Kamala Harris made me feel young again when she turned to Joe Biden during a Democratic presidential primary debate and attacked him for having been against busing in the 1970s as a remedy for segregated public schools.
“Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America?” Harris asked. “Do you agree?”
Suddenly I was back in high school. “Seasons in the Sun” was oozing out of my transistor radio. I was wearing cuffed, plaid bell-bottom slacks to complement my shag haircut. And adults all around me were riven by the question of whether it was right for courts to compel black children to attend distant, predominantly white schools while simultaneously compelling white children to attend distant, predominantly black schools.
Harris, a senator from California, did not conceal her indignation. She’d been one of those black students who rode a bus every day so that her town, Berkeley, Calif., could try to desegregate its schools.
And her question — “Do you agree?” — was heavy with the presumption that only racists opposed busing.
Indeed racists did oppose it. The worst of the worst bigots, segregationists and white supremacists in public and private life aligned squarely against the practice.
But so did a lot of liberals, including African American liberals, who saw two-way busing as disruptive, divisive and particularly unfair to children who had to get up early and come home late in order to remedy historical wrongs they had no part in creating.
A Gallup survey in 1973 found only 4% of white people and 9% of black people backed the concept. In 1999, Gallup measured overall support at 15%, and a 2004 Associated Press poll put it at 19%.
Overall support was up to 29% — 56% among black respondents in a November 2007 Pew Research Center poll. But by then the question had become largely theoretical in the wake of a series of court rulings adverse to compulsory busing.
Those included the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2017 majority opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 that said considering race in trying to integrate public schools violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Meantime, busing programs that had taken children out of their neighborhood schools had accelerated white flight to the suburbs and aggravated the geographical racial sorting that contributed to the poisonous education gap in the first place.
And let’s be clear — this gap is real and the result of official practices that for generations deliberately kept black students in separate and underfunded schools.
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But early on, according to a lengthy examination of Biden’s record on race in Politico, the then-young senator referred to busing as “a liberal trainwreck,” “a bankrupt concept” and “an asinine policy,” as he joined with some of the Senate’s most reprehensible and retrograde lawmakers to try to block it.
Was he wrong to do so?
At the debate, Biden offered Harris a weak and garbled answer in which he attempted to distinguish between federally imposed busing, which he said he opposed, and busing implemented by school districts, which he claimed to support.
His reply should have been a simple “No.”
“Biden isn’t a historical or contemporary outlier on this subject,” said Northwestern University historian Brett Gadsden, whose 2013 book “Between North and South” focused on decades of desegregation efforts in Biden’s home state of Delaware. “Busing to achieve integration has always been unpopular.”
Dozens of public school districts around the country still use socioeconomic and demographic characteristics in voluntary efforts to desegregate. But, Gadsden said, “civil rights activists and educational reformers have shifted their focus toward recruiting teachers of color” to predominantly minority schools, “offering culturally relevant curriculum, correcting disciplinary disparities” and equalizing spending on black and white students.
Others looking for correctives to diversify schools have promoted far more popular charter school and tuition voucher programs.
Desegregation efforts can be educationally effective, Gadsden said, but promoting busing tends to provoke a backlash.
Harris surged and Biden sagged in the polls after their dramatic exchange, and several other top Democratic hopefuls, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, then went on the record as being open to using busing as tool.
President Donald Trump offered a predictably confused response when asked during a news conference about busing. “You know, there aren’t that many ways you’re going to get people to schools,” he said. “So this is something that’s been done. ... It is certainly a primary method of getting people to schools.”
But as soon as Trump or his advisers realize what a powerful wedge issue this could be for him in next year’s general election, brace yourself for repeated and damaging blasts from the past.
Promoting busing to achieve integration didn’t end well for Democrats when I was a kid, and it won’t end well now.