Attacking Joe Biden’s Record on Race

I found Kamala Harris’ attack on Joe Biden, over comments he made regarding his collaboration with segregationists while a Senator, somewhat disturbing. Harris’ attack led me to want to know more about the environment at the foundation of Harris’ accusations. Biden was quoted as saying that he had worked with fellow Senate members who had clear records of supporting racial segregation. He is also on record as being against busing and in favor of stiffer sentencing guidelines. After repeated exposure to the statement at the heart of Harris’ attack, I concluded that Harris took a cheap shot at Biden. I found the implications of her statement much more interesting and (possibly) troubling. A broader review of Biden’s record on racial issues provides a more complicated picture of both Biden and racism in America.

Biden’s position on bussing

Biden opposed busing as a means of resolving the unequal treatment of people of color (POC) in K12 educational settings. Harris characterized Biden’s statement as endorsing racist practices by implication. I found three problems with Harris’ characterization:

  1. Biden’s statement was far from an endorsement of the Senators in question. He specifically stated that he had very little in common with them.
  2. At the time in question, early 1970’s, most legislation in the Senate required 60 votes to pass. This was intended to ensure bi-partisan cooperation in a closely divided Senate. Voting frequently reflected the beliefs of the individual members, rather than those of the party leader. These standards have since been abandoned.
  3. Busing has proven to be much less effective as a tool for supporting racial equity than it was originally expected. It could be argued that Biden’s opposition to busing was prophetic.

    Harris seems to suggest that Biden should be ashamed of working with people he, generally, didn’t agree with even though he did agree with them on the issue of mandatory busing of K12 students. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-TN), has shown that blocking legislation, unless it is sponsored by people you like, is an effective way to undermine the democratic processes outlined in the U.S. Constitution. At a time when the American people are suffering from a leadership vacuum in public office, calling for greater tribalism in Congress would seem to be the wrong direction to head.

    Harris may have been taking advantage of a common position that was held by Biden and by segregationist Senators – but for different reasons. My take away from this situation is that Harris may be naive regarding the workings of an institution to which she belongs or, more likely, she found an opportunity to turn a complex situation into a sound bite that plays well but misrepresents the facts. This leaves me with a bad sense of Harris’s integrity as a leader.

Biden’s record on issues of race

The New York Times podcast, The Daily, recently reviewed Biden’s record on race related topics. As Kamala Harris has pointed out, Biden was against the busing of K12 students as a means of achieving educational equity. Biden was also in favor of legislation that has led to the mass incarceration crisis in this country. While both of these issues have resulted in socially undesirable outcomes, they both were broadly supported at the time of their enactment. Busing has proven to be a catalyst for further segregation rather than integration of K12 school systems. This may have been a result of unintended consequences. The prison-industrial complex that has emerged as a result of a hard-line approach to prison sentencing may (or may not) have been anticipated . The fact that the for-profit prison industry participated in the drafting of hard-line prison sentencing guidelines through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) suggests that Biden may have been naive in his support of such legislation. The rhetoric of the time supported the idea that structural inequity could be eliminated through personal responsibility on the part of people of color. This is a part of our American mythology and there is plenty of blame to go around regarding its perpetualization. Note: Biden opposed federally mandated bussing as a matter to be decided by the states.

Personal reflection

I recall thinking, when Milwaukee faced court ordered busing, that there were many moving parts that would have to work together in a positive way in order for busing to have a positive impact on racial inequity. I thought that since people preferred neighborhood schools to busing, mandated school integration could serve as a motivator for neighborhood integration. In retrospect, busing turned out to be a catalyst for further segregation and greater inequity. I too, was naive.

The use of stricter sentencing guidelines as a means of curbing crime has always sounded, to me, like the over-served guy at the end of the bar mansplaining “All’s what you got to do is….” The get tough on crime movement has managed to transfer significant tax-payer dollars into the for profit prison industry. It has done little to end racial inequity, alleviate poverty, improve public education, increase access to health care, or address any of the other issues directly correlated to incarceration rates.

The United States’ long history of racism, combined with our mythology of “freedom and justice for all,” makes it especially hard to put speciffic, isolated, decision processes under a spotlight. Mandated busing and mass incarceration are just two of many topics we must put into context if we are to travel the road to racial reconciliation. Using them as jabs during a candidate debate seems like the guy at the end of the bar over simplifying a complex situation.