Former Vice President Biden Faces Criticism For His Stance On Busing In The 1970s

Jun 28, 2019
Originally published on June 28, 2019 8:20 pm
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Vice President Joe Biden is clarifying his record on civil rights, in particular on school busing. The political flashpoint from the 1970s is consuming his campaign today because of what happened during last night's Democratic presidential debate on NBC. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith explains.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Presidential debates are often all about moments that speak to something larger. And that moment came last night when California Senator Kamala Harris turned to Biden and said this...

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KAMALA HARRIS: I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.

KEITH: She was addressing remarks Biden made last week about working early in his career with segregationist senators, even though he found their views repugnant. One thing Biden worked with them on was legislation to prevent federally mandated school busing.

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HARRIS: You also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.

KEITH: This isn't the first time in this relatively short campaign that Biden has been faced with something he worked on in his long Senate career looking very different in the light of 2019. And in a speech today before Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, he sought to clarify his position.

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JOE BIDEN: I heard and I listen to and I respect Senator Harris. But, you know, we all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can't do justice to a lifetime committed to civil rights. I want to be absolutely clear about my record and position on racial justice, including busing - I never, never, never, ever opposed voluntary busing.

KEITH: During the debate, Biden said he was just standing up for local control over busing decisions and was against federal mandates. Some took that to mean he was standing up for states' rights, which have at times been used as a shield for policies seen as racist.

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BIDEN: I know and you know I fought my heart out to ensure that civil rights and voting rights, equal rights are enforced everywhere. These rights are not up to the states to decide; they are the federal government's duty to decide. It's a constitutional question to protect the civil rights of every single American, and that's always been my position.

KEITH: In 1975, he actually supported a constitutional amendment against court-ordered busing. The busing where Harris grew up, he argued, was voluntary. The fact that school busing is an issue in a Democratic primary this year has everything to do with the fact that Joe Biden is in the race, says Brian Fallon, a Democratic consultant who worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign. He says Biden's campaign has made a deliberate choice not to apologize for his past.

BRIAN FALLON: They're basing that approach on the fact that some of his supporters are older and will probably appreciate the context of how many years ago this was, and that some of the more present-day younger-voter concerns on racial justice and stuff may not be as acutely felt with the older African American voters that he's most courting.

KEITH: Karen Finney, who also worked on Clinton's campaign, says Biden did speak to those younger voters and more modern concerns about racial justice in his speech today. But...

KAREN FINNEY: That's a speech I would have suggested he give perhaps the second week he was a candidate, as a way to get in front of some of this other criticism, because he does have legitimate bona fides.

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Including his eight years as Barack Obama's vice president.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.