Busing, It's Complicated

Two weeks ago, on the anniversary of Donald Trump descending on an escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, I remarked here on the improbability of it all. Not many then gave him any chance.

And then, with regard to 2020, I said: “…..The only thing we know for sure is that we really don’t know what's to come.”  Well look at what just happened. Joe Biden – who served 8 years as vice president for the nation’s first African American president - is now on the defensive for his civil rights record. Specifically, on busing in the 1970’s.

On Thursday night, Kamala Harris accused Biden of working with segregationist senators to oppose busing. The LA Times noted that the “ambush seemed carefully planned.”  It was choreographed with the release via social media of a photograph of a young Kamala Harris, a picture that was quickly added to a t-shirt at the campaign merchandise store. Biden struggled to respond, saying in part that he did not oppose busing but did oppose busing ordered by the Department of Education.   

It’s a complicated issue to address in short sound bytes.    

But in his 2007 memoir, promises to keep, Biden took five full pages to explain his past role, writing in part:  

"Busing was a liberal train wreck, and it was tearing people apart. The quality of the schools in and around Wilmington was already suffering, and they would never be the same. Teachers were going to be transferred without consultation to new school districts. In some instances, they would be forced to take a pay cut.

New castle county had about two-thirds of the school-age population of the state, and now every one of those children was going to be assigned to a new school on the basis of racial balance. A large percentage of them were going to be moved to a new school--some as far as a dozen miles away--when the new school year began in September 1978.

White parents were terrified that their children would be shipped into the toughest neighborhoods in Wilmington; black parents were terrified that their children would be targets of violence in the suburban schools. It also meant that a parent-teacher conference could cost them a half day of work. And what if there was an emergency?

A lot of people in inner-city Wilmington didn't have cars, and there was no reliable public transportation. Nobody was happy. I kept introducing legislation to try to keep busing as a last resort, to be used only when school districts have worked actively to segregate children by race—dejure segregation."

The point is that Biden is for busing only when discrimination is intentional.  

While segregation might seem like a subject from the past, the Washington Post noted yesterday that Harris’ home state of California is today the most segregated in the country for Latino students where 58 percent attend what the UCLA civil rights project considers “intensely segregated schools” — schools that enroll 90 to 100 percent nonwhite students or an equivalent share of white students.

Harris’ platform has made teacher pay a centerpiece of her education plan, and student debt, but thus far has said nothing about busing. And yesterday, the mercury news confirmed that the program that bussed Harris was voluntary, not court-ordered, and Biden aide told the Washington post that he would not have opposed it. 

Bottom line – this is a very complicated issue, ill-suited for a 60 second sound byte.