California senator Kamala Harris confronted former vice president Joe Biden directly about his lack of support for desegregation of US schools the 1970s in the most impactful moment so far of the two Democratic presidential candidate debates.
Speaking in Miami last night (June 27), Harris said to Biden, “I do not believe you are a racist,” but went on to tell him that she personally was hurt by his support recently of two senators who “built their reputations and careers on segregation and race,” referring to Biden’s recent remarks about working with James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.
Then she got more direct.
“You also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris said. “You know there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me. So, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously and we have to act swiftly.”
After the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs Board of Education declared school segregation on the basis of race unconstitutional, school districts started physically redistributing children by bus to make school populations more equal. Often, black children were bused to white, wealthier school districts.
That’s a “mischaracterization of my position across the board,” Biden said in response, then added that he was a “public defender, not a prosecutor,” a jab at Harris’s long career as a prosecutor.
“But do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America today?” Harris asked. In 1975, Biden sponsored a bill that became law prohibiting the use of federal funds for busing black children into white schools.
“I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden said, “what I opposed was busing by the Department of Education.”
Some states didn’t integrate their schools for years after the Supreme Court decision, and bills like the one Biden sponsored had the effect of allowing them to keep the segregated status quo.
Harris was born in 1964, so the time she was being bused to school was likely in the early 1970s, meaning California hadn’t integrated its schools two decades after the Supreme Court decision.
That’s “because your City Council made that decision,” Biden said. US public schools are funded by state and local taxes, and much of the federal Department of Education’s function is to make sure they are providing equal education to all Americans around the country.
“There are moments in history when states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people,” Harris responded, and that is when the federal government should step in.
Biden was given time to respond, and mentioned his support of the Voting Rights Act, and then seemed to lose his train of thought. “Anyway my time is up,” he concluded.
Harris’s team, meanwhile, had a photo ready: