Ever since last week’s Democratic debates, I’ve found myself arguing with other liberals—mostly Democrats, but also a few moderate Republicans and the occasional independent like myself—about what, if anything, former Vice President Joe Biden did wrong in answering California presidential hopeful Kamala Harris who took him to task for his stance on the issue of busing back in the 1970s. Let it be clear that, in common with unabashed segregationist politicians of the day, Joe Biden was a staunch opponent of busing, even if by association, and for clearly different reasons than those of racially prejudiced members of Congress. And, at the very least, when challenged in these first debates, he didn’t seem to have a considered and thoughtful response for those whose misgivings Senator Harris was voicing.
|Busing sparked widespread protests on both sides of the issue.|
Busing, for those too young to remember it, was a federal government attempt to forcibly integrate schools around the country but particularly in the Deep South, where, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was designed to end the sad tradition of racial discrimination that had virtually assured African Americans of second-class citizenship since the end of the Civil War, the best that America had to offer continued to out of the black community’s reach. The policy consisted of federally imposed the busing of students—at first black students only, but later whites as well—from their natural school districts to other districts where schools were either all white or all black.
The idea of busing was to lower the social and cultural barricades that had, from time immemorial, divided the black and white communities. The creators of the policy clearly felt public schools were the place to do this first, bringing young people together, regardless of race, where they might learn to empathize with one another and to live, learn and work together in peace and harmony. More importantly, it was an attempt to ensure an equal education for all, since, frequently, black school districts didn’t get anywhere near their fair share of funding, their fair share of infrastructure or their fair share of educational resources.
But the busing policy was controversial. Although its intentions were noble, its effects were checkered. Yes, in many cases, like that of Senator Harris, apparently, it was a fine opportunity for a better education than she would have had in her own district. But in other cases, like those of a few people I communicated with on the social media this past week, it meant that certain middle-class white kids, who were in school districts that did indeed benefit from the best that America had to offer in public education, ended up being bused to formerly all black schools that were chronically strapped for resources of all kinds.
Furthermore, while the policy was meant to increase social harmony between the races, it often had the opposite effect, because blame for busing was laid at the door of the minorities who benefited from it rather than at those of the three branches of government that were implementing the policy. And this resentment included that arising from schoolchildren of both races having to spend an inordinate amount of time daily commuting by school bus from their home districts to other school districts simply in order to ensure that the schools they attended had “the right mix” of blacks and whites to appease the federal government.
|Harris takes on Biden about busing during the debates.|
As Senator Harris pointed out in the debates, however, when local communities—in this case, state and municipal boards of education—refuse to do what’s right and what the Constitution and the rule of law require, then it’s time for the federal government to step in and assure that no one’s civil rights are abused. And that was the purpose of busing, no matter how heavy-handed a policy it might have been.
In all fairness, Senator Harris has, since the first debates, said that, given the chance, she wouldn’t necessarily impose busing today. She told those questioning her on the topic that busing was “just one of the tools” in the array of possibilities for desegregation, implying that there were others that might be just as effective. But are there? The de facto re-segregation of public schools that we’re seeing today would tend to indicate the contrary.
The crux of this matter lies in two responses from Facebook friends of mine this past week. One argued that “schools are all the same” in each state or municipal district, depending on who has authority over them from one area of the country to the next. Another argued that her white middle-class daughter had been bused to “a crappy school with broken windows” in a largely African American district. Although both of these responses were meant to be arguments against busing, they are both arguments that might just as easily have been employed to support busing. First, schools might all be the same on paper—in terms of curriculum, standardized testing, etc.—but in point of fact, they often are not, in either broad or specific practical terms. Second, the fact that a white mother’s child might have been bused to “a crappy school with broken windows” is clearly unfortunate for the child who was in a better school before, but it underscores the argument that all schools are not the same at all, no matter how they may look on paper.
An underlying idea of busing was, indeed, to equalize schools from one district to the next, with bused African Americans usually getting a better education and educational experience than they would have in their home districts, and with the presence of numerous members of the relatively privileged white majority in formerly all black school triggering a movement to bring the schools up to the same standards enjoyed in formerly all-white public schools. The main point of the busing policy was that there was a virtual Apartheid in US education. And something—anything necessary—had to be done to wipe out all vestiges of the country’s racist past, beginning with education.
But no one should get the idea that de facto segregation was only a problem in the South, where it was purposely and stringently maintained. Indeed, segregation was a fact of life in many major cities in the North as well. This was because the boundaries of many school districts were also those of all-black or all-white neighborhoods, which was why court orders backed the landmark Supreme Court decision known as Brown v Board of Education by imposing “forced busing” on such cities in the North as Boston, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit and Wilmington (Delaware), as well as on West Coast cities like San Francisco and Pasadena.
|Racial segregationists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge|
Recently, Joe Biden boasted about having sought the support of infamous and perennial southern Democrat segregationists James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia for the anti-busing bill that he co-authored back in the 1970s, when he was a junior senator from Delaware. He qualified his statements by making an argument for civility. More specifically, he told the audience at a New York fundraiser that, back then, “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything, (but) we got things done.” He then went on to talk about his once chummy relationship with the two segregationists.
