By Tom Robotham
In the wake of the recent Democratic debates, the widespread consensus was that there was one clear winner: Kamala Harris. And there was one moment above all others that made her stand out—her confrontation with Joe Biden over his opposition to busing back in the 1970s.
“There was a little girl in California,” she said, “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.”
Biden could be seen on camera listening respectfully—and doing a double take when she revealed that she was the girl in the story. Then, having caught him off guard, Harris quickly went into prosecutor mode: “Vice President Biden,” she said. “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America?”
Biden’s response was less than stellar. He hadn’t opposed busing, per se, he said—just busing ordered by the federal government. In that moment, he was sunk, especially given that he had recently bragged about his ability to work with the likes of Strom Thurmond back in the day. Taken together, the two sound bites raised the specter of the “states rights” argument that was long used by racists to thinly veil their bigotry.
The trouble with all of this is that it rests on a faulty assumption: the notion that opposition to busing was synonymous with opposition to civil rights—and that all decent people realize in retrospect that busing was an unmitigated good.
This, however, is not the case.
In the July 2 Boston Globe, for example, columnist Jeff Jacoby made the case that Biden was right to have opposed it.
“The forced busing of schoolchildren for purposes of racial desegregation,” he wrote, “was a wretched, wrongheaded policy that caused far more harm than good.”
Jacoby went on to note that his own paper, the Globe, had been a staunch supporter of busing back in the mid-70s—and that 20 years later, the editorial board retracted its support, arguing that the policy had achieved “neither integration nor better schooling.”
Early on, moreover, it wasn’t just whites who opposed it. Jacoby cites a 1982 poll, conducted by the Globe, indicating that only 14 percent of black parents still supported busing.
HAVING BEEN PART OF THIS EXPERIMENT myself, I’ve thought a lot about busing over the years.
My sister, who is 4 years older than I am, had gone to an old high school in Staten Island, New York, in the neighborhood adjacent to ours. The percentage of black students at the school, she confirmed recently, was “tiny.” That came as no surprise, since the area of the Island where we lived was overwhelming white. Indeed, there was only one black family that lived even remotely nearby when I was a child.
By the time I was ready to enter a high school, in 1970, a new one had been built. It wasn’t much farther away, but it was situated closer to the north end, where the Island’s black population was concentrated.
From day one, the experiment in orchestrated integration seemed like a failure indeed. For the most part, white kids sat on one side of the lunchroom and black kids on the other—each group warily eyeing the other until fights invariably broke out.
Gradually, though, things changed. By sophomore year, the general tensions seemed to have eased a bit, and I had become friendly with a black kid named Donald. I remember one moment of humor, in particular, that was both a testament to my cluelessness and a symbol of cross-cultural exchange.
“That T-shirt is bad,” Donald said to me one day, pointing to my chest as we were getting dressed in the gym locker room.”
I was puzzled. I thought my T-shirt was pretty cool. I couldn’t understand why he was insulting me.
Noting the expression on my face, he laughed and said, “Nah, man—bad is good.”
What can I say? This was before the mainstreaming of hip-hop, never mind the emergence of social media. There was little cross-fertilization of sub-cultural slang back then.
Not that it was all peace, love and understanding after that. My recollection, at least, is that self-segregation was still largely the rule throughout my senior year. But there is one other moment that stands out in my mind. One day, weeks before graduation, in 1974, I found myself sitting with two members of the basketball team, both black, sharing a joint and laughing our asses off. This may have been more a testament to the bonding power of weed than it was to the efficacy of busing, but so be it. By then we were all a lot more comfortable with people of different races.
SO WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE of busing as a policy?
The other night I asked my friend Tim Seibles, who’s African-American, what his experience was like with busing in his hometown of Philadelphia. Through third grade, he told me, he’d gone to an elementary school that was almost all black. Then, in the fourth grade, he was bused to a more integrated school.
“For me it was good,” he recalled. “I got to meet white people as individuals as opposed to an idea.
“Was it perfect? What is? But all in all, given the history of this country, I think that anything we can do to introduce people of different races to each other is a good thing.”
That’s my take on the situation as well, both as a participant in the experiment and as a social observer. If the history of our country teaches us anything, after all, it’s that the federal government sometimes needs to step in to effect changes that most people wouldn’t make voluntarily.
But therein lies the rub: The simple fact that most people won’t proactively venture outside their comfort zones doesn’t necessarily make them racists.
That leads me to consider a problem we’re facing today. As I’ve noted in many other essays in this space and elsewhere, we continue to do a very poor job of talking about race in this country. There’s very little allowance for nuance—very little, in fact, in any of our socio-political debates. I used to think Ari Fleischer’s comment after the invasion of Iraq—“You’re either with us or against us”—was a horrifying reflection of the Bush Administration’s tyrannical aspirations. Now it might as well be the mantra of groups across the political spectrum. You could see evidence of it in the 2016 campaign, not only in the MAGA vs. Never-Trump divide, but between supporters of Clinton and supporters of Sanders.
And you can see it now. The one exception in the campaign, to my mind, is Pete Buttigieg—a man who seems sincerely dedicated to building bridges through nuanced conversation.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot I like about Harris as well. But while she did herself a favor in the debate by calling out Biden on his opposition to busing—when he had 60 seconds to respond—I don’t think she did much to contribute to the elevation of our national discourse about race in America. I’m not saying she should apologize to Biden. Politics is rough-and-tumble game. I just hope she’ll give it some thought.