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WATCH: Harris Hammers Biden Over His Opposition To 1970’s Desegregation Effort During Debate

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at first Dem debate.
Photos by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

During the second Democratic debate on Thursday, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) ripped into front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden over his former opposition to federally-mandated school busing as a means of desegregation:

 

HARRIS: Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn't play with us because we were black. And I will say also that, in this campaign, we have also heard – and I'm going to now direct this at Vice President Biden – I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe – and it's personal – 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. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose bussing.

And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly. As attorney general of California, I was very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.

MADDOW: Senator Harris, thank you. Vice President Biden, you have been invoked. We're going to give you a chance to respond. Vice President Biden?

BIDEN: It's a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true, number one. Number two, 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. I was a public defender. I didn't become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender, when, in fact, my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King, number one.

Number two, as the vice president of the United States, I worked with a man who, in fact, we worked very hard to see to it we dealt with these issues in a major, major way.

The fact is that, in terms of bussing, the bussing, I never – you would have been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council. That's fine. That's one of the things I argued for, that we should not be – we should be breaking down these lines. But so the bottom line here is, look, everything I have done in my career, I ran because of civil rights, I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights, and those civil rights, by the way, include not just only African-Americans, but the LGBT community.

HARRIS: But, Vice President Biden, do you agree today – do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose bussing in America then? Do you agree?

BIDEN: I did not oppose bussing in America. What I opposed is bussing ordered by the Department of Education. That's what I opposed. I did not oppose...

HARRIS: Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

BIDEN: Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision.

HARRIS: So that's where the federal government must step in.

BIDEN: The federal government...

HARRIS: That's why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That's why we need to pass the Equality Act. That's why we need to pass the ERA, because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.

BIDEN: I supported the ERA from the very beginning. I'm the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. We got to the place where we got 98 out of 98 votes in the United States Senate doing it. I've also argued very strongly that we, in fact, deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box.

Regarding Harris’ first strike against Biden:

During a fundraiser on June 18, Biden spoke about the notion of "civility" in politics, invoking two of his former colleagues, Sens. James O. Eastland (D-MS) and Herman Talmadge (D-GA), both of whom opposed desegregation, reports The New York Times.

After noting that Eastland called him "son," and that Talmadge was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew," Biden said:

Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.

Regarding Harris’ second strike:

In the 1970s, then-Sen. Joe Biden opposed federally-mandated busing as a means of integrating schools. According to Politico, Biden supported former Klansman and Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-WV) proposal that "prohibited the use of federal funds to transport students beyond the school closest to their homes." Biden also supported a legislative amendment against busing, which had been introduced by former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC, formerly a Democrat) writes Paste.

Biden’s opposition to busing, some argue, wasn’t based in any kind of personal racism, but in an attempt to reconcile various factions in an era of deep tension between white and black constituents.

 

In a 2008 New York Times piece, John M. Broder wrote:

Mr. Biden tried to salve both sides by introducing legislation to outlaw certain types of court-ordered busing while retaining the court’s power to end segregation when it had been deliberately imposed by school districts. His position put him in league with some Southern segregationists in the Senate and left him at odds with African-American leaders.

Here, CNN analyzes Biden’s history with busing:

The Washington Examiner unearthed an NPR interview from 1975 in which Biden speaks about his ideological struggle with the idea of busing:

There are those of we social planners who think somehow that if we just subrogate man's individual characteristics and traits by making sure that a presently heterogeneous society becomes a totally homogeneous society, that somehow we are going to solve our social ills, and quite to the contrary.

I think the concept of busing … that we are going to integrate people so that they all have the same access and they learn to grow up with one another and all the rest, is a rejection of the whole movement of black pride, is a rejection of the entire black awareness concept, where black is beautiful, black culture should be studied, and the cultural awareness of the importance of their own identity, their own individuality.

He also stated:

 

I give you my word as a Biden, I put in over 100 hours, by far – I would say close to 300 hours – on just torturing this thing, meeting with leaders, meeting with the people on my staff. Calling my staff together, and the blacks on my staff together, saying "Look, this is what I think. Do you think I am? Is there something in me that’s deep-seated that I don’t know?"

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