Mike Segar / Reuters

In the second debate among Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Kamala Harris expressed her disappointment with former Vice President Joe Biden’s favorable and apparently unprompted recent comments about a raft of southern politicians who had distinguished themselves as segregationists and fervent racists. Harris also leveled a deeply personal criticism of Biden for his past opposition to busing.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools,” she said, “and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously.” Biden struggled to devise a response, complaining that he had opposed federally mandated desegregation plans, not the voluntary plan adopted by local officials in Harris’s hometown.

In the final moments of his exchange with Harris, Biden tried to counter her charges and defend his record on civil rights. “I did not oppose busing in America,” he claimed. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education, that’s what I opposed. I did not oppose …” Biden said, before offering up a rambling inventory of his civil-rights record and then ceding the floor. The vice president eventually apologized for his remarks, telling a largely African American audience at a campaign event in Sumter, South Carolina, on Saturday that he was sorry “for any of the pain and misconception I may have caused anybody.”

The problem with Biden’s remarks was not simply misplaced nostalgia for relationships with men who have long fallen out of favor. Biden’s evolving position on busing is emblematic of the Democratic Party’s retreat from civil rights in the 1970s on a number of key strategic fronts. And Harris’s criticism of the Democratic front-runner belies the extent to which her own position echoes that retreat. The exchange revealed less about Biden’s past positions than about how far the United States has drifted from a commitment to achieving equality of opportunity.

Biden is eager to point voters to his impressive track record on civil rights. He was instrumental in organizing a bipartisan bloc of senators to facilitate the renewal of essential elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the early 1980s; he co-sponsored measures reintroducing the Equal Rights Amendment in 2007. And much to the consternation of President Barack Obama, the vice president’s endorsement of gay marriage in 2012 forced Obama to reverse his position and support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

In the early 1970s, however, Biden and many of his fellow Democrats in the Senate faced a vexing dilemma: How to support a central goal of the civil-rights movement—school desegregation—and account for a rising tide of popular opposition to busing? The sociologist Nathan Glazer, writing in Commentary in 1972, captured Biden’s—and liberal Democrats’—dilemma with great precision: “To stand with the courts in their latest decisions is, for liberal Congressmen, political suicide ... But if to stand with the further extension to all the Northern cities and suburbs of transportation for desegregation is suicide, how can the liberal Congressmen join with the South and with what they view as Northern bigotry in opposing busing? Is there a third position, something which responds to the wave of frustration at court orders, and which does not mean the abandonment of hope for an integrated society?”

It was in opposition to certain means of advancing reform—not hostility to the principle of African Americans’ entitlement to equal rights and equal opportunity—that Biden discovered that third position, and a way through the conundrum that Glazer described. In 1975, Biden argued on the Senate floor that busing was a “bankrupt concept,” and charged that the reform had the effect of intensifying racial tensions rather than facilitating reconciliation. And two years later, with a note of skepticism in his voice, he questioned the ability of federal authorities to effect change, “according to some [Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] formula which is somehow supposed to provide for a better educational opportunity for young people.” This logic animated his support for measures that limited the ability of the federal government, under the auspices of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to demand busing plans and other district-reorganizing measures where there was evidence of racial segregation.

But in his fond recollections of his southern conservative colleagues, Biden—perhaps unintentionally—expressed sympathy toward and lent authority to a deep tradition of political reaction against civil rights. In the face of African Americans’ demands for full and equal citizenship, aggrieved whites opposed what they perceived to be encroachments on their rights to organize the affairs of their communities as they saw fit: maintaining predominately white neighborhood schools and therefore continuing to condemn African American students to separate and unequal ones.

Here, Biden invoked the logic and language of southern resistance to civil rights in the civil-rights era. The signers of the Southern Manifesto charged the Supreme Court with abuse of judicial power, usurpation of the authority of Congress, and trespass against the rights of the states and citizens in their defiant repudiation of Brown v. Board of Education. The men that Biden recalled with such fondness—James Eastland, John Stennis, and Strom Thurmond—further contended that the Court’s gratuitous exercise of power “destroy[ed] the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races.”

The historian Joseph Crespino has argued that by the 1970s, southern conservatives had made strategic accommodations to the ideals of Brown and the dictates of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They repackaged their opposition to racial equality and largely expunged the explicit racism from their rhetoric, deploying instead more color-blind language to frame their opposition to reforms in the post–Jim Crow era. Conservatives ceased trying to nullify federal civil-rights law. They embraced, instead, backdoor measures to limit the range of tools that officials had at their disposal to compel states and localities to desegregate schools.

In his effort to pass antibusing legislation in the 1970s, Biden helped facilitate a coalition built between conservatives who had long opposed civil rights and liberals who chafed at the prospect of reform in their communities. His efforts helped insulate whites from the burdens of reform after the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s in matters pertaining to public schools marked by, in the new language of the period, racial imbalances in the demographics of surrounding neighborhoods.

And so, Biden found himself in Harris’s sights. Biden’s position—drifting away from the 1960s liberal consensus on civil rights—aligns him, and a number of other Democratic leaders, squarely within the mainstream of white public opinion, as documented by polling. His numbers may have taken a hit less because of the positions he’s taken, with which a majority of the American public still agrees, than because of his persistent lack of self-reflection and refusal to acknowledge his role in this history. Harris, for her part, found her numbers buoyed by her pointed criticism of Biden’s record, but has backed away from endorsing federally mandated busing as a solution to the endemic problem of racial segregation in the nation’s schools.

During the signing ceremony of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson asserted, “The Civil Rights Act relies first on voluntary compliance, then on the efforts of local communities and States to secure the rights of citizens. It provides for the national authority to step in only when others cannot or will not do the job.” That Biden and Harris seem to have both rejected this last sentiment in the matter of school segregation, and none of the other candidates has openly endorsed federally mandated remedies as a tool to thwart the resegregation of public schools in the past two decades, is an ominous development. And given the rejection of a strong federal government and civil rights by many conservatives, we are headed again toward a nation of schools separate and unequal.

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