It was the defining moment of Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate: Sen. Kamala Harris, the only black candidate on the stage, challenging former Vice President Joe Biden on his civil rights record.
The split-screen exchange instantly went viral and culminated in this terse back and forth on Biden’s position on desegregating schools.
“Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?” Harris asked.
Biden responded: “I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
This is not the first time in this race that Biden’s past position on busing has come under fire. It became a national story in March when the Washington Post unearthed an interview from 1975 in which Biden told a Delaware newspaper, “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race.' I don’t buy that.”
Three days after the Post story published, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar visited Tampa. By then, Biden’s position on busing had made the rounds and became fodder for cable news.
But asked about Biden’s remarks and his history on busing, Klobuchar punted.
“I haven’t read that quote,” Klobuchar said. “You should ask Joe Biden.”
Pressed for more, Klobuchar added: “I think desegregation of schools is very important but I’m not going to comment on Joe Biden’s quote.”
The state of the race was much different at this point. So was the tone. Biden was not yet a candidate and the Democratic field, still trying to establish their own campaigns, were reticent to go after the well-liked and perceived front-runner.
That obviously changed last night.
“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country,” Harris said. “And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, 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. So, I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”
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