California Sen. Kamala Harris put former U.S. vice president Joe Biden on the defensive during the Democratic debate on Thursday night, taking him to task for his record on busing, and for his words about segregationist senators.
“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two U.S. senators who built their reputations and careers on the segregation of race in this country,” she said.
“And it was not only that, but you worked with them to oppose busing.”
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Harris was talking about policy that Biden championed in the 1970s, when he spoke out against busing, a practice of sending black children to schools with a majority-white student body, and white students to schools with a mostly black population.
“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,'” he told a Delaware newspaper in 1975, at a time when people in his state of Delaware were angry about the idea of busing, as recounted by The Washington Post.
“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.”
As the Post reported, Biden advocated legislation that aimed to have the courts consider alternatives to busing.
In the interview with that Delaware newspaper, he also suggested that busing was 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,” he said.
“That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with.”
Biden sponsored a bill that would have limited the power of courts to enforce desegregation through busing. He also sponsored an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have kept the government from blocking funds to schools that failed to desegregate, NBC News reported.
In the debate, Harris alleged that Biden worked with segregationist senators to oppose busing at the same time as “there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school, and she was bused to school every day.
“That little girl was me.”
Biden accused Harris of misrepresenting his position “across the board.”
“I did not oppose busing in America, what I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” he said.
“There was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” Harris responded.
“I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, Calif. public schools, almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.”
“Because your city council made that decision,” Biden said.
“So that’s where the federal government must step in,” Harris said.
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When speaking of segregationist senators, Harris was talking about Biden’s recent remarks about deceased senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, two southern politicians noted for having opposed desegregation.
At an event in New York City last week, Biden said Eastland “never called me boy” and that he managed to work with Talmadge despite their differences, citing them as examples of “civility” that he doesn’t see in Congress anymore, CNBC reported.
The remarks were derided by numerous Democrats, but some, like civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, defended him, the network added.
Biden advisor Symone Sanders tweeted that the candidate “did not praise a segregationist.”
“He basically said sometimes in Congress, one has to work with terrible or downright racist folks to get things done. And then went on to say when you can’t work with them, work around them.”
In the debate, Biden said that he did “not praise racists,” adding, “if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that.”
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Biden said he left a good law firm to become a public defender after he saw “my city in flames because of the assassination of Dr. [Martin Luther] King.”
“The fact is, in terms of busing, you would have been able to go to school the exact same way, because it was a local decision made by your city council,” Biden said.
“That’s fine. that’s one of the things I argued for.”
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