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.