Biden and Harris revive dispute on busing and criminal justice

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris resumed their dispute during Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate regarding the legacy of school busing and the role of the criminal justice system in perpetuating America’s racial divide.

Harris was asked whether Biden was correct to say the two candidates have similar views about the historical practice of mandatory busing to desegregate public schools.

“That is simply false,” Harris replied. “And let’s be very clear about this, when Vice President Biden was in the United States Senate working with segregationists to oppose busing, which was the vehicle by which we would integrate America’s public schools, had I been in the United States Senate at that time I would have been completely on the other side of the aisle. ... Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate and Barack Obama would not have been in a position to nominate him to the title he now holds. On that issue, we could not be more apart. The vice president has still failed to acknowledge that it was wrong to take the position that he took at that time.”

Biden, who greeted Harris onstage in Detroit by quipping, “Go easy on me, kid,” responded by changing the subject to Harris’s record as California’s attorney general, and earlier, as San Francisco’s district attorney.

Joe Biden debates Sen. Kamala Harris. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“When Senator Harris was the attorney general for eight years in the state of California, there were two of the most segregated school districts in the country in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I didn’t see a single solitary time she brought a case against them to desegregate them,” Biden said. “Secondly, she also was in a situation where she had a police department when she was there [as district attorney of San Francisco] that in fact was abusing people’s rights, and the fact was that she in fact was told by her own people that her own staff, that she should do something about and disclose to defense attorneys like me that you in fact have been — the police officer did something that did not give you information that exculpate your client. She didn’t do that. She never did that. So what happened? Along came a federal judge and said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and he freed 1,000 of these people. If you doubt me, Google ‘1,000 prisoners freed, Kamala Harris.’”

The moment reprised their clash during the first Democratic debate in June, when Harris caught Biden off guard by attacking him for saying he was proud to have worked with segregationist senators to pass Democratic bills during his early years in the Senate.

Biden entered the Senate in the 1970s as a moderate who supported civil rights but opposed federal mandates for busing.

Harris pointed to her own childhood experience of being bused to school in Berkeley, Calif., and accused Biden of being on the wrong side of history for opposing federal busing mandates.

Both candidates have said they would not seek to enforce mandatory busing today.

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