Biden, who was in public office for more than 40 years, sparked outrage earlier this month when he spoke of working with racist conservative lawmakers who believed in segregation. He has also faced questions over his previous opposition to the practice of busing, an effort to allow for the integration of schools after Brown v. Board of Education. At the debate stage, Harris addressed Biden, saying she had a question as the "only African American candidate" in the group.
"I do not believe you are a racist," she began, before adding that it was hurtful to hear Biden speak highly of two segregationist senators and his work opposing busing. Harris continued: "You know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me."
Biden immediately defended himself, saying his comments had been misconstrued. "I did not praise racists, that is not true. Number one," he said. "Number two, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that." He added that he's worked throughout his political career for the rights of people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
"Vice President Biden, do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?," Harris insisted, "Do you agree?" Biden replied: "I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed."
That's somewhat accurate. As a young senator, Biden called busing a "bankrupt concept" and worked with other lawmakers, most of them conservative, to limit the scope of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned school segregation, and to stop the federal government from threatening to hold federal funds if schools did not desegregate.
As someone who grew up with this experience, Harris emphasized the devastating effect these efforts to prevent busing at the federal level had. "There was a failure of states to integrate schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkely, California, Public Schools, almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education," Harris said. Biden interrupted her: "Because your City Council made that decision."
"So that's where the federal government must step in," Harris fired back. "That's why we have the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. That's why we have the Equality Act. That's why we need to have the [Equal Rights Amendment], because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people."
Harris is already breaking ground as a Black woman and daughter of immigrants running for the highest office of the land. The exchange between her and Biden was powerful not only because of its rawness, but because it reminds us that history matters — and our political leaders should be held accountable for the role they play.