden Crime Bill.” Known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the bill extended the death penalty to 60 new crimes and offered states strong financial incentives for building new prisons to accommodate the windfall of prisoners that would be arriving.

Some have tried to dismiss concerns about Biden’s role in the over-incarceration of black men by pointing out that the country was in a “different place” culturally than today. But eleven members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed that 1994 Biden-sponsored bill, including many black leaders like former Representatives Charles Rangel of New York, John Conyers of Michigan, and Maxine Waters of California. The NAACP called the Biden Crime Bill a “crime against the American people.”

Biden has moved beyond the racially coded language he used in the past when he warned of “predators on our streets” in 1993, and “violent thugs” in 1994. Biden no longer encourages prison construction and no longer claims “we need to lock the S.O.B.s up.” But most of us realize that Biden is the same person he was in the 80s and 90s—a person who was willing to say or do anything that would help him get elected.

Photo credit: David J. Phillip/AFP via Getty Images


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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