Democrats’ Ominous Shift on School SegregationRoundup
tags: segregation, political history, Democratic Party, busing, 2020 Election
BRETT GADSDEN is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, and author of Between North and South: Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism.
Biden’s evolving position on busing is emblematic of the Democratic Party’s retreat from civil rights in the 1970s on a number of key strategic fronts. And Harris’s criticism of the Democratic front-runner belies the extent to which her own position echoes that retreat. The exchange revealed less about Biden’s past positions than about how far the United States has drifted from a commitment to achieving equality of opportunity.
Biden is eager to point voters to his impressive track record on civil rights. He was instrumental in organizing a bipartisan bloc of senators to facilitate the renewal of essential elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the early 1980s; he co-sponsored measures reintroducing the Equal Rights Amendment in 2007. And much to the consternation of President Barack Obama, the vice president’s endorsement of gay marriage in 2012 forced Obama to reverse his position and support marriage rights for same-sex couples.
In the early 1970s, however, Biden and many of his fellow Democrats in the Senate faced a vexing dilemma: How to support a central goal of the civil-rights movement—school desegregation—and account for a rising tide of popular opposition to busing? The sociologist Nathan Glazer, writing in Commentary in 1972, captured Biden’s—and liberal Democrats’—dilemma with great precision: “To stand with the courts in their latest decisions is, for liberal Congressmen, political suicide ... But if to stand with the further extension to all the Northern cities and suburbs of transportation for desegregation is suicide, how can the liberal Congressmen join with the South and with what they view as Northern bigotry in opposing busing? Is there a third position, something which responds to the wave of frustration at court orders, and which does not mean the abandonment of hope for an integrated society?”
It was in opposition to certain means of advancing reform—not hostility to the principle of African Americans’ entitlement to equal rights and equal opportunity—that Biden discovered that third position, and a way through the conundrum that Glazer described. In 1975, Biden argued on the Senate floor that busing was a “bankrupt concept,” and charged that the reform had the effect of intensifying racial tensions rather than facilitating reconciliation. And two years later, with a note of skepticism in his voice, he questioned the ability of federal authorities to affect change, “according to some [Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] formula which is somehow supposed to provide for a better educational opportunity for young people.” This logic animated his support for measures that limited the ability of the federal government, under the auspices of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to demand busing plans and other district-reorganizing measures where there was evidence of racial segregation.
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