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“I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education, that’s what I opposed,” former vice president Joe Biden shot back at rival U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris during the last Democratic presidential debate in Miami.

Imagine Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and impervious prophet of freedom, who forced America to confront the cruelty of slavery, sitting in that Miami audience and listening to the Democratic front-runner offer a casual, semantic and demeaning defense of why he opposed busing to desegregate schools in the 1970s. 

Think about what Douglass, who intelligently rebuked politicians for their callous disregard of the humanity of blacks, would have told Biden after watching him express disapproval of forced busing. 

Douglass would have probably referred the top Democrat and elder statesman to read “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” the speech he delivered on July 5, 1852.  

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke,” Douglass said in the speech. “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind and the earthquake.”

He added, “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

It’s been 167 years since Douglass gave that earth-shattering speech, yet the speech resonates with the issues of race that are shaping the landscape of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Men like Biden, who have long branded themselves icons of liberal politics, must demonstrate a genuine commitment to uplifting the dignity of disenfranchised blacks.

Biden's earlier opposition to school busing on the basis that it should not be government-sanctioned, and that there ought to be intentional harm before it is carried out, was and still is on the wrong side of history. Busing, the practice of sending black students to majority white districts and vice versa to achieve racial integration, enabled black students to benefit from the same educational opportunities as their white counterparts.

More: Biden defends past work on civil rights

Biden’s continued explanation as to why he opposed forced busing, an issue that painfully challenged the dignity and intelligence of black children, as fellow Democrat Harris sought to espouse during the debate, reveals a sense of arrogance tinged with white privilege. Lest we forget, Douglass was a black man who taught himself how to read, a fact which pulverizes the asinine notion of black inferiority that lies behind opposition to busing.

The moral vacuity of Biden’s position on busing is exposed by Douglass’ insistence that conscientious political leadership should stand against the blatant hypocrisies, non-committal attitudes and dastardly political maneuverings that seem to be the signature of liberal politics. 

Biden, a product of the old-guard liberal establishment, acts as if he ought to get a pass on an issue like busing because he has supported other civil rights-related causes. That is why he did not seize the opportunity to convert the last debate into his own Damascus experience on race relations. Instead, he chose to double down because liberals like him can always count on blind loyalty from some in the black political establishment. 

The struggle for civil rights is often stymied by liberal politics which render black issues secondary, and at the same time use the legitimate cries of black discontent as a bargaining chip.

This is a defining moment for Biden and other liberals. The eyes of the electorate are wide open. We are no longer in the era when transactional relationships between white liberal politicians and their black liberal friends translate into automatic mass black approval. It would be a costly error to mistake the demands of the black masses in this campaign as simply pawns on a political chessboard.

As Biden and others prepare to come to Detroit for a debate later this month, I urge them to read Douglass’ speech.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

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