The fifth Democratic presidential debate was cordial and predominantly respectful until the last 15-or-so minutes, when former Vice President Joe Biden started talking about race.
It started when Senator Cory Booker was pressed on a question about President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall. He answered the question before pivoting back to discussing the importance of Black voters and, specifically, marijuana legalization.
“This week I hear [Biden] literally say that [he] doesn’t think we should legalize marijuana,” the New Jersey senator said, referring to Biden, who earlier this week falsely called the substance a “gateway drug.” “I thought you might have been high when you said it.”
In response, things… well, got weird. Biden appeared to reverse his position on marijuana legislation, and then said, “I’m part of that Obama coalition. I come out of the Black community in terms of my support. If you notice, I have more people supporting me in the Black community because they know me. They know who I am. Three former chairs of the Black caucus. The only African-American woman who had ever been elected to the United States Senate,” ostensibly referring to former Senator Carol Moseley Braun.
Except… she was not the only Black woman ever elected to the Senate, and both Booker and Senator Kamala Harris caught him in the gaffe immediately.
“That’s not true,” Booker said.
“The other one is here,” Harris said, laughing and shrugging.
“I said the first,” Biden added. He did not say the first.
Biden currently leads the 2020 candidates in terms of support from Black voters — but experts strongly warn against corralling Black voters as a monolith. A YouGov poll provided to MTV News suggested that Black women voters are more likely to vote based on the issues that matter to their survival, and the New York Times found that young Black voters have been hard at work trying to influence their families away from the former Vice President, who has often been criticized of using his proximity to President Barack Obama as a selling point.
Wednesday’s debate isn’t the first time Biden has sparred with Harris or Booker on race during the Democratic debates. During the second democratic debate on June 27, Harris told Biden: “I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the promise of finding common ground. But I also believe, and it’s personal. It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and careers on the segregation of race in this country.”
Harris was referencing Biden’s working relationship with two segregationist Democrats, and continued to say that he worked with them to oppose bussing. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate public schools. And she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Harris was referring to a move Biden made during the 1970s that prevented the Department of Education from integrating school busing. In response, Biden said “It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true.”
After a long back and forth, Harris said there was a “failure of states to integrate public schools in America… I was part of the second class to integrate Berkley California Public Schools almost two decades after Brown V. Education.”
“Because your city council made that decision,” Biden said.
“That’s when the federal government has to step in,” Harris said. “That’s why we have the voting rights act and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. That’s why we need to pass the ERA. Because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people”
Biden cut himself off. “Anyway, my time’s up.”