The debate over desegregation busing continues to reverberate in the 2020 Democratic presidential race one week after the first debate.
The issue was first thrust to the forefront of the Democratic contest last week, when Sen. Kamala Harris invoked her own experience with busing to attack former Vice President Joe Biden’s opposition to federally mandated busing to desegregate schools decades ago.
“That little girl was me,” Harris said in a debate defining moment.
Harris’ performance catapulted her firmly in the top four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, with her poll numbers surging after the debate while Biden’s lead over the field shrunk.
But in the days following her standout moment, Harris and her campaign have struggled to explain her own position on busing to desegregate schools today. And animosity between the two campaigns has spilled out into the open, with top aides to Biden and Harris engaging in a heated back-and-forth on social media over where their respective candidates stand on the issue.
The public spat has also reignited debate over busing, which was one of the most controversial aspects of the effort to address segregation in schools. Supporters of busing argued that it was to necessary to correct the damaging legacy of school segregation, while opponents, many of whom were against efforts to integrate schools more broadly, maintained that the policy was ineffective and disruptive to communities. Public polling at the time showed that most Americans opposed busing.
On Wednesday, asked to clarify her position on busing, Harris said, “Let me just be really clear: busing is a tool among many that should be considered when we address the issue, which is a very current issue, as well as a past issue, of desegregation in America’s schools.”
Asked more specifically whether she supported federally mandated busing to desegregate schools in areas where segregation was not the result of discriminatory laws, Harris responded, “I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district.”
Her answer – that busing should be a tool to be considered and not mandated – appeared to be at odds with the position she took on the debate stage, when, in response to Biden saying he opposed the Department of Education stepping in to mandate busing, she said, “That’s where the federal government must step in.”
“Because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people,” she added.
Ian Sams, a national spokesman for Harris, maintained in a subsequent statement that Harris’ answer on Wednesday did not conflict with her comments on the debate stage, arguing that the fight over busing to desegregate schools in the ’60s and ‘70s and the conversation about busing in the modern era cannot be compared. Harris, Sams said, supports a bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Marcia Fudge that devotes federal resources to desegregate schools.
“Federally mandated busing was essential in the 60s/70s to force the integration of schools,” Sams said. “Today, decades later, we need a comprehensive approach which is why she supports Murphy/Fudge which is federal resources to diversify schools, including busing, rezoning, and magnets.”
The Biden campaign seized on Harris’ comments on Wednesday night, with deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield tweeting, “It’s disappointing that Senator Harris chose to distort Vice President Biden’s position on busing — particularly now that she is tying herself in knots trying not to answer the very question she posed to him!”
Sams responded to Bedingfield, tweeting, “VP Biden said: ‘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 called busing an ‘asinine concept.’ C’mon. Y’all are better than this.”
The Biden campaign also released a statement, arguing that Harris’ current position is not so different from the one she attacked Biden for on the debate stage.
“As Senator Harris now concedes, she agrees with VP Biden on busing and the multifaceted approach needed to address segregation,” Biden spokesperson TJ Ducklo said. “He has always strongly supported efforts to combat redlining and housing and zoning rules that lead to de facto segregation, as he did in Delaware in the 1970’s. The Senator also agrees with him on support for the Murphy/Fudge bill, which he supported as Vice President when an identical bill was championed by the Obama-Biden Administration in 2016.”
Biden, speaking to reporters after a Fourth of July parade in Iowa, also weighed in on Harris’s “toolbox” comments, noting that he agreed with her.
“She’s absolutely right,” Biden said. “She’s a good person, she is smart as can be, and she feels strongly.”
But Harris rebuked Biden Thursday, telling reporters before a campaign event in Iowa that “there has been no ambiguity whatsoever” with her position on busing, stating her and Biden “sadly do not agree.”
Harris said she would support federally mandated busing if “governments were actively opposing integration.”
“I’ve asked him and have yet to hear him agree that busing that was court ordered and mandated in most places and in that era in which I was bused was necessary and he has yet to agree that his position on this, which was to work with segregationists and oppose busing was wrong,” she said.
When asked to clarify her position, Harris added, “I think that it’s very important for us to be very clear about history and frankly the vice president has yet to agree that his position on the kind of busing that took place when I was bused to school is wrong. His position is wrong.”
Talking about the debate confrontation, Biden said, “It came out of nowhere, it didn’t seem to be something at all consistent with anything that I’d been accused of before. But I think the end of the day … we need to be talking about the future.”
“I mean, busing is something that 99% of the American people don’t even know what we’re talking about here, but I’ve always supported voluntary busing which she was part of.”