It may be hard to believe that race-based busing has suddenly become a major issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, more than three decades after it was the focus of acrimonious debate in Northern cities such as Boston and 12 years after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional. But during last night's Democratic debate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) used busing as an effective weapon against Joe Biden, portraying his views on the subject as outmoded and unenlightened, evidence that the 76-year-old former vice president, who served in the Senate from 1973 to 2009, is past his sell-by date and should yield to a younger, woker generation of Democrats such as herself. The clash revealed dishonesty on both sides, pointing to the same troubling reality: There is no room in the modern Democratic Party for a nuanced discussion of anything related to race.
"I did not oppose busing in America," Biden insisted. "What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education." As many journalists pointed out, that is simply not true. Yes, Biden as a senator opposed busing when it was mandated by federal courts, but he also criticized the very concept as a response to de facto segregation.
"I oppose busing," Biden told a Delaware newspaper in 1975. "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."
Biden argued that busing is inherently 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 in the same interview. "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?"
At the same time, Biden recognized the problem he is now facing: His opposition to busing made him an ally of segregationists. "The unsavory part about this is when I come out against busing, as I have all along, I don't want to be mixed up with a George Wallace," he said. "The real problem with busing," he said, was that "you take people who aren't racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children's intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school…and you're going to fill them with hatred."
Three decades later, in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, Biden described a 1978 forum at a high school near Wilmington where "my voters—working-class Democrats" were outraged by court-ordered busing:
Once I got up to the podium, everybody in the room wanted to know where I really stood on busing. I tried to explain what I'd been doing in the Senate and the difference between de facto (or unintentional) segregation and de jure (or government-intended) segregation. But the audience kept pushing me. What they wanted was a full-out mea culpa and a hard statement that I despised busing. And I got hot. I wanted them to be clear where I stood. Look, I told them, I was against busing to remedy de facto segregation owing to housing patterns and community comfort, but if it was intentional segregation, I'd personally pay for helicopters to move the children. There were howls in the crowd.
I stand by the statement…
"He never thought busing was the best way to integrate schools in Delaware—a position which most people now agree with," Biden's spokesman told The Washington Post in March. "As he said during those many years of debate, busing would not achieve equal opportunity. And it didn't."
Yet last night, when Harris noted that she was "bused to school every day" as "part of the second class to integrate, Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education," Biden said: "You would've 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." Given Biden's fundamental disagreement with busing not only as a federal mandate but as policy, that response was more than a little misleading.
Harris, for her part, implied that there was never any legitimate, non-bigoted reason to oppose busing. "I do not believe you are a racist," she told Biden, even while faulting him for allying himself with segregationists such as Sens. James Eastland (D–Miss.), Herman Talmadge (D–Ga.), and Jesse Helms (R–N.C.) on the issue of busing. Biden's obfuscation essentially ceded this point to her, since he seemed to think he could not honestly describe his views without coming across as racist.
The implication is that all those "working-class Democrats" in Delaware who demanded that Biden take a firm stand against busing were racists, and so were all the other parents across the country who objected to a policy that forced their kids, because of their skin color, to take long bus rides to unfamiliar neighborhoods in the name of racial equality. Yet according to a 1978 RAND Corporation study of the demographic shifts spurred by mandatory busing, "racism does not explain white flight." The study cited survey data indicating that most whites who opposed busing simply preferred schools in their neighborhood, mentioning "issues such as distance, loss of choice, lost time, and lost friends." And "when asked about the benefits and harms of desegregation, a large majority of white parents believed it would improve neither minority education nor race relations, while it would increase discipline problems and racial tensions." In other words, "most white parents believe they are being forced to give up something they value—the neighborhood school—in return for a policy that benefits no one and may even being harmful."
Most black parents took a different view, but that does not mean the white parents' concerns were illegitimate or covers for racism. The RAND report noted that "the vast majority of whites accept desegregated schools when brought about by voluntary methods but reject them when their children are mandatorily bused or reassigned to schools outside their neighborhoods." The study also cited data indicating that "whites with low racial prejudice scores were nearly as opposed to busing as persons with high prejudice."
The resistance to busing culminated in a 2007 Supreme Court case involving school districts in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky. The Seattle district had never been legally segregated or subject to court-ordered desegregation, while the Jefferson County district had been operating under a desegregation decree that was dissolved in 2000. In both districts, busing had a "minimal effect" on the racial composition of schools. And because the policy entailed classifying students by race, it had to withstand "strict scrutiny," meaning the districts had to show it was "narrowly tailored" to achieve a "compelling government interest."
In a 5-to-4 decision pitting the Court's "conservative" and "liberal" wings against each other, the majority concluded that the busing programs failed that test. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Chief Justice John Roberts famously declared.
Kamala Harris undoubtedly disagrees with that decision. Joe Biden agrees on the subject of busing, although he probably would object to the broader implications. But in the current political climate within the Democratic Party, it is impossible to have a candid conversation about those differences.