When Joe Biden was a freshman senator in the mid-1970s, his home state of Delaware, like other hotspots across the country, was engulfed in a bitter battle over school busing, debating whether children should be sent to schools in different neighborhoods to promote racial diversity.
Biden took a lead role in the fight, speaking out repeatedly and forcefully against sending white children to majority-black schools and black children to majority-white schools. He played down the persistence of overt racism and suggested that the government should have a limited role in integration.
“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,’ ” Biden told a Delaware-based weekly newspaper in 1975. “I don’t buy that.”
In language that bears on today’s debate about whether descendants of slaves should be compensated, he added, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
Biden’s statements 44 years ago represent one of the earliest chapters in his well-documented record on racial issues, during which he generally has worked alongside African American 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. In 2010, he pushed to roll back sentencing that many believed exacerbated racial disparities.
But Biden and civil rights leaders also have occasionally parted ways, and his career probably would be viewed through a new lens if he decides to run for president in a Democratic Party that has moved to the left and grown more ethnically diverse, even in the years since he was elected vice president.
African American voters are expected to play a pivotal role in the party’s nomination in 2020, and groups such as Black Lives Matter are pressing candidates to confront difficult questions about race. Although many civil rights leaders agree that busing did not play out in an ideal way, they often say it was a necessary effort, given that white-run school districts were doing little to integrate even 20 years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
Cornell William Brooks, a former president of the NAACP, said in an interview that he has personal affection for Biden, but that he was taken aback upon being read portions of the 1975 interview.
“If you said something like that in 2019, there would be a response to that that would be pretty harsh,” said Brooks, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Having served as vice president to the first African American president in U.S. history, and given all that he’s seen in the intervening years, I would be stunned if he would stand behind that.”
Biden, 76, declined to be interviewed for this article. But his spokesman, Bill Russo, said the former vice president still believes he was right to oppose busing.
“He never thought busing was the best way to integrate schools in Delaware — a position which most people now agree with,” Russo said. “As he said during those many years of debate, busing would not achieve equal opportunity. And it didn’t.”
Russo said Biden has a distinguished history of working for civil rights and against segregation. As a young man, Russo said, Biden fought to desegregate a movie theater in Delaware, and worked as the only white employee at a largely black swimming pool.
“Joe Biden is today — and has been for more than 40 years in public life — one of the strongest and most powerful voices for civil rights in America,” Russo said. “His long commitment to civil rights has repeatedly been recognized by many of the most important civil rights organizations in America.”
Biden’s office provided a statement from Ralph G. Neas, former executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, who said: “We disagreed on busing . . . but I always looked to Biden as a leader in the field of civil rights in other critical areas.”
Beyond particular policies, Biden’s supporters say he has established trust with civil rights leaders and earned considerable goodwill from serving as vice president to the nation’s first black president.
But the 1975 interview highlights how the landscape has shifted since Biden entered national politics, capturing a Senate seat in 1972 at age 29.
Biden in recent years has expressed regret for several episodes in his past, such as what many women’s rights advocates considered his weak efforts in 1991, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, to protect Anita Hill after she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Biden also has voiced contrition for pushing a tough-on-crime bill in 1994 that many African Americans viewed as unfair and overly harsh.
Although civil rights leaders may object to Biden’s past statements about busing, his decision to stand by his views on the issue illustrate what some of his supporters think would be his advantage in the 2020 field: his ability to appeal beyond the Democratic base to some working-class white voters who voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
Biden, after all, was a vocal opponent of busing as the issue was raging nationwide — including in his hometown.
He 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.), who welcomed Biden “to the ranks of the enlightened.”
Biden’s 1975 interview, which covered a range of topics, was conducted by a publication based in Newark, Del., referred to as the People Paper. It was printed in the Congressional Record at the request of Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), who praised Biden’s comments, and went largely unnoticed thereafter. A Democrat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic pointed out the original interview to The Washington Post, citing a concern that Biden’s positions could be problematic for the party.
In the interview, Biden dismissed government efforts to impose diversity in schools. “We’ve lost our bearings since the 1954 Brown vs. School Board desegregation case,” he said. “To ‘desegregate’ is different than to ‘integrate.’ . . . I am philosophically opposed to quota systems. They insure mediocrity.”
