Leading presidential candidate Joe Biden did not back away from his opposition to court-mandated school desegregation efforts when challenged by California Senator Kamala Harris during their first debate appearance Thursday.
Do you agree that you were wrong to oppose busing in America, Harris asked, referring to Biden’s hostility to efforts to desegregate schools as a new senator in Delaware in the 1970s?
“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me,” she said. “On this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats.”
“I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden said. “I opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.” But he still attempted to claim the mantle of civil rights advocacy more broadly.
“I ran because of civil rights, I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights,” he said.
The exchange among the Democratic presidential hopefuls put school desegregation at the center of the national political discussion, a rarity.
Biden’s record on this topic has been documented in recent Washington Post and Washington Examiner articles. Biden vigorously opposed efforts by courts to integrate schools by race, often referred to by critics as “busing,” during the 1970s. (Courts — not the Department of Education, which began operating as its own agency in 1980 — were the key driver of most of those busing efforts, including in Delaware.) Biden said then that he was against mandated segregation, as well as efforts to actively integrate schools, which he described as quotas.
“The courts have gone overboard in their interpretation of what is required to remedy unlawful segregation,” Biden said in a 1975 interview, according to the Post. “It is one thing to say that you cannot keep a black man from using this bathroom, and something quite different to say that one out of every five people who use this bathroom must be black.”
A Biden spokesperson said the vice president still believes he was correct to oppose court-ordered desegregation.
That view has been largely codified more recently by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, but it’s an unusual stance for someone competing in a Democratic primary. A recent poll found that while most white voters prioritized neighborhood schools over racial integration, a majority of black voters said racially integrated schools were more important.
“The fact is that in terms of busing, you would’ve been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council,” Biden said to Harris. It’s not clear whether that’s true — and local communities have often stood in the way of integration efforts.
Today, schools in many parts of the country remain deeply segregated by race and socioeconomics. Research, including studies over the time periods Biden opposed desegregation, has shown that students of color benefit from integration — and were harmed when court orders were lifted.
One of the researchers who has found that, Rucker Johnson, recently wrote a book “Children of the Dream” making the case for stronger integration efforts. That idea might get a boost from Harris’ focus on the issue.
“I think there’s a groundswell of movement that is positive and actually that is being mobilized through student voices and perspectives that we have found to really invigorate and revive the movement towards integration,” Johnson said in a recent interview.
Another study, released this week, pointed to one unintended consequence of desegregation: the number of black teachers was cut by nearly a third in certain areas.
Here is the entire exchange, which emerged from a discussion of policing:
Harris, to Biden: “I do not believe you are a racist. I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe — and it is person. And it was actually hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly. As attorney general of California, I was very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.”
Biden: “That is a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true, number one. Number two, if you want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that. I was a public defender. I did not become a prosecutor. I left a good law firm to become a public defender when in fact my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King. Number one. Now, number two. As the vice president of the United States, I worked with a man who in fact — we worked very hard to see to it and dealt with these issues in a major, major way. The fact is that, in terms of busing, you would’ve been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council. That’s fine. That’s one of the things I argued for, that we should be breaking down these lines. The bottom line here is, look, everything I’ve done in my career, I ran because of civil rights, I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights. Those civil rights, by the way, include not only African-Americans, but also the LGBT community.”
Harris: “Vice President Biden, do you agree today — do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?”
Biden: “I did not oppose busing in America. I opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
Harris: “Well there’s a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was a part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.”
Biden: “Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision.”
Harris: “So that’s where the federal government must step in. That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act and that’s why we need to pass the ERA. Because there are moments in history when states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
Biden: “I have supported the ERA from the very beginning. I’m the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years.”
Camille Respess contributed.