Kamala Harris has given her presidential campaign a boost by reviving 1970s battles about busing. During the first Democratic candidates’ debate, Harris lay in wait to attack Joe Biden for his opposition to busing back then. Coming prepared with verbal props—“That little girl was me”—Harris presented herself as the poster child for the now-discontinued practice of achieving racial integration of public education by busing children to often-distant schools.

Politicians usually try to associate themselves with popular causes and avoid unpopular ones; Harris’s tactic was unusual because busing has always been massively unpopular. In 1973, the year Biden entered the Senate, Gallup found that most Americans favored integration but only “9 percent of the blacks and 4 percent of the whites” favored busing. In 1999, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, apparently Gallup’s most recent one on the topic, found that “Eighty-two percent of those polled say letting students go to their neighborhood schools would be better than achieving racial balance through busing.”

Harris’s decision to march under the busing banner is odd for another, largely unexamined reason: her self-centered rationale for why busing is good. Consider her tweet: “Two decades after Brown v. Board, I was only the second class to integrate at Berkeley public schools. Without that decision, I likely would not have become a lawyer and eventually be elected a Senator from California.” It’s true that Harris was part of the second class bused to integrate Berkeley’s elementary schools—but the city’s middle schools and high schools had been fully integrated before she was born. Berkeley in the mid-seventies was hardly mired in Jim Crow racial practices.

More important than this misleading factual imprecision, however, is Harris’s exaggeration of the importance of busing to her later success. Her original school was diverse, integrated, and offered a good education. It’s highly unlikely that remaining there for elementary school would have set Kamala Harris back.

But assuming, for the sake of argument, that the school to which she was bused really was significantly better because it had more white students, then busing is a zero-sum game. If it is true that her new school was better, and that her later success in life depended on her attendance at that school, then it is also true that the student whose place she took—the student bused from that school to Harris’s former school—received an inferior education and was therefore damaged by busing.

Joe Biden was indeed an ardent foe of the policy. “I oppose busing,” he told a local Delaware paper in 1975 (reprinted in the Congressional Record). “It is an asinine concept.” In his 2007 autobiography Promises To Keep, Biden called busing “a liberal train wreck.”

Just as Harris’s reasons for supporting busing are unclear—except for her stated belief that it helped her—Biden has muddled his own stance on the issue. He has insisted that he never opposed busing in principle, only Department of Education- or court-ordered busing, in the absence of proven prior discrimination. But his remarks from 1975 are more straightforward: “I am philosophically opposed to quota-systems. . . . 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.  [Busing] has now been turned into an affirmative program to insure integration, and that brings us right back to quota systems.” 

Biden went on: “It is wrong to penalize someone who has committed no wrong, based simply on the generalization of his race’s violation of the civil rights of another race. . . . We’ve lost our bearings since the 1954 Brown v. School Board desegregation case. To ‘desegregate’ is different than to ‘integrate.’” Biden’s anti-quota arguments and belief in individual rights and responsibilities were consistent with the positions of many liberals at the time. His statements about the meaning of desegregation are aligned with Thurgood Marshall’s own arguments during the Brown case. “Racial distinctions in and of themselves are invidious,” Marshall said, rejecting the notion that overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine would guarantee every child the right to go to an integrated school. Justice Frankfurter asked him during oral argument, “You mean, if we reverse, it will not entitle every mother to have her child go to a non-segregated school in Clarendon County?” Marshall replied, “No.”

That Marshall, like many liberals, later changed his mind cannot change what he and his co-counsels argued for in Brown—a colorblind definition of equality, later embodied in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Quoting from the congressional debate over that legislation, Justice John Paul Stevens in his 1978 Bakke opinion pointed out that only the Act’s opponents argued that it allowed favorable treatment based on race: “The opponents feared that the term ‘discrimination’ would be read as mandating racial quotas and ‘racially balanced’ colleges and universities.”

In reply, Stevens noted, Senator Hubert Humphrey, the Senate floor manager for the Act, emphasized that “What [the word ‘discrimination’] really means in the bill is a distinction in treatment . . . given to different individuals because of their different race, religion or national origin.”

How ironic that Senator Harris and others, while expressing concern over Biden’s willingness to work with segregationists, endorse a view that echoes the arguments of both the Brown defendants and the Civil Rights Act’s segregationist opponents! This irony is not new. For a generation, liberals who favor preferential treatment based on race have stood on the shoulders of the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, rejecting Justice John Marshall Harlan’s still-stirring insistence in his dissent that “our Constitution is colorblind.”

In 1975, Biden contended that busing was based on “the most racist concept you can come up with; 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?’”

He could not have known then that his characterization anticipated by 20 years the argument made by Clarence Thomas, whom he tried but failed to keep off the Supreme Court. “Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement,” Justice Thomas noted in Missouri v. Jenkins, “there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment.”

Joe Biden is an old-style Democrat. He formed his political views and entered politics when liberal Democrats still favored civil rights as it had been understood by egalitarians since the nineteenth century, believing that Americans should be treated as individuals, “without regard” to race. Modern Democrats have shed that now apparently quaint conviction, rejecting colorblindness as naïve at best and more likely a mask for white supremacy.

Biden’s bumbling reaction to Harris’s busing attack suggests something more fundamental than lack of preparation. His plaintive cries that he has “been for civil rights my entire career” miss the point: what he means, or at least meant, by civil rights is not what Harris and the woke Democrats mean. Biden, in fact, can’t seem to decide how much of his past to defend. Maybe he’s trying to see if he can get by being half-woke.

Biden’s supporters believe that he has the best chance of attracting the blue-collar, Rust Belt whites whose votes Democrats need to defeat President Trump—but Biden won’t win them over if he goes the same way on race that he already has on abortion. A return to busing? Good luck with that in Scranton.

Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images


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