Ta-Nehisi Coates: Kamala, Biden Have ‘Chilling’ Criminal Justice ‘Baggage’

Kamala Harris Joe Biden AP
Kevin Wolf/AP

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations” author, this week warned Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and former Vice President Joe Biden that they will have to deal with their criminal justice “baggage” in the 2020 presidential election cycle.

In an interview this week with New York magazine, Coates was asked to discuss “both politicians who embraced some version of ‘tough on crime liberalism’ earlier in their careers.” New York magazine pointed out that “Harris threatened to prosecute and incarcerate the parents of kids who skipped school” while “Biden led the charge for expanding mandatory minimum sentencing throughout the 1980s, and co-authored Clinton’s crime bill in the 1990s.”

Coates discussed whether Harris, who has already announced her candidacy, and Biden, who is reportedly 95% sure about running for president, could sustain their popularity with black voters when their criminal justice records become scrutinized even more in the heat of the campaign season.

Coats acknowledged that Biden and Harris both “have some of that baggage, particularly around criminal justice.” But he said that Biden and Harris differ because though “Biden is really popular right now among black voters,” Biden “has more than just criminal-justice baggage when it comes to race.”

“Biden said, ‘My goal is to lock Willie Horton up.’ He’s literally on the record making the case for why his crime bill is tough. He wasn’t trying to compromise with the Republicans. This was actually an attempt to get to the right of Republicans,” Coates said. “On top of that, you have this piece in the [Washington Post] where he talks about his own rhetoric in the ’70s and ’80s, in terms of busing. I don’t know if the criminal-justice bit is going to be enough. But you start pulling all of it together, I think you start to get something that might actually be problematic.”

As Coates referenced, many black leaders expressed shock when they found out that in the 1970s, as the Washington Post recently discovered, Biden told a local newspaper that he believed forced school busing was “racist” and was adamantly against the “quota systems” for “blacks” and “Chicanos.”

“The new integration plans being offered are really just quota systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school. That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with,” Biden said in 1975 to a Delaware-based newspaper. “What it says is, ‘In order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son.’ That’s racist! Who the hell do we think we are, that the only way a black man or woman can learn is if they rub shoulders with my white child?”

In that 1975 interview, Biden said he did not “buy” the concept that government had to “hold the white man back” to let the “black man” catch up to “even the race.”

“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.”

Biden also insisted that he did not feel responsible for the sins of his elders and had no responsibility to “pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

“I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation,” Biden said in that interview. “And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

Discussing Harris, Coates said she was similar to former President Barack Obama because there is often a disconnect between her and black activists, especially when it comes to criminal justice issues.

“I don’t want to hear about how she didn’t lock anybody up. The idea of threatening mothers — and in most cases, because of how the families were set up, it was gonna be mothers, minority black and brown mothers — with jail, under the notion that you ultimately want to help them? I find that chilling,” Coates said. “That’s really really chilling. I think it sits in a line with … There’s a whole kind of liberal thinking that tries to use the state, and particularly the punitive aspects of the state, under the notion that it’s actually going to help black people.”

Coates was referencing Harris’ 2010 speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club when she was San Francisco’s district attorney in which she gleefully talked about “prosecuting parents for truancy.”

“I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime,” Harris said then. “So, I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy.”

In a speech that has been viewed 2.27 million times since she announced her presidential candidacy, Harris then laughed after saying her stance on jailing parents was “controversial” in San Francisco.

Harris said she had a “little political capital” and decided she was “going to spend some of it” on the issue.

“We recognized that, in that initiative, as a prosecutor in law enforcement I have huge stick. The school has a carrot, so let’s work in tandem around our collective objective and goal which is to get those kids in school,” Harris also said.


Still, Coates predicted that Harris “will probably be formidable in a state like South Carolina, and maybe even beyond that.” He pointed out that Harris went to Howard University and “is in AKA [Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority established by African-American women].”

“If the party’s base now really is black women, she’s right in that lane,” Coates continued.

But Coates said he gets worried whenever people like Harris speak so callously about jailing parents.

“I get really, really worried. I think there are profound implications to somebody that would say something like that; that there’s profound implications for laughing about the prospect of threatening people with the police,” Coates added. “I don’t know how she feels about that now. I don’t know whether she’d stand by that now or not. But for me, that raises really serious questions. And not just about race in this country, but also about foreign policy. You can be that distant with people that are right here. What does that mean when I hand over the keys to the armed forces to you? How are you gonna be in those situations? I think that’s something that people should be concerned about.”


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