Joe Biden has been defending himself against charges of racism, occasioned by his work with such segregationists as Senator Eastland of Mississippi and Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in years past, by arguing that he was being “civil” and, thereby, was able to agree with these senators and get some things done in D.C.
And that makes this a good time to think about the idea that being civil is the best way to do politics. Biden – and others too – tend to think that being civil is what we should all aspire to in our politics, but this is far from clear, for at least the following reasons.
First, civility privileges the reigning political arrangement. That is, the powers that be, whether they be segregationist or capitalist, are put in a privileged position when people are being civil or thinking that civility is the only way to be properly political. Biden, by being civil in working with segregationists, could not challenge the prevailing racist political and social order in existence at that time. All he could accomplish at most would be to modify the prevailing racist order without undermining it or overturning it. Thereby, his actions would implicitly fortify the legitimacy of the prevailing racist system. And just as surely his actions would lead to civil unrest, incivility on the part of those who thought, as any thinking person would, that a racist political and social order is fundamentally flawed and should be overturned.
Second, as the above implies, being civil is not being just. When a person is being civil, justice becomes a subordinate, a decidedly secondary concern. “Why can’t we all just get along,” although a seemingly heartfelt and common sense appeal, ignores that we can’t all just get along because some are being treated unjustly, even inhumanely, in a segregated or racist society. Behaving civilly is not behaving justly and civility alone does not lead to justice or a just society. In the face of racism, the kind of racism that existed when Senator Eastland and Senator Thurmond were alive almost demands that people concerned with justice behave uncivilly; that is, demands sit-ins, marches, and organizations dedicated to black power. To tell those acting in these ways to behave civilly is to tell them to accept the injustices they are being subjected to, to tell them that the racist political and social order that exists is legitimate.
By reminding us that he acted civilly, Biden is then reminding us that he was, at least then, quite content to accept and legitimate a racist political and social order. In my neighborhood, that makes Biden a racist.