Presidential candidate Joe Biden is an" honorary black man," according to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.
Former presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker recalled during a recent fundraiser for Mr. Biden in Detroit how Mr. Clyburn used the phrase during a recent Congressional Black Caucus meeting. Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Epstein tweeted about Mr. Booker’s recollection of the comment.
A couple of weeks prior to that, former NFL safety Jack Brewer, who is African American, called President Donald Trump the “first black president” during a roundtable at the White House to discuss Black History Month. “Mr. President, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I’ve got to say this because it’s Black History Month: man, you are the first black president,” he said.
Both descriptions are problematic and trivialize the trials and tribulations an African American man or woman will face that a white person never will because of race. The fact that both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, men with starkly different ideologies, can both be embraced as embracive of the black race, shows how ridiculous the practice of assigning blackness to white politicians has become.
White people have not suffered high rates of mass incarceration that have torn their families apart and made them highly unemployable. They are not stereotyped as a unit as being less smart and less capable. They are not denied loans at higher rates like African Americans. Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, or any other white person for that matter, cannot live the black experience and should not get “honorary” status to the race.
Instead, they should just be themselves. I don’t need my elected officials to prove they have even an ounce of so-called blackness. Listening to soul music or dancing with the crowd at a campaign stop to prove that they can relate means nothing to me. I can personally attest that not all black folks have rhythm.
I am fine with my politicians being white. What matters is where they stand on the issues that will impact black lives. What are they doing to combat redlining, employment discrimination and health disparities that mean African Americans don’t live as long as their white neighbors? What is their plan for the income disparities that exist in cities like Baltimore? Did their arm have to be twisted to declare lynching a national hate crime?
I am pretty sure that African American voters who have helped Mr. Biden surge past Bernie Sanders and the other presidential candidates didn’t check his name because they felt some sort of black kinship with the former vice president. (Although he did benefit from the connection some felt to Mr. Biden’s former boss, the actual first black president Barack Obama).
The late novelist Toni Morrison started the fascination with assigning blackness to white elected officials when she described former President Bill Clinton in a New Yorker article as the first black president, although her words were misinterpreted and it wasn’t her intention. She was describing the way Mr. Clinton was being dragged through the mud because of his affair with the intern Monica Lewinsky.
“People misunderstood the phrase,” she later told Time magazine. “I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.”
Ms. Morrison’s assertion makes me raise an eyebrow as well, but not as much as how people ran with what she said. Mr. Clinton became the cool president who played the saxophone, sometimes in sunglasses, including on the “Arsenio Hall Show.” He was enthusiastically welcomed when he moved his office to Harlem after his presidential term ended.
But some would argue his policies, including welfare reform and tough on crime laws that lead to mass incarceration, weren’t necessarily in the best interest of African Americans.
I’d rather have a white representative with basic black cultural competency, but with the fortitude and insight to come up with legislation that benefits African Americans.
So, sorry Mr. Clyburn, Mr. Biden is not an honorary black man. He’s a white man with a working class background who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And that’s OK.
It will be up to him to prove if he has policies in mind that benefit black communities. And up to voters to judge him on that and not some trivial connection to blackness.
Andrea K. McDaniels is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Please send her ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.