This was like waving a red flag in the faces of many, particularly southern, African Americans. When challenged by Kamala Harris during last week’s debates, Biden backpedaled after the California senator asked him to admit he was wrong to have opposed busing, telling her that he hadn’t opposed busing, but rather, busing imposed on municipal and state authorities by the federal government. Neither Harris’s challenge nor Biden’s rebuttal got to the real crux of the issue, however. It was, perhaps, out of line for Harris to seek an apology from the former vice president for opposing busing, which he clearly saw as an erroneous policy. Rather, she might well have taken him to task for making a virtual pact with the devil (radical southern segregationists) to try and achieve his anti-busing goal. Conversely, Biden should have known better than to have qualified the kind of busing he was against when, in the age of Internet, it is so easy to review what his stance actually was. And the fact is that Biden was a staunch anti-busing advocate, who espoused, for whatever reason, an absolutist position that was in no way different from that of the segregationists whose support he eagerly sought and received.
In other words, back then, Senator Biden’s opposition to busing was in no way qualified. And the record shows that he was not merely “civil” toward Southern Democrat segregationists, but was in lockstep agreement with them on the issue of busing. In his own words during Senate debates at that time, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” and he added that busing was, “a liberal train wreck.”
In 1977, Biden joined Senator William Roth in sponsoring the proposed “Biden-Roth” amendment, the purpose of which was to prevent judges from ordering wider busing to achieve integrated school districts. In arguing against busing in 1975, Biden said, “I oppose busing. It's an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me. I've gotten to the point where I think our only recourse to eliminate busing may be a constitutional amendment.” Clearly, back then, he wasn’t qualifying his opposition to busing as federally imposed versus voluntary busing. His campaign was against busing, period. And he unsuccessfully sought to impose a constitutional amendment to ban it.
Biden used an argument that no white man ever should have uttered to justify his stance, arguing that “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. 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?”
|Junior Senator Joe Biden sought an anti-busing amendment|
Had a black or Chicano politician said the same thing to argue for equal education, it might not raise an eyebrow. But coming from the then-young senator from Delaware, it smacked of hypocrisy since, clearly, the schools blacks and Chicanos were attending weren’t, in their majority, anywhere near equal to white schools. And because it came from the lips of a white politician it sounded more like advocating the “separate but equal” argument used in South Africa, for instance, to justify the nefarious Apartheid policy that sought to maintain white supremacy. Biden’s amendment bill lost by a small margin in Congress but the Delaware senator continued to be an outspoken opponent to busing as a desegregation policy.
Reverse discrimination suits by white victims of busing’s adverse effects were what eventually spelled the broad demise of the policy. But had Joe Biden thought out how he should respond if (or rather, clearly, when) the issue was broached in the debates, he might well have seen what happened to busing as similar to what happened to Obamacare following the administration in which he served in a key role for eight years. More to the point, busing (like Obamacare) was an imperfect policy. But it was a start, a first step in the right direction toward desegregation, but one that was struck down (also like Obamacare) with nothing viable to replace it.
This is verifiable by virtue of the fact that, even today, desegregation of American schools is on a sharp downturn, and has been ever since busing—which, again, was not replaced by any other viable policy—came to an end. According to an article about the failure of desegregation by The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, “To the extent that the word ‘desegregation’ remains in our vocabulary, it describes an antique principle, not a current priority. Today, we are more likely to talk of diversity—but diversification and desegregation are not the same undertaking. To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.”
But that article was written in 2014, two years before the beginning of the Trump era, which has set civil rights back by decades, set political correctness aflame, promoted a far-right mentality fraught with nativism and tribalism and scared the president’s base with boogeyman stories about the rise of American minorities and the danger of disenfranchisement faced by the traditional white majority. We are again, in other words, faced with a resurgence of potential segregation and discrimination against people of color, whether African American or Hispanic. And despite the idea of diversity rather than integration, within a panorama of growing re-segregation, studies show that traditionally white schools continue to be the least culturally and racially diverse of all.
I’ve heard both sides of a debate by Democrats and other liberals over the last week about whether or not Biden should apologize “for opposing busing.” Personally, I think that this argument seeks to answer the wrong question. The fact is that Biden, in his early senatorial days, was a staunch opponent to busing no matter how he tries to spin it now. But he felt that he had valid reasons for opposing it because, in his eyes, it was a policy that violated states’ rights and brought undo hardships to those affected by the policy.
To my mind, however, the stance for which he should offer a mea culpa is that of having enlisted the help of some of the most notorious racists in Congress to try and get an anti-busing bill that bore his name passed. And he might also want to admit that he was remiss in not helping find some way of promoting integration other than forced busing, if, as he says, he wasn’t for segregation, but merely against the negative effects of federally imposed busing.
This is an issue that won’t die. Mainly because Vice President Biden has failed to address it adequately when it came to the fore in the debates—as he should have expected it to. And this one issue has clearly hurt him badly in public opinion polls. If Biden hopes to take back the ample ground he lost to Kamala Harris in the first debates, he needs to own this issue and deal with it effectively. If not, he can expect his position to continue to deteriorate in the run-up to the 2020 elections.