U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) came for Vice President Joe Biden’s neck Thursday night over his lack of support for federally ordered busing to help desegregate the nation’s schools as 10 more Democrats took the stage to make their case for why they should be the next president.
Harris and Biden’s exchange took place during the second half of the two-hour debate, which — unlike part 1 of the Democrats’ debate Wednesday night — was more contentious, with candidates calling out not only the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, but also the perceived front-runner among the Democrats: Biden.
At the top of second half, moderator Rachel Maddow raised a question regarding race and criminal justice that was directed toward South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose city has just experienced the killing of a black man, Eric Logan, at the hands of a police officer, roiling racial tensions there.
Five minutes later, moderators were set to move on to a new topic when Harris interjected that “as the lone black person on the stage,” she’d like the opportunity to address the issue of race.
After stating how much she agreed with a number of her fellow candidates who had spoken to how important the issue was, Harris took the issue — personally.
Recounting how she and her sister growing up had a neighbor who was not allowed to play with them because they were black, Harris then took her case directly to Biden.
Training her gaze directly at the former VP, Harris said:
“I do not believe that you are racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground, but ... it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.
“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris continued. “There was a little girl in California who was 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 and Harris then engaged in a back-and-forth, with Biden on the defensive.
“It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true,” said Biden, who then pointed up his record as a public defender — as opposed to a prosecutor like Harris — and his long record of working on civil rights, including while in office as Barack Obama’s No. 2.
But when asked directly by Harris if he was “wrong” to oppose busing during the 1970s when Harris was a child, Biden, rather surprisingly, said “no” as part of the following exchange:
Harris: But Vice President Biden, do you agree today, do you agree today, that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?
Biden: No. I did not oppose busing. What I opposed is busing ordered by the [U.S.] Department of Education. That is what I opposed.
Harris: Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
Biden: Because your City Council made that decision. It was a local decision.
It was then that an impassioned Harris brought her point home, ticking off the various federal laws that are in place or, as she stated, need to be, because locals (states and cities) don’t always do the so-called right thing:
“So that’s where the federal government must step in. That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act. And the Civil Rights Act,” Harris said. “That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act [which would address LGBTQ discrimination]. That’s why we need to pass the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment, which would address gender discrimination]. Because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
From there, Biden pivoted, discussing how he’d always supported the ERA and the Voting Rights Act before he stopped himself, closing with:
“... Anyway, my time’s up.”
After Thursday night’s exchange with Harris, could Biden’s words be prescient?