Forty-four years ago, when Joe Biden was a young U.S. Senator fighting to block federally forced busing for integration, Alma Maya was a recent high school graduate in Bridgeport.
Maya, who later raised three daughters and some grandchildren in the state’s largest city — a Hispanic and mixed-race family — didn’t much like busing either. She had gone to schools in the East End of Bridgeport when it was a fully integrated neighborhood of immigrants, Puerto Ricans and African Americans.
“I don’t see that busing kids made education better for anybody. The quality of education did not improve just because you started busing kids,” said Maya, who was Bridgeport town clerk for eight years, elected as a Democrat in 2007 and 2011.
“I’m not into separate but equal, but I’m also not into forced integration the way it happened in Bridgeport,” she added.
A few miles downstate, Martin Levine had two sons in the Stamford city schools, where he had graduated in 1957, and he did support busing. Like Biden, he had participated in sit-ins in the civil rights era, and Levine had been arrested for it.
Levine backed the city’s plan to build new schools in the predominantly white neighborhoods and bus minority students from downtown neighborhoods to those schools. It was far from a perfect answer in his view because it laid the burden on black children.
“I felt it was necessary to fix what was a societal wrong,” Levine said Monday. But he added, “That was not without controversy from all points on the political spectrum.”
All of us who grew up or raised children anywhere near an American city between the late-’60s and now have stories about integration and perhaps busing. In sixth grade, my family moved to Teaneck, N.J., celebrated as the first town in the nation to voluntarily desegregate by busing. I have a mixed view of its success as it never, for most of us, led to true social integration.
Into this cauldron of historic struggle — matched in complexity only by the forever crisis in the Middle East — former Vice President Biden came under fire at the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, for his role in the Senate bill to block federally mandated busing. By his own account, he joined segregationist senators with less than pure motives.
Biden lost the exchange not because of his actions four decades ago but because he botched the moment, failing to explain that complexity. It’s a picture with levels and levels of meaning, which Maya in Bridgeport and Levine in Stamford could only paint in broad strokes when we spoke Monday.
Harris, now famously after a summer weekend of what passes for discussion in the Twitter age, was a young girl in Berkeley, benefiting from busing at the very time when Biden was trying to halt progress. In her telling, busing was a moral imperative along with voting rights, opposition to redlining and other housing discrimination and workplace protections.
In Harris’s telling, there is no debate among civilized people who favor a racially fair society. The trouble is, that’s just not true.
It’s true that most but not all committed, liberal, integrationists favored federally forced busing. Indeed, Levine makes the point that Stamford acted on its own in 1970-71, facing the strong possibility of federal action.
It’s true that most conservatives, including many who would prefer to see their children’s schools remain all white and some who hold other views, opposed forced busing.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a clean, left-right human rights issue in the way some of us think of gay marriage, women’s reproductive choice and access to health care. Come to think of it, those are plenty complex issues, too.
Biden, caught unprepared, might have told Harris that 1975 was a different time. The famously ironic Stanley Forman photograph in Boston of a white man aiming the point of an American flag at pro-busing protesters was still a year away. The divisive Supreme Court ruling that said busing can only happen in cases where there had been malicious and intentional segregation had just come down one year prior.
Biden might have said clearly that he favored busing even then if cities and towns did it voluntarily but not by federal fiat. A generation and a half later, we see federal intervention through a different lens. In light of Stamford’s experience doing the right thing under some pressure, that might be a weak argument but it’s at least cohesive.
Biden might have said, correctly, that leaders must always balance their own views with the views of the people who elected them. He apparently moved further against busing based on hearing from constituents in Delaware. While sweeping issues demand courage, representative democracy still holds sway.
Biden might have said the real issue is housing patterns, though clearly schools are part of that. In Connecticut, just look at the tortured legacy of the 1989 Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit to see that busing is not an easy answer.
Biden might have shown empathy for Harris, a fellow Democratic candidate. We all know the only goal that matters is unseating the despotic President Donald Trump. And it’s clear that busing shaped Harris in a way most of us can’t understand.
Instead, Biden did none of this; not clearly anyway. He spoke about his long record in civil rights and he said obtusely that his actions did not prevent busing in Berkeley.
That exchange shows two things: Whatever his politics around race, Biden isn’t prepared to answer important questions clearly. And more important, the United States, more than 150 years after the end of slavery, is incapable of a meaningful public conversation on race.
We won’t solve that broader issue. As for the campaign, Biden also failed to answer why he should hold the torch of power after a younger candidate in the debate demanded he relinquish it or explain why he’s still running for president.
“I’m still holding that torch,” Biden said, smiling, and left it at that. His trademark teeth and lovable Uncle Joe demeanor have taken him far, but the nation needs more in 2020.