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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Biden tells civil rights leaders where they went wrong

I’ve been thinking that Joe Biden needs to stop talking about race. Just stop. No mas. Like yesterday. Or, better yet, 50 years ago.

The subject is a tongue twister for the President-elect, who bluntly says things that are off color when talking about, well, color. In five decades of public service — including 36 years in the U.S. Senate — Biden has often seemed to be missing a sensitivity filter when race came up. Whether he was joking about how the racist 1994 crime bill he authored did “everything but hang people for jaywalking” or insinuating Black parents don’t know “how to raise their children” without help from social workers, he would say whatever popped into his head.

Still, even with the Democrat’s propensity to say the wrong thing, every once in a while, he says some hard truth that people need to hear. All kinds of people, Black and white.

And now, oddly enough, at 78, Biden may have hit his stride and found something valuable to say on the topic of race.

Biden said this valuable thing during what was supposed to be a “closed” and off-the-record Zoom call that he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris had on Dec. 8 with so-called civil rights leaders.

With respect, I say “so-called” to make a larger point: While many people think that “civil rights” is synonymous with the rights of African Americans, the reality on the ground has evolved. Sixty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the definition of “civil rights” should be expanded to include the rights of women, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, immigrants, the elderly, the LGBTQ community, the mentally ill, the physically-impaired and others. That’s all I’m saying.

In any case, organizers of the Zoom call specifically told participants that it was not to be recorded — presumably so that Biden and Harris would not be held accountable for anything they said, promised or pledged. But someone did record it. And then that person mischievously circulated the recording.

In a column about the call, Stephen A. Crockett Jr., senior editor at The Root, complained about Biden’s “tone” — not just what he said, but how he said it. Speaking broadly about how white elected officials often talk to African Americans, Crockett explained: “Tone is the raising of your voice. It can also be associated with ‘talking to me like I’m a damn child.’ ”

Before I reveal the valuable part of the exchange, which also happens to be the part that probably upset some African American leaders on the call, here is the honorable mention. The president-elect is losing patience with critics who insist he isn’t doing enough to bring people who look like them into the Cabinet — including African Americans.

“Let’s get something straight,” Biden said. “You shouldn’t be disappointed. What I’ve done so far is more than anyone else has done.”

Now for the Grand Prize winner. “By 2040, this country is going to be minority white, European,” Biden said. “You hear me? Minority white European.”

White folks don’t like hearing that.

“You guys are going to have to start working more with Hispanics, who make up a larger portion of the population than y’all do!” Biden said.

Black folks don’t like hearing that.

Nevertheless, as a Hispanic, I like what I’m hearing. Biden is right on the numbers. In 2020, African Americans make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population; Hispanics account for 18.5 percent. Yet, some African American leaders still act as if their group is the only game in town.

U.S. civil rights leaders have had a longstanding affiliation with the Baptist church. Still, it’s not often the leaders get a sermon. They got one from Joe Biden. And they needed to hear it. Now, let’s hope they heed it.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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