For former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, questions about school integration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system loomed large as they approached the debate stage Thursday night. And the issues exploded about an hour into the debate.
Biden is a long-time public official with a public record that features both civil rights work in housing, employment, voting and other arenas but who stridently opposed busing to integrate schools. He also recently boasted of having worked successfully with southern segregationists.
Harris, a long-time prosecutor, had to balance a record of incarcerating prisoners with her position that the criminal justice system has produced and contributed to mass incarceration characterized by vast racial disparities.
The matters lay dormant for the first half of the debate, but then Harris, a skilled interrogator, began to question and chastise Biden on stage about his position on busing and his comments about former colleagues in the U.S. Senate. Making it personal, Harris told a story about a little girl who was bused to an integrated school.
"That little girl was me," she said.
Harris then turned to Biden and asked a direct question.
"Do you agree today that you were wrong," Harris said, "to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?"
Biden's answer seemed to be lawyerly.
"I did not oppose busing in America," Biden said. "What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education, that's what I opposed."
He seemed to be saying that he had no problem accepting busing if a local school board ordered it, only if it were required by the national government. (Later, in an interview with NBC's Garrett Haake, he even brought up the old distinction between de jure and de facto segregation, saying he supported the ability of courts to order busing.)
But the essence of Biden's argument is belied by the public record. Biden introduced a number of measures in the early years of his long Senate career that not only sought to block federally mandated busing, but also to remove the threat of federal funding freezes for districts that would not integrate classrooms, and to curb the ability of courts to order school desegregation.
Biden's position on busing, a key means by which schools across the country were integrated during the early years of Biden's Senate career, was not unique. It was shared by a range of lawmakers representing conservative Southern districts and liberal, Northern and urban ones. It had a lasting effect on the country, educational policy experts say.
During the 10- to 15-year period in which courts pushed districts across the country to integrate schools, students in segregated districts produced the smallest educational achievement gaps on record. Those gaps have expanded as districts responded to public pressure and returned to assigning students based, largely on their home addresses.
A long term study of thousands of students across the country found that black students who attended integrated schools for the longest period of time were more likely to go to and complete college, earn more money as adults, and enjoy better health. Their white peers at integrated schools saw no reduction in their educational or other life outcomes but did see increases in their support for equality measures.
By speaking so forcefully during the exchange, Harris managed to both put a human face on a long-running public policy debate and to evoke from Biden, an experienced debater, a word salad without a direct answer to her question.
Biden tried to counter with an extended description of his civil rights résumé, and an allusion to his role as vice president to Barack Obama, the nation's first black president. He even tried to undermine her credibility on the issue by pointing out that while she started out as a prosecutor, he began as a public defender.
"It's a mischaracterization of my statements across the board. I did not praise racists," Biden said to Harris, describing himself as chief advocate for the extension of the Voting Rights Act, an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and other measures. "That is not true, number one. Number two, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights, I'm happy to do that."
But Harris pointed out the reality of supporting only local control of integration — school districts and states across the country simply refused to end segregation on their own.
"Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America," she said, describing the period after the Supreme Court's 1954 decision to ban school segregation. "I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education."
That's why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, she said.
"That's why we need to pass the Equality Act, that's why we need to pass the ERA," she continued. "Because the moments in history where states failed to protect the civil rights of all people."
The entire exchange evoked a reality described by the writer Ruskin Bond.
"The past is always with us," he said, "for it feeds the present."