BY CHRIS SMITH | Vanity Fair
Clyburn, who helped hand Biden his presumptive nomination, talks about Biden’s “you ain’t black” and V.P. possibilities, and why this moment is defined by “raw politics and meanness.”
James Clyburn grew up in a segregated South Carolina. He is now the longest-serving member of the state’s congressional delegation and the highest-ranking black Democrat in the House. In February, Clyburn basically saved Joe Biden’s presidential bid, endorsing Biden three days before South Carolina’s pivotal primary and helping deliver the decisive black vote. On Thursday evening, just after landing in his home state for a weekend visit, the 79-year-old Clyburn talked about holding on to his optimism in the wake of yet another brutal killing of a black man by police.
Vanity Fair: What was your reaction when you saw the video of a Minneapolis cop kneeling on the neck of George Floyd?
James Clyburn: I don’t know that I would describe my emotion as anger. I guess I should be angry. Maybe at my age, and as many of these kinds of things as I’ve experienced, you get to the point where you say, but for the video, I would not have seen it; other people would not have seen it; and the official word would be all anyone knew. I do feel, though, that at some point the country is going to have to wake up to this reality.
What do you tell black Americans, particularly young black male Americans, who say the country is long past the point when it should have awakened, and that the reality is just racism and hatred?
Going back to the student movement and the civil rights movement, I’ve really questioned many times whether or not what we were doing made any real sense. Whether there was any possibility of success. But along with people like John Lewis, who I met in October 1960, he’s held on to his faith in the country, and I’ve held on to mine. I went to jail several times. I ran for office three times before I got elected. You don’t give up. You aren’t going to win by giving up.
The four Minneapolis police officers have been fired. Should they be tried for murder?
They certainly should stand trial. The hand of one is the hand of all, so four people need to be on trial.
In a conference call with House leaders two days after Floyd’s death, you talked about it being a symptom of larger problems that plague minority communities, and that it showed the need for systemic change. What did you mean?
I have been saying for a long time now that so much in this country needs to be restructured. Health care, education, the judicial system. Every time these issues are raised, folks on the Republican side find a way to parse the words and turn it to their agenda, and they get accommodated by too many people in the media. When we first started discussing the CARES Act, I said to my caucus, in a Zoom call, that this was a tremendous opportunity for us to restructure things in our vision. My vision comes from the pledge of allegiance: liberty and justice for all. That remains a vision—but we’re not doing much to make that vision a reality. Mitch McConnell goes on the floor of the Senate and calls me out, as if there’s something nasty about my vision. He never asked me what my vision was. I’ve got it on billboards all over Charleston: “Making America’s Greatness Accessible and Affordable for All.” What’s wrong with that? And that’s been weaponized by the other side as something untoward. It’s ideology, it’s raw politics, and meanness. That’s why we can’t fix these things.
Do you think the Floyd killing will end Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar’s chances of being picked as Joe Biden’s running mate?
It certainly won’t help. But it’s not just this. Her history with similar situations when she was a prosecutor came up time and again during the campaign. I suspect this incident plays into that.
You said you cringed when Biden told a radio host, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.”
I compare Joe Biden to the alternative, not the Almighty. One of the things I learned early in this business is that one of the worst things you can do in politics is to make a joke out of any serious matter. He would have been better off not doing that.
Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina who happens to be black, said that Biden’s remark showed him to be “condescending and arrogant.”
I’ve known Joe Biden for a long, long time. I don’t perceive anything about him to be arrogant. Tim Scott supports [Donald] Trump, and I don’t. If he can reconcile his blackness with Trump, that’s fine. I can’t reconcile mine with Trump. I’ll never ever accept the president of the United States looking into a camera and calling a black woman a dog. I will never get over that. Nothing else he says will matter to me. And he said that not about one of his opponents—that was about one of his staffers! Who supported him! I have three daughters, and I know how I’d feel about any man calling one of them a dog.
With his attacks on former president Barack Obama, among other things, it’s clear that Trump is going to play the race card in his reelection campaign. Do you worry about the tensions becoming dangerous, or is it better to have the issue out in the open?
I think we’re in much better shape for it to be out in the open than for it to be hidden under a bushel. That’s what happened in 2016. The whole thing about African American males responding to Trump saying, “What do you have to lose?” I know from my visits to barber shops that it resonated. But if you fool me once, that’s on you. If you fool me twice, that’s on me. If black men allow themselves to be fooled twice, it’s on them. Four years later, if it ain’t clear what they have to lose, if they can’t count up their losses with Trump, ask them to ask me.
You have said that it isn’t “a must” for Biden to pick a black woman as the vice presidential nominee. Why not?
I remember Sarah Palin. She was fine until it turned out the vetting hadn’t been thoroughly done. I remember Geraldine Ferraro. She was fine. It was her husband that got exposed during the campaign. So if I say it’s a must and something turns up in the vetting, what does that make me? I’m never going to say it’s a must for him to choose a black woman. It would be a plus.
Are you confident that black turnout will be high enough to win no matter whom Biden chooses?
I don’t know about that. Black voters are incentivized already. You can always stimulate the vote. There are picks that could energize the vote.
If Biden said, “Jim, I’ll choose whomever you want,” what would say?
I’m not gonna tell you! But I would tell him.
There’s a tremendous amount of outrage right now about the George Floyd and the Ahmaud Arbery killings. But unfortunately, we’ve seen this cycle many times before, where attention fades after a few weeks.
I think something’s going to be different about this. After the Minneapolis killing, I saw the Minnesota attorney general on TV. For the first time in the state’s history, that attorney general is African American. Also Muslim. That, to me, helps set this whole issue on a different plane. Minneapolis had issues with the former mayor and the police. This mayor says he’s calling for these men to be indicted. To me, that’s progress in something all of us need to work on. You can’t take these things in silos. I’m a history guy. I’ve been studying this country’s history pretty much all my life. It’s pretty sordid in some areas. But that history ought to inform us. Everybody’s not going to learn the lessons. The ones who learn, you hope they change the world.