Equity & Diversity

Biden’s Segregation Comments Resurrect His Anti-Busing History

By Evie Blad & Corey Mitchell — June 25, 2019 | Corrected: June 26, 2019 8 min read
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress presidential forum on Monday, June 17.
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Corrected: A previous version of this article misidentified Professor Noliwe Rooks’ job title. She is the Director of American Studies at Cornell University.

Facing sharp criticism for recent comments about working with segregationist senators in the 1970s, former Vice President Joe Biden has said that such relationships were necessary to help accomplish worthy goals and that his motivation for running for Senate in Delaware was a concern about civil rights.

What he hasn’t mentioned: Biden worked with those same men to restrict the use of busing to integrate schools, an issue he championed repeatedly in Washington as schools in his home state and in cities around the country worked to comply with court desegregation orders that had created consternation among some vocal white families.

“I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” Biden told a Delaware newspaper in a 1975 interview recently republished by the Washington Post. “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

As Biden competes against a crowded field for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, those efforts, and his blunt past comments on school integration, may take on new weight with some voters. In the primary contest—painted by some younger contenders as a choice between two different generational perspectives for the future of the country—Biden must prove that his experience, and his past positions, are an asset and not a liability, especially for black voters who make up a crucial part of the party’s base.

“This has to be a real problem for him,” said Kevin D. Brown, a law professor at Indiana University who researches desegregation. “To be an opponent [of busing] in the 1970s was to be an opponent when it really mattered.” That’s because schools around the country were working to undo the effects of intentional discrimination and the voices of leaders like Biden served to shape the public debate, Brown said.

In the time since 1975, when Biden sponsored a successful bill that prohibited the use of federal funds for busing, the issue has shifted under his feet.

Students of color now make up a majority in the United States, research shows that many still attend racially isolated schools, and decades of persistent segregated residential patterns continue to fuel the problem.

In the meantime, a series of federal court decisions have limited districts’ ability to voluntarily balance the racial makeup of their schools, and a wider range of school options, such as charter schools, have complicated the debate over integration.

Shifting Public Views

Public opinion on the subject is complicated. In a 2017 poll issued by PDK International, about three-quarters of parents said it was “somewhat” or “very important” to have racially diverse public schools. But black parents were far more likely than white and Hispanic parents to say they would accept a longer commute for a racially diverse school. And even then, only 40 percent of black parents agreed the longer journey to school was worth it.

While federal school integration efforts have not been a consistent topic of popular discussion in recent decades, Biden’s earliest positions combined with his recent comments may give some voters pause, said Noliwe Rooks, a professor of Africana studies and director of American studies at Cornell University.

“He wasn’t just a silent supporter of anti-busing, he was out there crafting bills,” Rooks said. “As a standalone, [his opposition to busing] probably wasn’t going to be that big a deal. But when you put that in tandem with his more recent comments about these white segregationists, it’s a problem.”

Those recent comments came at a June 18 fundraiser in New York City, where Biden, speaking about working with a variety of people to accomplish his goals, recalled working with Democratic segregationist Senators James Eastland, of Mississippi, who died in 1986, and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, who died in 2002.

“Well, guess what? At least there was some civility,” Biden said. “We got things done.” Eastland “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’” Biden said.

Biden’s primary opponents seized on his comments. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said he’d heard from “many, many African Americans who found the comments hurtful.”

Biden defended himself. “There’s not a racist bone in my body,” he said, pointing to his efforts in 1982 to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. “I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period.”

Some prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including fellow Democrat and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, have defended Biden. He consistently leads national presidential polls and counts black voters among his strongest supporters.

But political commentators agree he will be in the hotseat as he goes into the party’s first debate this week. And that seat may have gotten even hotter when news outlets published Biden’s 1970s letters to Eastland, in which he sought support for his busing proposals, last week.

Qualified Opposition

Biden voted against some anti-busing measures in his earliest days in the Senate. Some historians on school segregation have linked his shifting views to public meetings in Delaware, where voters shared their frustrations as schools sought to integrate.

A Delaware desegregation case was part of a cluster that had been joined together in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. In 1974, a U.S. District Court panel ordered the Delaware Board of Education to find a way to desegregate schools in Wilmington, with its mostly black student population, and surrounding Newcastle County, which had schools that were nearly all white.

Biden’s position then, which he has reiterated since, was that he didn’t support transporting students between racially isolated schools as a remedy for de facto segregation, the descriptor for racial isolation that wasn’t caused by explicitly discriminatory laws.

That position wasn’t out of line with the Democratic party.

“Mandatory transportation of students beyond their neighborhoods for the purpose of desegregation remains a judicial tool of the last resort for the purpose of achieving school desegregation,” said the party’s 1976 platform, suggesting redrawing of attendance lines, pairing of schools, and magnet schools as preferable means of achieving integration.

That same year, Biden introduced another bill that sought to limit the Justice Department’s ability to use transportation in desegregation agreements. But he said he supported desegregation efforts more broadly.

But the popularization of the term “busing” oversimplified conversations about school integration and led many white Americans to opt out of those debates altogether, said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who studies school integration.

“It framed it in a way that you could talk about opposition to busing by boiling it down to the length of a bus ride,” she said. “In many cases, that was a disingenuous complaint.”

In some districts, white parents complained about integration plans when it was black students who would be subject to longer rides to school, Potter said.

“The way the media echoed a narrative of carefully crafted protests of integration framed around busing really gave a generation of white Americans an out if they wanted to take it by just buying into that framing,” she said.

In the time since, national leaders have stepped off of the gas in their discussion of race in schools, experts on integration agreed. And that means that the subject might not be at the forefront of voters’ minds.

“There are a lot of people who might regard his opposition to busing as a blemish on [Biden’s] record,” said Brett Gadsden, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of the book Between North and South: Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism. “I don’t think any of the other Democratic candidates for the nomination have distinguished themselves by coming out squarely for school desegregation.”

“School desegregation as a central component of a progressive educational reform policy is just not there any longer,” Gadsden said. “Busing is a third-rail political subject.”

Brown, the Indiana law professor, said some young voters may be unfamiliar with the history of school integration efforts, and they may be unaware that some of the policies that shaped their own educational experiences grew from that history.

And America’s failures to live up to all of the ideals of the civil rights movement share the same root, Brown said. That’s why he believes Biden’s positions on other areas related to race don’t outweigh his positions on busing.

“There was a notion that it was going to be harder to do with adults, but if we could get the young kids together, they could get beyond race,” Brown said.

Race-Related Campaign Proposals

Several 2020 candidates have made proposals related to school segregation, educational funding inequities, and related issues, like disproportionately high rates of discipline for black students.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Thurgood Marshall education plan, named for the late U.S. Supreme Court justice and famed civil rights attorney, calls for increased federal aid for magnet schools and transportation efforts that promote school integration.

Biden has pledged to restore Obama-era civil rights guidance on voluntary school integration and federal grants to support those efforts.

The next president could also contribute to school integration by using the megaphone of the presidency to champion it, by pushing to lift a legislative rider that prohibits federal funding for busing, and by piloting the use of federal grants, like Title I, to fund desegregation work as a means of improving schools, Potter said.

But those conversations will be difficult, just like the conversations Biden faced in the 1970s were difficult, she said.

“Any time you’re talking about changing students’ schools, it is going to be politically tricky, so you’re going to need some of that courage still,” she said.

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