Harvard professor apologizes for suggesting that Joe Biden picking a Black running mate would be ‘cosmetics’

"I’ve never doubted that racial identity is a significant variable in American governance."

Joe Biden listens as Laurence Tribe speaks  in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 19, 2010,  about helping families secure legal help, during a middle class task force event. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Joe Biden listens as Laurence Tribe speaks at the White House in 2010. –Susan Walsh / AP

Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe apologized for his “choice of words,” suggesting that Joe Biden picking a Black running mate over Sen. Elizabeth Warren would amount to a superficial choice.

Tribe was one of more than 100 supporters of Warren who signed a letter to Biden last week, urging the presumptive Democratic nominee to chose the populist Massachusetts senator to be his potential vice president, even as he faces increasing pressure to pick a Black woman as his running mate in the wake of the energized racial justice movement following the police killing of George Floyd. Biden has already committed to selecting a female running mate.

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The letter highlighted, among other things, Warren’s record on addressing racial injustice, even though she struggled to broaden her support beyond white, college-educated voters as a 2020 presidential primary candidate.

In an interview with The Washington Post published Monday, her former Harvard Law colleague Tribe acknowledged that there would be some “symbolic ways in which some people would be disappointed” if Biden does not choose a Black running mate. But he argued that Warren’s progressive record would make her the strongest choice.

“I think African Americans above all would be the first to say they are more interested in results than cosmetics,” Tribe told the Post.

Tribe’s choice of the word “cosmetics” — as well as the letter as a whole — drew criticism on social media for seemingly dismissing the records of the Black woman who Biden is reportedly also considering as a running mate, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Florida Rep. Val Demings, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and former national security adviser Susan Rice.

Howard Dean, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont governor, tweeted that the entire letter was representative of the “clueless racism that many ‘well meaning’ white folks engage in all the time.” CNN commentator Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative, called Tribe’s specific remark “asinine.”

Within hours of the Post article’s publishing, Tribe took to Twitter — as the renowned constitutional law expert perpetually does — to clarify that he “didn’t mean to express any doubt at all that several women of color currently on what’s said to be the Biden short list would be excellent choices as well.”

“I apologize for my choice of words,” Tribe said, adding that they were in response to a question about whether Black voter would be offended if Biden chose Warren.

“I’ve never doubted that racial identity is a significant variable in American governance,” he wrote. “It should count heavily in favor of previously excluded groups as part of a person’s full record of background, skills, and values. I’m FOR Warren, not ANTI-excellent others.”

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