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Last week's debate among the Democratic presidential candidates offered the most memorable moment of the young 2020 campaign to date: California Sen. Kamala Harris challenging former Vice President Joe Biden's record on race — in particular, his opposition to court-ordered busing back in the 1970s.
"There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school, and she was bused to school every day," Harris said on the debate stage, addressing Biden directly. "And that little girl was me."
It was an electrifying moment for Harris that put Biden on the defensive, while revealing a lingering racial and generational rift among Democrats. The face-off was also the latest reminder of a divisive debate that remains unresolved today, particularly in Boston, a city that was scarred by court-ordered busing.
In 1974, U.S. District Judge Arthur Garrity found that the Boston School Committee had intentionally segregated the city's schools, violating the Constitution. Garrity's remedy was to bus white kids into black neighborhoods, and black kids into white neighborhoods. The result was police in riot gear, violence and angry crowds in the streets of white neighborhoods like South Boston, where buses carrying black students were assaulted with racial epithets and bricks.
Back then, Joe Biden was a young senator from Delaware with a mostly liberal record on civil rights. But he called busing "asinine," and backed measures to stop it, including a proposal from the avowed segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
At last week's debate, Harris made clear that she had a different view, and went after Biden.
"Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America?" Harris asked.
Biden protested that he did not oppose busing as a general matter; what he opposed was "busing ordered by the [federal] Department of Education." But Harris pushed back, arguing that the federal government must step in when "there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America."
"That's why we have the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. That's why we need to pass the Equality Act," Harris insisted to applause.
In the debate, Harris used "busing" as a synonym for desegregation, suggesting that if Biden opposed busing, he was in effect opposing integration. Biden pushed back, with the somewhat nuanced, if awkward, argument that he didn't oppose all busing — just federally mandated plans, like the Boston busing scheme — because they failed to take into account the concerns of local communities.
For Harris, the former prosecutor, it was a powerful moment. By contrast, Biden appeared to be caught off guard, and many of his post-debate reviews were not good.
"This is a history lesson that I'm amazed that we have to go back to," said MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, who grew up in Boston. "It's going to get worse for Joe Biden because he did hang on long after most Democrats gave up [on their support of busing]."
Biden's position puts him on the wrong side of history, O'Donnell said.
"One of [Biden's] biggest opponents at the time was the only black senator in the Senate who was a Republican from Massachusetts — Ed Brooke — whose capital city was in the throes of this," O'Donnell said.
To this day, however, there are critics of Judge Garrity’s decision.
Garrity's busing plan was an abject failure, according to Jim Vrabel, a longtime Boston community activist and author of "A People's History of the New Boston." The scheme pitted blacks against whites and pushed families out of neighborhood schools, Vrabel said, and eventually prompted an exodus of tens of thousands of mostly white students from the city's schools.
"The schools became overwhelmingly populated by poor and minority people, and they lost their political clout," Vrabel said. "And [the schools] have suffered ever since."
Vrabel says last week's debate between Biden and Harris glossed over this complex history, beginning with Harris' question.
"I think it was unfair for her to ask him, 'Are you for or against busing?' " he said.
She might as well have asked him, "Are you for or against highway construction? Are you for or against health care? You can't do that," Vrabel said. "[The history of busing] is too complicated."
Even so, Vrabel says Biden did a poor job defending his record. But he argues that there were good busing plans and bad ones, and Biden might have been justified in opposing the bad ones.
Others in Boston watched the same debate and reached a different conclusion.
"I was concerned with Vice President Biden's response, and concerned that he still doesn't seem to get it," said Michael Curry, the former executive director of NAACP of Boston, who grew up in Roxbury.
Like Harris, Curry says he benefited from the city's busing plan. He says he believes that Harris had it right, and that Biden, despite a strong record on civil rights, is still defending a discredited position that has divided the Democratic Party.
"Biden was really defending a white perspective, which is, 'We may want progress and equity, but we don't necessarily want those kids in our neighborhoods. And we don't want our kids going to their neighborhoods,' " Curry said. "One of the things that he could have said was, 'I was not right at that time on busing, and I've evolved on that perspective.' He did not say that."
The day after the debate, Biden defended his position on race.
"Sixty seconds on a campaign debate exchange can't do justice to a lifetime committed to civil rights," said Biden. The vice president to the nation's first black president maintains significant support among African Americans.
Biden might be right, but that brief moment in the debate demonstrated the perils of a long political career. It also showed how the legacy of busing in cities like Boston opened a deep racial wound across the country — and among Democrats — that has yet to heal.
This segment aired on July 5, 2019.
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