None of that is true, and given the alacrity with which similar claims spread following the Harris announcement, it’s worth explaining why.
The claim apparently stems from a moment in the first Democratic primary debate in late June 2019, when Harris and the former vice president were both contending for the party’s nomination. The candidates on the stage, all 10 of them, were discussing then-South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s record with his city’s Black population.
Harris, seizing the floor, used the moment to pivot to criticism of Biden, the candidate who had continually led in the polls. Earlier that month, Biden touted his ability to work with senators with whom he disagreed, including ones who supported segregation.
“I was actually very — it was 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,” Harris said. “And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing” — that is, federal efforts to integrate schools by busing Black students into largely White districts.
“You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris continued. “And that little girl was me.”
Biden, clearly taken aback, called it “a mischaracterization of my position across the board” and insisted that he “did not praise racists.” The two went back and forth on Biden’s record on busing for a while, and then the conversation moved on.
It was an effective attack that briefly elevated Harris into the upper tier of the field. But it was not an accusation that Biden was racist.
In fact, Harris prefaced her comments by specifically saying she wasn’t making that accusation.
“I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden,” she said when she got the floor. “I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a frequent foil of Harris’s during the primary race, was one of the first to nonetheless allege that Harris called Biden racist, as she did in a later tweet. This was in part simply a framing of the exchange. But it was also a broader function of Harris’s insistence that Biden be accountable for his comments about the segregationists.
In a speech a few days after the debate, Biden expressed regret for what he had said.
“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was. I regret it,” Biden said. “I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception I may have caused anybody.”
The “anybody” clearly included Harris. She responded.
“He says he’s sorry, and I’m going to take him at his word,” she told CNN. “But again that doesn’t address the issue of busing in America.” Harris also said that Biden was “right to recognize the impact of his words” and that his apology demanded “courage.”
That, again, is not how the Trump campaign statement presented the interactions. Instead, Trump’s team — or, at least, Pierson — appears to be using “called him racist” in the ironically broad sense of “raised questions about his approach to race.” It’s a not-uncommon conflation to assume that race-centered questions about behavior are necessarily questions about racist intent, but it’s a generally unsophisticated one. What’s more, if that’s the bar for calling someone a racist, there are probably few politicians in America who have been “called a racist” more frequently than Pierson’s boss, President Trump.
Often literally. A January poll conducted by The Washington Post and Ipsos found that 4 in 5 Black Americans consider Trump to be racist; a slightly larger percentage said they thought Trump had exacerbated racism in the country. A Quinnipiac University poll released last July found that a majority of Americans similarly believed Trump is racist. That’s the current against which Trump has been trying — unsuccessfully — to swim.
That’s the point of the statement, of course: to muddy the water on Biden’s and Trump’s records on race. With an eye to that goal, Trump has repeatedly claimed to have done more for Black Americans than any prior president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that aired Tuesday, Trump said he expected to win more Black votes in 2020 than he did in 2016.
Anything is possible. But misrepresenting Harris’s views of Biden’s history is a dishonest way to try to do so.