If anything, he said, it was busing plans that were racist.
“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. “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! 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?”
Russo said Biden’s argument was that everyone deserves the same opportunity. “Regardless of what Zip code you’re born in, you should be entitled to a good education,” he said. “That’s the point he’s making here.”
Biden’s election to the Senate came eight years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, at a time when states and cities nationwide were wrestling with how to handle segregated schools. Although the Supreme Court had declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954, many schools remained divided because their surrounding neighborhoods were racially monolithic. And majority-black schools generally had far fewer resources.
Courts ordered some cities to bus children across town to create a more balanced education system. But what black families called “integration” many white families called “forced busing,” complaining of long bus rides that severed the link between kids and their local schools. Violence over the issue broke out in cities such as Boston.
Against that backdrop, Biden, a rising political star, took aim at a 1974 court order directing Delaware to submit plans for desegregating Wilmington-area schools — an edict that was highly unpopular with many of his constituents.
Ultimately, Wilmington schools in 1978 implemented a plan merging one urban district with 10 suburban ones, and busing students so that they spend nine consecutive years in what had been a historically white school and three years in what had been a historically black school. By 1995 a federal court determined the schools were no longer segregated.
“The courts have gone overboard in their interpretation of what is required to remedy unlawful segregation,” Biden said in the 1975 interview. “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.”
Biden’s stance put him at odds with Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), the chamber’s only African American, who called one of Biden’s amendments “the greatest symbolic defeat for civil rights since 1964.”
Jeffrey A. Raffel, who was executive director of the Delaware Committee on the School Decision in the 1970s, said it was hard for any political leader in the state to be pro-busing at the time, given the public passions against it.
“The political situation there was poison in terms of supporting busing — it was really, really tough,” he said. “There were very few people going around saying, ‘Busing is a good thing, we should support busing.’ In that atmosphere, Biden was the center. How do you deal with that when 85 percent of your constituency is against it?”
Biden’s statements in the People Paper appear to be among his most aggressive on the subject.
“I oppose busing. It’s an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me,” he said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I think our only recourse to eliminate busing may be a constitutional amendment.”
Biden recognized that such comments could prompt some to lump him in with racists. “The unsavory part about this is when I come out against busing, as I have all along, I don’t want to be mixed up with a George Wallace,” he said, referring to the segregationist governor of Alabama.
“The real problem with busing,” he said, was that “you take people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school . . . and you’re going to fill them with hatred.”
He contended that being bused, while bad for white students, hurts black children, too. An African American child is sent to a white school in a wealthy neighborhood, then “back to the ghetto. How can he be encouraged to love his white brothers? He doesn’t need a look at ‘the other side,’ he needs the chance to get out of the ghetto permanently,” Biden said.
Civil rights leaders have largely considered Biden a strong ally, but there have also been disputes, especially during his long tenure heading the Senate Judiciary Committee. When Biden chaired the 1991 confirmation hearings for Thomas, now a Supreme Court justice, Hill’s supporters criticized him for allowing her to be attacked and declining to allow witnesses who might have bolstered her account. Biden has said he owes Hill an apology.
At an event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, Biden repeated earlier statements of regret for supporting tough-on-crime measures in the 1990s, which included provisions now widely considered racially discriminatory and at least partly responsible for current incarceration rates, in which African Americans are significantly over-represented.
“The bottom line is we have a lot to root out, but most of all the systematic racism that most of us whites don’t like to acknowledge even exists,” Biden said during a breakfast held by the Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network. “We don’t even consciously acknowledge it. But it’s been built into every aspect of our system.”
Forty-four years earlier, Biden was challenged during the interview on whether he believed he was a liberal despite his anti-busing stance. He said that he was, and that he favored other ways to help African Americans, including more spending.
“It is true that the white man has suppressed the black man, and continues to suppress the black man. It is harder to be black than to be white,” Biden said. “But you have to open up avenues for blacks without closing avenues for whites; you don’t hold society back to let one segment catch up. You put more money into the black schools for remedial reading programs, you upgrade facilities, you upgrade opportunities, open up housing patterns. You give everybody a piece of the action.”