Hand it to the Democrats. They managed in last week’s presidential debate to put a racially explosive issue from long ago, one that had all but died away, back on the political agenda.
Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisStefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris MORE (D. Calif.) pounced on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE with a back to the future question. Harris pointed out Biden’s opposition, when he was a Delaware senator, to federal court-ordered busing to integrate public schools in the 1970s. She asked him, “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?”
If she becomes the Democratic nominee Harris may regret asking that question as much as Biden likely regrets his botched answer.
Biden tried to run away from his undeniable anti-busing record. He had called busing a “liberal train wreck” and “asinine.” But in responding to Harris’s question, Biden said he supported busing if a local government wanted it. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” he said.
Come on, Joe.
The federal courts ordered busing precisely because local governments, including in Biden’s own Wilmington, Delaware, refused to adopt meaningful plans to integrate their school systems.
Harris set up her sniper-shot by recalling her experience as a “little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.” She implied that her busing experience was part of an unstoppable civil rights norm opposed by retrogrades like Biden.
Harris’s experience was far from the norm. She rode a school bus in 1969 in the Berkeley Unified School District, whose success in voluntarily integrating its elementary schools has been justly applauded but rarely replicated in large urban areas. Court-ordered busing in the 1970s more typically provoked demonstrations by angry parents, violence in some places and white flight that aggravated the segregation of public schools.
In 1974, a federal court in Boston ordered the busing of 18,000 black and white students to schools outside of their neighborhoods, which, as one student later recalled, turned the city into “a war zone.” More than half the students enrolled in the Boston public schools were white when busing began. Forty years later, white students accounted for barely 15 percent of the enrollment.
In ordering the busing of students, federal courts were only fulfilling the mandate of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Some of the school districts had intentionally segregated black and white students and some of the parental opposition to busing was racially motivated.
It didn’t matter. A 1999 Gallup Poll, when the issue was still fresh, found that 82 percent of respondents agreed that “letting students go to their neighborhood schools would be better than achieving racial balance through busing.” Courts began to limit the use of busing and racial quotas to desegregate public school systems.
Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, as a recent study concluded, “intense levels of segregation [in public schools] — which had decreased markedly after 1954 for black students — are on the rise once again.” Some of the most segregated school districts are in large cities in 2020 swing states such as Detroit, Milwaukee and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina.
And that’s why Harris’s question could come back to hurt her and other Democrats. Republicans may try to brand Democrats as a party that wants to bus children out of their neighborhoods. Like Biden, Harris will be on the receiving end of tough busing questions like: “Senator, if you are elected president, will you take steps to desegregate those school districts through the busing of students?”
If she says "yes" she risks alienating voters in key states. If Harris says "no" she will look like she is running away from her record, just like Biden did in the debate.
Harris may have opened a Pandora’s Box that won’t be so easy to close.
Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.