Joe Biden On Race: What The Democratic Presidential Nominee Has Said About Busing

Oct 12, 2020
Originally published on October 12, 2020 11:00 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What is Joe Biden's record on race? The Democrat makes it a big part of his case for election. He wants to heal the divisions of President Trump's time. He's a white man who served under the first Black president. Yet he is also criticized for parts of his record. His future running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, pressed him last year about busing to integrate schools.

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KAMALA HARRIS: Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then...

JOE BIDEN: No...

HARRIS: ...Do you agree?

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BIDEN: ...I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That's what I opposed.

INSKEEP: Over the next two mornings, we will explore two portions of Biden's record, starting with his opposition to busing. That story is relevant to the way he would govern today even though it stretches back decades to the start of his career.

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BIDEN: I'm Joe Biden. And I'm a candidate for the United States Senate.

INSKEEP: This radio ad from 1972 promotes Biden's first Senate campaign in Delaware.

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BIDEN: Politicians have done such a job on the people that the people don't believe them anymore. And I'd like a shot at changing that.

INSKEEP: He was young and liberal, against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. Activist Bebe Coker met Biden when he joined civil rights protests in Delaware.

BEBE COKER: And Joe came barreling by and saw us, jumped out the car - somebody give me a sign. He never had his own - and you can tell him - well, he knows it because I've told him. He never had his own protest sign. He always had to get somebody else's (laughter) sign.

INSKEEP: But on one issue, Biden parted from most civil rights leaders, school busing - sending Black kids to white schools and, sometimes, the reverse.

MATTHEW DELMONT: By the time Biden gets to the Senate in 1973, the issue of busing initially emerged as a very contentious, hot-button political issue.

INSKEEP: Matthew Delmont wrote a book called "Why Busing Failed." The Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools with its Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. The decades' long struggle to enforce that ruling started in the Deep South. Later, it moved North, where schools were not legally segregated, but neighborhoods effectively were segregated. Judges ordered busing to diversify neighborhood schools.

Why did white parents have a problem with this?

DELMONT: The most basic answer is white parents weren't enthusiastic about having their kids attend racially integrated schools. Sometimes it was linked to explicit racism. More often, these white parents understood that because of policy decisions that have been made over decades, Black and Latino schools had fewer resources. They tended to have less qualified teachers. It was controversial because there just wasn't a lot of support for this happening in their own neighborhoods.

INSKEEP: When you research this, do you find a lot of people who are saying, I consider myself a liberal, I favor integration, just not this way?

DELMONT: Absolutely. And I think that's what this history reveals. So it was a classic liberal position to say, you know, I'm in favor of school integration in Little Rock, in Montgomery, in Selma, but not so much in Boston, Chicago, New York or Wilmington.

INSKEEP: In Wilmington, demands for integration led a judge to order busing starting in 1978. In the NPR archives, we found recordings of a white, Wilmington parent who said that year that he wouldn't go along.

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UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #1: I have one child that is supposed to be bused but will not be bused. Worse comes to worse, I see nothing wrong with the education in the home program.

INSKEEP: A Black parent supported busing, but she noticed Black kids had to ride buses more than white kids did.

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UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #2: So I figured, OK, here we go again with the business of crumbs from the table. But I've always told my children that if you stand there long enough and get enough crumbs, you finally get the whole cake.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And for the first time, the antibusing forces were joined by half a dozen liberal senators.

INSKEEP: A 1975 NPR story on busing featured Sen. Joe Biden. He said busing wasn't working. In this recording, the senator said liberals needed to speak up even if that made them awkward allies of segregationists.

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BIDEN: It has been an issue that has been in the hands of the racists. And we liberals have out-of-hand rejected it because if George Wallace is for it, it must be bad. And so we haven't really looked at it. Now there's a confluence of streams. There is academic ferment against it - not majority, but academic ferment against it. There are young Blacks and young white leaders against it. There is social unrest which highlights it.

INSKEEP: Biden would later speak proudly of his pragmatic efforts to work with everyone, even segregationists. But his 1970s stance on busing drew criticism from the only Black senator then, Republican Edward Brooke.

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EDWARD BROOKE: He can be against busing. But can he be against the Constitution as a liberal? I mean, can he be against the law?

INSKEEP: Historian Matthew Delmont says Biden sought legislation to limit busing within the Constitution.

DELMONT: In his own words, it was a huge deal. I think he said it was his most important issue in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

INSKEEP: Studies eventually showed busing helped Black students without harming white students, but it never grew popular. And Biden's allies in Wilmington note that some Black parents never liked it either.

Your kids were bused, then?

COKER: They had to be because of the law.

INSKEEP: Biden's longtime friend, Bebe Coker, says she urged him to push, instead, for fair housing laws.

COKER: We had a very small group that opposed busing. And I welcome the opportunity to share with you, housing was segregated. You went to school where you lived.

INSKEEP: Matthew Delmont says Biden did favor fair housing.

DELMONT: So he sees school integration as only one part of a much larger policy dynamic. And here, I think he is right. I think, if we're going to have meaningful school integration, you have to also attack housing discrimination, try to get more public housing in the suburbs. I think one of the caveats I would add, though, is that those things need to work together. You can't say you're in favor of housing integration and not also be fighting for school integration at the same time.

INSKEEP: A person close to Biden insists even today that his stance was right. The unpopular practice faded. But there's a little more to the story.

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BIDEN: Yes, I accept your nomination to run and serve with Barack Obama, the next...

INSKEEP: Biden's service under the first Black president offered a second chance at school desegregation. Matthew Delmont says the Obama administration tried methods that were more subtle than busing, like grants for local schools to voluntarily strengthen their own diversity plans.

DELMONT: These weren't massive, revolutionary-type initiatives. But they did try to get the federal government back behind the idea of school integration as a good, as a public good.

INSKEEP: Does the Obama administration approach suggest that Biden was right, at least about the politics? Busing was going to be a non-starter. They had to come up with other ways to encourage integration.

DELMONT: Once you've sort of narrowed the political vision to that extreme, then, yes. What the Obama administration was trying to do was relatively beneficial given all the things that were already off the table for what politicians were no longer willing to do.

INSKEEP: Generations after integration became the law, many white students and most students of color attend schools that are still, effectively, segregated. But if Biden wins in November, his administration could try again.

DELMONT: The school system is in need of a reckoning around whether we are actually a country that believes in the moral and legal mandate of the Brown v Board decision or we're not.

INSKEEP: As president, Joe Biden would face a challenge the country has struggled with even longer than he's been in politics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.