The standout moment in either of the first two Democratic primary debates was unquestionably the showdown between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden over school desegregation. Harris came prepared with her own story being bused to an integrated school as a young girl and attacked Biden over his fond recollections of being friendly with the vicious racist James Eastland.
Naturally, this has the Biden camp on the defensive. "We can be proud of her nonetheless, but her ambition got it wrong about Joe," former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Il.) told Politico. But this is an absolute crock — on the contrary, Harris barely scratched the surface of Biden's awful civil rights record.
Let's start with "busing." As I have written before, the focus on busing per se as being the essence of school desegregation is wildly misleading. Buses are merely a way of moving children around; they were common under Jim Crow and they are common now after desegregation efforts have been largely abandoned. The real controversy was over jumbling up school district populations — through boundary adjustments, transportation, or other means — to mix black and white children and thus provide the former the same educational resources as the latter. (It's important to remember that educational equality was the main goal of desegregation, not simple rubbing shoulders between the races.) For a few years after the civil rights victories in the 1960s, there was enough consensus around the horror of Jim Crow that the political class widely agreed on desegregration.
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But a huge fraction of white people both in and out of the South didn't want black kids anywhere near their own children, nor did they want to share school resources with black families, and so they ginned up excuses to obscure their real motivations. School integration was smeared as "forced busing," and stopping it a mere defense of "community schools" — thus following the classic American tradition of portraying a change in government policy as the imposition of a new policy and racist whites the helpless victims of Dread Government Coercion.
After being elected in 1972, Biden quickly moved right on desegregation, capitalizing on and heightening this white backlash. In one speech, he called busing a "bankrupt concept," and suggested in an interview that "I think the Democratic Party could stand a liberal George Wallace." He sought support from outright white supremacists like James Eastland, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and James Allen to pass amendments banning federal funding for transport-based school integration. As late as 2007 he called busing a "liberal train wreck" in an autobiography.
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