"I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed."
— Former vice president Joe Biden
In the first Democratic debate, Harris and Biden clashed over the government's use of mandatory school busing in the 1970s.
The two will be sharing the debate stage once again this week, so we’re going to recap the facts for readers hoping to get up to speed.
Biden in the 1970s was in his early days as a senator representing Delaware. He opposed forced busing as a tool to integrate public schools, calling it an "asinine concept" in a 1975 interview.
“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,” Biden said in the interview, which was entered into the congressional record. “What it says is, ‘In order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son.’ That’s racist!”
Meanwhile, Harris was a young girl in California in the 1970s, a minority student who was bused to school in an affluent and predominantly white area. In the Democratic debate, she challenged Biden to say he was wrong to oppose busing. The Supreme Court in 1954 ruled to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, but segregated schools were still a fact of life in the 1970s, Harris said. The government had to step in, and sometimes that meant forced busing, she said.
"I did not oppose busing in America," Biden said. "What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That's what I opposed."
Biden says he opposed federally mandated busing in the 1970s, not voluntary busing programs such as the one Harris's school district adopted.
Harris enrolled in the Berkeley, Calif., public school system in 1969 and was part of the second class of students to participate in a busing program to integrate Thousand Oaks Elementary School.
The Berkeley Unified School District had enrolled black students as early as 1963, a year before Harris was born. That year, the 15 "Negro" students at Thousand Oaks represented 2.5 percent of the school population, whereas "Caucasian" students made up 95 percent.
By 1969, the racial composition had changed dramatically. "Negro" students were 40 percent of the total at Thousand Oaks, while the share of "Caucasian" students had declined to 53 percent, according to CNN.
Biden defended himself from Harris's attack by saying he supported some kinds of busing and opposed other kinds. But his statements in the 1970s, and decades later, were not so carefully hedged. His criticism of forced busing was broad and unqualified.
In his 2007 autobiography, “Promises to Keep,” Biden called busing “a liberal train wreck.” As we noted, Biden called the idea of busing "asinine" and "racist" in a 1975 interview with a Newark, Del., publication known as the People Paper. He also described it as a quota system that would "insure mediocrity."
"Biden dismissed government efforts to impose diversity in schools," The Washington Post's Matt Viser reported March 7. Biden also "wrote columns for local newspapers and pushed legislation requiring courts to consider solutions besides busing, often siding with conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.)," Viser reported.
It didn't start out this way. In 1974, Biden cast votes in favor of court-ordered busing to promote desegregation. But that was a controversial position in Delaware at the time, and Biden soon took an opposite view.
"He emerged as the Democratic Party’s leading anti-busing crusader — a position that put him in league with Southern segregationists, at odds with liberal Republicans and helped change the dynamic of the Senate, turning even some leaders in his own party against busing as a desegregation tool," the New York Times reported July 15. This meant introducing or supporting bills to limit what courts and prosecutors could do to mandate busing.
Despite his views on busing, Biden generally has worked alongside civil rights leaders and been embraced by them. He supported the extension of the Voting Rights Act, amendments to the Fair Housing Act, sanctions against apartheid South Africa and the creation of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
As a young man, Biden fought to desegregate a movie theater in Delaware, and worked as the only white employee at a largely black swimming pool. The former vice president also has defended himself from Harris's attacks by pointing to the civil rights agenda of President Barack Obama's administration.
Biden spokesman Bill Russo previously told The Post that “he never thought busing was the best way to integrate schools in Delaware — a position which most people now agree with.”
The Bottom Line
Biden never explicitly took aim at voluntary busing programs such as the one that took Harris to school in the 1970s.
But he was a harsh critic of using busing programs to achieve racial integration. He called such plans racist and asinine. He said they would ensure mediocrity.
In 1975, he said of forced busing: “What it says is, ‘In order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son.’ That’s racist!”
Biden now draws a distinction between forced and voluntary busing, but it doesn’t change the full-bore nature of his attacks in the ’70s.
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