Joe Biden’s record on school desegregation busing, explainedBreaking News
tags: civil rights, Joe Biden, busing, 2020 Election
The second round of the first Democratic primary debates on Thursday included a revealing — and at times tense — discussion of race between several candidates. But a defining moment was when Sen. Kamala Harris took former Vice President Joe Biden to task over his recent comments about segregationist senators, as well as his opposition to using federally mandated busing to racially integrate schools in the 1970s. She pointed directly to how it affected her life as a young child.
“You also worked with [those segregationist senators] to oppose busing,” Harris said, speaking directly to Biden. “And 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. And that little girl was me.”
“I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden responded. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
In raising busing specifically, Harris hit on a part of Biden’s record that Biden hasn’t really discussed publicly. And as Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported on Thursday, his campaign swiftly moved to push back on Harris’s argument, issuing a statement that Biden’s busing stance had been misrepresented at the debate.
“When Biden said it wasn’t true that he supported anything that would have stopped the busing program that impacted her, he was correct,” the Biden campaign said. “None of [Biden’s] votes would have negatively impacted the Berkeley School Busing Program.”
Since the debates, Harris, as well as Sen. Cory Booker, has continued to press Biden on the issue, saying that his stance is troubling given how many states had to be forced into following civil rights rulings and legislation. “I literally leaned back in my couch and couldn’t believe that one moment,” Booker, who participated in the debates on Wednesday, said of Biden and Harris’s exchange during a CNN interview on Friday.
“I think that anybody that knows our painful history knows that on voting rights, on civil rights, on the protections from hate crimes, African Americans and many other groups in this country have had to turn to the federal government to intervene because there were states that were violating those rights,” he added.
In an election cycle where Democratic candidates have issued a flurry of policy proposals that are far more progressive than previously seen, these critiques of Biden are clearly intended to make a broader point: that the former vice president, in continuing to defend his stance on busing, is out of step with the current Democratic electorate on issues of race and fighting racism. And that could be an issue for many of the black voters Biden is counting on for support.
In reality, though, things are more complicated. In polling, there’s been little indication that white attitudes about busing have changed all that much from when Biden was a young US senator. Opposition to actions that would forcefully desegregate America’s increasingly segregated schools remains high in places like New York City, for example, where white parents have opposed some proposals to diversify schools.
It suggests that Biden’s view — that desegregation is an important goal, but the federal government should only intervene in cases of segregation deliberately created by policy — might not be a problem for many voters.
But even if Biden’s stance aligns with part of the electorate, this part of his record, and his current struggle to defend it — still reveals important details about how Biden approaches larger issues of fighting racism. And it suggests that even as Biden leads the field, his record opens him up to criticism from other candidates, particularly when it comes to race.
America’s history of busing, explained
When the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education found school segregation unconstitutional, schools had to begin the process of integrating. But due to high amounts of state-sanctioned residential segregation and many cities and states’ outright refusal to integrate, the courts and the federal government had to intervene.
There were a number of ways to address this issue, but the one that caught public attention most was “busing” — a process where black students were driven to predominantly white schools in neighboring communities, and white students were driven to predominantly black ones. Many busing orders were mandated in the late 1960s and early 1970s after civil rights groups like the NAACP filed — and later won — school desegregation lawsuits.
Busing was often used as a last resort for cities and districts that clearly showed little interest in desegregation. It was used to immediately integrate schools in the hopes of not only ending state-sanctioned segregation of blacks and whites, but to also give black and white students equal access to resources and opportunities. Many of these opportunities had been isolated to white schools in white communities. Predominantly black and Latino schools, meanwhile, struggled with overcrowding, outdated materials, and dilapidated buildings.
But busing — one of many tools used to secure black students’ constitutional right to equal education — was often strongly opposed by white parents, many of whom did not want their children in integrated schools. Some parents and lawmakers stated that outright, others used different anti-busing arguments: saying that long bus rides to different schools were burdensome, and that their children were being placed in lower-quality schools (ignoring that schools in predominantly black neighborhoods had fewer resources and that per capita spending on black students was smaller).
Parents also claimed that “forced busing” wouldn’t work to bring about racial equality and would merely function as quotas. (To be fair, there were black people who also criticized busing, but theiropposition was complex, and contrary to white Americans, their critiques of busing and the political attention it received were not rooted in a desire to maintain segregation, but rather a hope to see deeper investment in black schools and communities.)
Busing programs weren’t opposed just in Southern states. In fact, they were often met with even more resistance in the North due to the region’s avoidance of civil rights issues and efforts to claim moral superiority over the South. Busing was heavily criticized in Detroit, for example, where white families boycotted it in 1960 and continued to oppose it in the years after. In Boston, politicians campaigned and won on anti-busing platforms, arguing that black students’ struggles to access a quality education and succeed in schools were not affected by segregation, but were instead the result of pathology. The city also saw a series of violent riots in the 1970s after schools were ordered to desegregate by a court.
As opposition continued, anti-busing proponents argued that their criticism of busing was not opposition to school desegregation as a whole. But it was also true that in districts that had been the most resistant to integration, the absence of busing programs would leave many schools segregated.
Critics of busing were assisted by lawmakers and legislators who argued that Northern states weren’t segregated intentionally but were rather just “racially imbalanced,” a framing that ignored how policy in many of these states was used to keep white people separated from African Americans.
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