Updated: Aug 2, 2022
When Joe Biden uttered the now infamous words during his recent interview on the Breakfast Club, "You’ve got more questions? Well, I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”, many Americans, Black and White, Republican and Democrat, were shocked, outraged, and speechless. That includes me, which is why I have written this refutation of Biden for his arrogance, entitlement and attempt to shame and intimidate the Black vote to support his candidacy for President of the United States. Through the words of Frederick Douglass, I am convinced that Joe Biden is fundamentally flawed and on the wrong side of history by taking for granted the Black vote and imposing a dangerous racial standard to validate and authenticate Blackness and Black electoral behavior.
As I stated above, Biden's attitude of arrogance and entitlement was fundamentally wrong because his words are a telling example of how he takes for granted the Black vote. History has much to say about controversies surrounding the Black vote and free speech, and Frederick Douglass is no exception.
Douglass’s famed, Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston is one of his best lectures and speaks compellingly from the past to the present. Toward the end of this historic statement, he highlights the sanctity and inviolability of free speech. For Douglass, there was no compromise when it came to this fundamental right, especially when protests against the evils of chattel slavery were involved. Douglass makes this crystal clear in the following:
No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government. Daniel Webster called it a homebred right, a fireside privilege. Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South. They will have none of it there, for they have the power. But shall it be so here?
The quote above shows that any attempt to restrict free speech is hostile to the tenets of liberty and is at odds with our nation's founding principles. But when it comes to voting, is our American election day tradition considered "speech"? Interestingly, the Supreme Court has long wrestled with this very question. Still, there's reason to believe that given judicial ambivalence on this topic, The Court's history remains inconclusive. Consider the very fine analysis in the article, Voting Is Speech by Armand Derfner and J. Gerald Hebert in the Yale Policy and Law Review (Vol 34, Issue 2):
The Court’s relaxed review of voting restrictions would not be surprising if voting were not a fundamental right. But isn’t the right to vote fundamental, when it is “preservative of all rights”?94 And shouldn’t voting be regarded as speech deserving of full First Amendment protection when it serves a clear expressive function? One answer to these questions is that the Supreme Court has never said “No.” Despite the Court’s current jurisprudential confusion, the Supreme Court has never explicitly considered, much less rejected, the argument that voting is speech fully protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court in Harper, the poll tax case, specifically recognized and left open the question of the First Amendment’s application to restrictions on the right and proceeded to decide the case under the Equal Protection Clause.95 Supreme Court case law supports a theory of First Amendment protection for voters. The Court has repeatedly characterized the fundamental right to vote in terms of “voice” and expression. In Wesberry v. Sanders, the Court explained: “[N]o right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws.”
Derfner and Hebert continue their inquiry by arguing that The Court can resolve this dilemma by affirming the nexus between voting and speech as legally justifiable and in accordance with Constitutional integrity. Before concluding, they write: "The Court should correct its course deviation and place the right to vote at the top of the pantheon of rights protected by the First Amendment. The right to vote is both fundamental to our democratic society and fundamentally expressive; it should be properly protected by strict scrutiny alongside other fundamental rights."
When combined, both articles more than affirm the Constitution's free speech authority as a legal basis for safeguarding voting as an act of protected speech. Douglass challenges Biden's lack of historical propriety when it comes to the sanctity of free speech in Black History movements. Derfner and Hebert underscore the viability of voting as a Constitutionally protected free speech act. The end result is the creation of a pathway whereby the argument can be made that Biden's carelessly offensive remark is morally and legally objectionable because it offends the notion of voting as free speech, creates an artificial and derogatory obligation based on race, shames and intimidates on the basis of race, and is used to unlawfully and unfairly validate/authenticate voter's racial acceptability and responsibility in conformity with politically fabricated self-serving norms. No, it was neither a policy prescription nor an act of force but rather a passive-aggressive attempt to guilt, shame, and intimidate the African American vote, which was heard loud and clear by an overwhelming number of Americans. Again, Biden is on the wrong side of history because he expressed an attitude that is morally and legally indefensible, one that is more in keeping with Jim Crow era politics.
While Biden has since apologized, his comments remain problematic and a real concern for the body politic because of the attitude he so freely and flippantly communicated to the public. Douglass's plea cuts to the core of Biden's wrongness and in the process elevates history as the necessary corrective to his flawed political worldview and derogatory attitudes around race, identity, and electoral behavior.