You might have seen the video doing the rounds this week: Joe Biden, who was asked a tricky question by a young activist, responds about as condescendingly as humanly possible — “Look at my record, child.”
I was that young activist, and my encounter with the man who wants to be president taught me that he is not up to the task.
Although I’ve been politically active for years, this moment was surreal. I’m an 18-year-old college student from Raleigh, North Carolina. A month ago, I never imagined I’d be having a conversation with the former vice president, much less a difficult one in which I was pressing for answers. This happened because I became involved with Sunrise Movement, which is made up of young people across the country who are fighting for a Green New Deal to combat the dual challenges of climate crisis and skyrocketing inequality.
I was at Biden’s campaign event because I’ve been following the presidential race closely, attempting to figure out which candidate young people can truly trust to fight fossil fuel billionaires and corporations, to enact the sweeping change needed to grant my generation a secure, habitable, and prosperous future. Last week, I was concerned to learn that Biden, who by most accounts is still in the lead for the Democratic nomination, walked back his campaign’s opposition to accepting outside help from dark-money super PACs. These super PACs can take virtually unlimited sums of money from a variety of different sources, and they’ve found loopholes that enable them to dodge disclosure requirements. As a result, we might not even know who is paying for the ad that Iowa voters will watch two weeks before the caucus.
This lack of transparency is a problem, because young people simply cannot trust that politicians — who have kicked the can down the road for decades when it comes to climate change — will be on our side, unless we also know that they’re not taking a single dollar from the merchants of our planet’s destruction.
I became involved in Sunrise because we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel production in my home state of North Carolina — from rising seas and record hurricanes to coal plants polluting low-income black and indigenous communities. These events constitute an emergency, but politicians aren’t acting like it; they’re still cozying up to the oil and gas CEOs who’ve engaged in violent and devastating practices for decades.
Fossil fuel money is a large part of the reason why our government has so completely ignored the impending threat of the climate crisis. Politicians must show their commitment to reconciling with past wrongdoings by refusing to accept money from gas and oil executives, those who have knowingly profited off environmental racism, injustice, and destruction. Thanks to pressure from engaged individuals around the country, every major Democratic candidate for president has pledged to reject fossil fuel money. But now that Biden is accepting help from super PACs, we should doubt the credibility of his promise.
When I heard Biden would be visiting my town, I decided to attend his rally to lay out those concerns in person. I patiently waited at the rope line for my turn to take a picture after Biden’s remarks. I was nervous, but when I saw an opportunity, I approached him. “Hi, I’m Lily from Sunrise,” I said. “I’m terrified for our future. Since you’re now taking super PAC money, how can we trust that you’re not fighting for the people profiting off climate change—"
That was when the former vice president of the United States angrily cut me off. I couldn’t believe what happened next. His words: “Take a look at my record, child. Look at my record.”
If my friend Idreese hadn't been recording the interaction, I may have doubted what I had heard and my perception of what he’d said. I was a potential voter — a civically engaged young person attending his campaign event — and I was patronized and treated with condescension. My age seemingly undermined the validity of my question in Biden’s eyes, and my presence was viewed as an annoyance.
In the moment, I was angered and taken aback. But now, I see the encounter as a reminder of the power of my own voice; the ability I have, in my thoughts and actions, to hold politicians like Joe Biden accountable.
I’m also more aware than ever that the person we choose to defeat Donald Trump must also be someone we can trust to make the case for a Green New Deal to the entire country, to advocate for communities who have contributed the least and have been affected the most, and to take on the Fox News propaganda machine. If Joe Biden cannot engage in a conversation an 18-year-old college student, how can we possibly trust him to do what is necessary?
Lily Levin is a first-year student at Duke University and an environmental justice, reproductive rights, and human rights organizer.