Reviving America's busing debate does little to address today's political crises
Democrat presidential hopeful Kamala Harris has attacked rival Joe Biden’s record on race by resurrecting a contentious policy from almost half a century ago
In 1971, at the height of the busing debate in the US, I was a tiny kid wearing giant bell-bottoms and riding a Schwinn bike with training wheels. It was a heady and dangerous time: the height of the Vietnam war, the early years of feminism and the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Four years had passed since the long, hot summer of summer of 1967, when riots broke out in cities across America: Detroit, Newark, Cincinnati, Buffalo.
Busing was a national experiment, a means to integrate public schools in America, a way of achieving racial balance. It was not the best plan – under the Department of Education’s mandate, black children from the inner cities were bused hours away from their homes to predominately white suburban schools. These schools were usually better equipped, had better teachers and offered a higher standard of education. That part, we can all agree with – these kids deserved the same education as their white counterparts.
However, the ones who were bused, and their parents, weren’t given a choice – it was a federal decision. Equally, white children who went to the better public high schools were sent to inner-city high schools, which were predominantly black. No one was happy with this initiative, least of all the students and their parents.
The notion of mixing the demographics was good. The way it was carried out was not. It inflamed rather than soothed racial tensions. In the end, studies showed that white parents just sent their children to private schools, or moved to the suburbs – a pattern that became known as “white flight”.
Busing happened nearly half a century ago, but it has come back as a major campaign issue since the first Democratic primary debate in Miami two weeks ago. That was when the ambitious California Senator Kamala Harris skewered her rival and former vice president Joe Biden by asking him why he did not support busing back in 1971, when he was a young prosecutor in Delaware.
Ms Harris grew up in Berkeley, California, and was one of those kids on the bus. She understands how painful it is to live with racism every day. But trying to take Mr Biden back 50 years, when he was a young prosecutor who disagreed with the practice and implications of busing, is wrong. Mr Biden had earlier fought for civil rights and was committed to equality. When it came to busing, he did not agree with the methods. He felt that the Department of Education was wrong to order transports of students to school, within or outside their school district, in an attempt to reduce racial segregation.
I believe that Mr Biden is not the uncaring white man the Harris campaign is attempting to portray him as. Back in 1971, in his home state of Delaware, Mr Biden fought for racial equality, but opposed busing because he thought it “pushed civil rights back” and that it was a bankrupt policy. Looking back at old footage of busing in places such as Boston, Philadelphia and Maryland, all I can see is anger. It did not do much to soothe the already wounded spirit of America, broken by racial tensions.
Mr Biden, clearly, is no racist. He believed and fought for racial equality. And a speech he gave to Yale’s graduating class this year explains why he chose to work alongside the conservative and segregationist North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to create an anti-busing amendment to that year’s education spending bill.
Why would Mr Biden work with such a man? He had an answer: “Senator Helms and I continued to have profound political differences, but early on we both became the most powerful members of the Senate … something happened, the mutual defensiveness began to dissipate. And as a result, we began to be able to work together in the interests of the country.”
Whoever the next US president will be, it has to be someone who can talk honestly and candidly about race
This brings us back to the central topic: how to heal America, post-Trump. The Democrats need to come together, not attack one another. Ms Harris’s attempts to distort Mr Biden’s history and his words were a cheap shot to turbocharge her campaign. She recalled one of the most painful moments in American history, one that we should not forget, but one that we should also not use and manipulate. For anyone who grew up during the civil rights movement, which I did, it seems almost sacrilege to try to corrupt the facts of that time to gain votes.
And to make it even worse, Ms Harris is unclear and muddy about where she actually stands in the busing debate (she says it was “in the toolbox” for desegregating American schools, but does not say how), even though she tried to seduce the audience with her emotional words “and that little girl on the bus was me …”
I want to like Kamala Harris because I am a woman and a Democrat. But I don’t find her nearly as impressive as her colleague in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren, who is less a politician and more a studious problem solver, prepared to roll up her sleeves and tackle the biggest issues in America: bankruptcy.
Ms Harris has also faced criticism because of her relationship with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which according to the progressive activist group MoveOn, “has been known to peddle anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric”.
While Ms Harris did not go to the group’s annual policy meeting in March, she did meet its key figures and tweeted a photograph. “Great to meet today in my office with California AIPAC leaders to discuss the need for a strong US-Israel alliance, the right of Israel to defend itself,” read the caption. It is true that Ms Harris has not actually made her Middle East policies clear, but I worry about someone who is susceptible to such Washington lobbyists. This, and the busing incident, make her an unreliable candidate, in my view.
Whoever the next US president will be has to be someone as Corey Booker, the African-American New Jersey senator – who is also in the running – says, who can talk honestly and candidly about race. President Trump has managed to set back race relations by half a century with his hate-filled rants and his response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
I have recently moved back to the US after nearly 30 years away. I try to remember those days of 1971, when things seemed so new: feminism, civil rights. We need to recall the wisdom of elders such as Martin Luther King and others who sacrificed so much to bring the country together – not tear it apart.
Janine di Giovanni is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute. She is the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. Follow her on Twitter @janinedigi
Updated: July 16, 2019 02:54 AM