Opinion

Harris unfairly attacked Biden on busing

Harris confronts Biden about racism in tense exchange

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris confronts Joe Biden about racism during the second day of the NBC Democratic Presidential Primary Debates for the 2020 elections on June 27, 2019.
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Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris confronts Joe Biden about racism during the second day of the NBC Democratic Presidential Primary Debates for the 2020 elections on June 27, 2019.

By now, attentive readers are aware that Joe Biden, the leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination, has “apologized” for saying — or implying — things he didn’t say or imply. He has also pleaded guilty to human imperfection. Such empty apologies have become routine rituals of our moralistic political discourse.

If you missed the story, here’s the background:: in the recent Democratic “debate,” Sen. Kamala Harris ambushed Biden with a clever but misleading attack. Those who have followed Biden’s career do not identify him as a racist or segregationist. In fact they identify him as the faithful running mate of the first black president. But since in the distant past such Deep-South senators as James Eastland of Mississippi held decisive committee power thanks to long Democratic control, they sometimes had to be wooed — which is not to say agreed with — to get desirable things done. That was what Biden said by way of confession.

Call it expedient, call it collegial, call it necessary; it was essential. No one ever flourished in a US Senate seat by insulting or boycotting senators of objectionable views. Biden, in a recent interview, had spoken of such expedients — a confession of intellectual honesty.

When Harris loosed her prepared attack upon Biden as a fellow-traveler of bygone racists, he seemed stunned — naturally, since it came as news to him and many others. Harris amplified the insult by further identifying Biden as an opponent of “busing” to and from school, while portraying herself in a tone of pathos as a “little girl” who benefited from busing.

What was missing? History and perspective, as usual.

The historical link Harris omitted was that there were two distinct kinds of “busing,” both controversial. There was the voluntary busing of special importance in southern rural areas where rides to and from school were indispensable. In the case of black children, in the days of compulsory segregation, busing was how “white” areas were traversed en route to Jim Crow racial separation. Senator Harris’s busing experience was presumably a convenience — though in such cases any resulting segregation was called “de facto,” meaning that it was incidental. Both systems had their rights and wrongs.

The busing Biden and others opposed (including Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who memorably accused judges of pursuing small schoolchildren as if by helicopter in pursuit of “racial balance”) arose from a Supreme Court decision of the early 1970s known as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg. It mandated desegregation by numbers and ratios even when it disrupted “neighborhood” elementary schools. It often entailed grotesque designs of involuntary cross-town transportation of schoolchildren. One nine-year-old boy in Greensboro was in six schools in seven years and he was far from unique.

If Biden objected he was one of many anxious parents torn between the rule of law and anxiety over 6-14 year olds roused for bus rides far from home in rush-hour traffic. Not even Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who had signed the Swann opinion, grasped its drastic implications. We know that because he publicly chastised a Middle District judge here in NC who tried dutifully in the Forsyth County case to enforce the ruling.

Intellectual honesty on the part of Senator Harris would not have muddled two quite different varieties of ‘busing” — one voluntary and one mandatory, the first not especially controversial, the second intensely so. But that would have blunted her political point, which was to woo the black vote in South Carolina. The habits of chronic mendacity current these days in Washington seem to be contagious.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is retired after a career as a journalist in Washington. D.C.

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