It was never really a question whether busing would come up during night two of the second round of Democratic presidential debates in Detroit. Senator Kamala Harris of California and Vice President Joe Biden stood next to each other for a redux of the confrontation they had the last time they shared the debate stage. The exchange went as expected. Biden demurred, arguing that his record was not what Harris suggested it was, and that the two had views on busing that weren’t far apart. Harris countered, saying that Biden worked with segregationists on legislation that was harmful to black children when it mattered most.
After Biden and Harris were cut off by the moderator, the conversation veered away for a moment. Then Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado spoke up and pulled the conversation out of the weeds. “This is the fourth debate that we have had, and the second time that we have been debating what people did 50 years ago with busing, when our schools are as segregated as they were 50 years ago,” Bennet said. “We need a conversation about what’s happening now, and when there’s a group of kids in this country that don’t get preschool through no fault of their own and another group does—equal is not equal,” he exclaimed. “We’ve got a group of K–12 schools that are good because families can spend a million bucks, and you got the Detroit public schools that are as segregated as they were.” He repeated the mantra—Equal is not equal.
It is ironic that the Democratic candidates would be onstage, once again, discussing school desegregation in Detroit a week after the 45th anniversary of Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court decision that has limited the tools the federal government can use to desegregate America’s schools. The case dealt with the desegregation of the public schools in Detroit.
The Democratic debates, in showy fashion, have highlighted school segregation—not only its past, but its present. But anyone searching for substantive details about the candidates’ plans for desegregating America’s schools will be left wanting. At least one candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has offered a plan—what he calls the Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education—to address school segregation, but it is the exception, not the rule. Both Biden and Harris are wary of federally mandated school desegregation by way of busing. And neither Bennet, Biden, nor Harris has a plan listed on their campaign website to deal with segregated schools. The acknowledgment that equal is not equal today in the United States is an important step. But to make equal equal would take more than talk.