The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden takes flak on race and busing. But his views may still mirror America’s.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California said at Thursday's Democratic presidential debate that she had participated in a busing program as a child, as she assailed Joe Biden's stance on the controversial tool of school desegregation. (Kamala D. Harris)

The year that Joe Biden entered the Senate, in 1973, Gallup asked Americans whether they thought busing children from one neighborhood to another was the best means of integrating the nation’s public schools.

Five percent of those surveyed said they favored that approach; broken into racial groups, 4 percent of whites and 9 percent of blacks said they supported busing.

Integration? Yes, a majority said. In principle.

But not if it meant compulsory busing.

The response illustrates the firm political footing on which Biden stood as a freshman lawmaker when he opposed government-mandated busing, a policy that roiled Wilmington, Del., and other major metropolitan areas in the 1970s.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz analyzes Sen. Kamala D. Harris's (D-Calif.) breakout moments during the June 27 Democratic primary debate. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The new integration plans being offered are really just quota systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school. That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with,” the senator from Delaware told a home-state newspaper in 1975. “Who the hell do we think we are, that the only way a black man or woman can learn is if they rub shoulders with my white child?"

Biden’s tough talk on 1970s school desegregation plan could get new scrutiny in today’s Democratic Party

At Thursday’s Democratic debate, the second of two held this week in Miami, Biden was called to account for his views.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, claiming authority to speak on the issue of race “as the only black person on this stage,” assailed the former vice president for touting his ability to work with segregationist senators.

She specifically hammered him for his position on busing.

“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” she said, revealing that she herself had traveled across districts as part of the second class of students bused to integrate the public schools in Berkeley, Calif.

A heated exchange on race with former vice president Joe Biden was among Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s standout moments during the first Democratic debate June 27. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Biden replied that his opposition was not to busing but, rather, to federal intervention — a distinction that Harris said had little significance.

“You would have been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council,” Biden said, obscuring the standoff between federal and local authorities that defined the battle over compliance with Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954. The decision, a landmark of the civil rights movement, set off fierce state and local resistance, as well as a mass exodus of students to private and parochial schools and “white flight” out of inner cities.

“Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” said Harris, a former prosecutor and California attorney general.

Biden later sought to clarify that he supports compulsory busing only when segregation is explicitly enforced by government policy or law, rather than simply de facto.

Democratic rivals attack Biden, with Harris leading the way on race issues

The exchange gave the impression that Biden, 76, is out of step with the country on the question of busing, said Brett Gadsden, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of a 2012 book on Delaware and desegregation.

The truth is that he’s not, Gadsden said; it’s not even clear that he’s at odds with most Democratic voters.

“The irony is that Harris stood on righteous ground in criticizing Biden for his past positions on busing,” the historian said. “But I think it’s an open question, because there’s a lot of opposition to busing. There’s a lot of white opposition to busing, among Democrats and Republicans.”

In the 1970s, Biden’s views on mandatory busing brought him in line with arch-conservatives, such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). But those views also placed Biden decidedly in the mainstream of public opinion.

And that’s where he has remained over the last half-century. Evidence lies not just in survey data but in the policy prescriptions of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. The idea of expanding busing as a solution for persistent school segregation has hardly been at the forefront of the primary contest, which has otherwise showcased a suite of liberal proposals.

In 1999, 15 percent of Americans favored “transferring students for integration” instead of letting students attend local schools, according to Gallup polling.

And in 2007, polling conducted by Pew revealed that 59 percent of Americans would prefer that students stay in their local schools even if that meant most students would be of the same race.

The very same year, the Supreme Court gave support to that preference, sharply curtailing the ability of school systems to use race as a factor in allocating spots to students. The 5-4 decision dealt a blow to integration programs, progressively undermined over the preceding three decades by court decisions narrowing the grounds for compulsory busing.

“If the trends are indicative of public opinion, many Americans — especially white Americans — are content with the fact that many of our schools are profoundly segregated by race, class and language,” Gadsden said.

All the interruptions, alignments and attacks of the Democratic debates

Today, 65 years after the landmark decision in Brown, the segregation of black students is expanding, according to a report published in May by the University of California at Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project. Other minority populations, including growing communities of Latino and Asian students, are similarly isolated, the report found.

“Segregation is expanding in almost all regions of the country. Little has been done for a generation,” Gary Orfield, the project’s co-director, said in a release. “There has been no meaningful federal government effort devoted to foster the voluntary integration of the schools, and it has been decades since federal agencies funded research about effective strategies for school integration.”

Harris’s home state of California is the most segregated in the country for Latino students, where 58 percent attend what the Civil Rights Project considers “intensely segregated schools” — schools that enroll 90 to 100 percent nonwhite students or an equivalent share of white students. New York is the most segregated state for black students.

Overall, since the integration of black students crested in 1988, the proportion of intensely segregated schools has more than tripled, going from 5.7 percent in 1988 to 18.2 percent in 2016, the UCLA report noted.

“What’s her position on the matter?” Gadsden said, referring to Harris, who has made teacher pay the centerpiece of her education agenda. Her campaign also highlights student debt. But nothing about busing.

A spokesman for the senator suggested on Thursday night that this may change, replying simply “yes” on Twitter to a question about whether Harris supports busing as a strategy for contemporary school desegregation. Her campaign didn’t return a request for comment about whether she would be rolling out plans on the issue.

Harris has hardly been alone in stressing other areas of education policy.

While Biden’s campaign indicates that he would reinstate “guidance that supported schools in legally pursuing desegregation strategies,” his plan says nothing about busing.

Education plans advanced by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who stood between Biden and Harris on the debate stage Thursday night — sound the alarm about school segregation, saying the racial imbalance “endangers our democracy.” There is a bullet point on his website promising to fund “school transportation to help integration, ending the absurd prohibitions in place.”

A spokeswoman for the Sanders campaign said Friday this would entail pushing for the repeal of Section 426 of the General Education Provisions Act, which bars the use of federal funds for the transportation of students or teachers to address a racial imbalance or execute a desegregation plan.

In Thursday’s debate, however, these details were absent from the discussion, even as busing became a flash point.

“No one has come forward as the pro-busing candidate,” Gadsden said. “No one.”

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