On Biden and Busing: A Missed Opportunity


For me, the most frustrating moment in the first round of Democratic debates was also the most widely discussed: Senator Kamala Harris’s criticism of Vice-President Joe Biden’s record on busing.

It was frustrating because it was a reminder that the debate stage is rarely the right venue for complexity, nuance, or understanding. It’s a format which produces more heat than light, as the saying goes. Although we learned that Harris disagrees with Biden’s record on busing and that Biden stands by it, we didn’t learn much about the arguments in favor and opposed to busing. We didn’t have the opportunity to reflect on whether busing was a useful tool or not in the fight against racial injustice. The exchange indeed gave us soundbites for cable news commentators to opine on for days, but I think it was a missed opportunity. I don’t agree that it was a missed opportunity for Biden to apologize for his past, as many wanted him to do. I think it was a missed opportunity because it didn’t give us the chance to reflect seriously on how best to help struggling communities, minority or otherwise, as we continue to strive to open opportunity to all.

I hope we can take it for granted that the vast majority of Americans believe in equality and want all people to have opportunities to develop their inherent potential. True racists do still exist—those who believe one race is inherently superior to another—but those are, fortunately, very rare. Even many white supremacist groups these days are more animated by the perception that they are being ignored or left behind, rather than the desire to hold others down. And there are practically no true segregationists to speak of left in America. This is a stunning fact that too rarely receives the attention and celebration it deserves—that a mere 50 years ago, ordinary people protested and threatened violence outside of a Little Rock high school to oppose integrating it, which would be unthinkable today. Despite our current struggles, we have a tremendous amount to celebrate as a culture in our fight against racism.

I emphasize this because in the debate about the legacy of busing, there is no one defending segregation, and few are truly indifferent to the plight of those who experienced struggling schools and neighborhoods. Everyone agrees on the goal busing sought to accomplish: to offer a quality education to all. The disagreement is merely about different means to achieve that goal, not the goal itself. Surely we can find a way to have productive conversations when we’re discussing the best way to achieve a shared goal.

The arguments in favor of forced busing in the 1970s were pretty straightforward. For a host of reasons, predominantly black schools in the 1970s woefully underperformed compared to white schools in the same areas, and so the solution seemed obvious: bus black children to the superior schools so that they too could benefit from a better education, while simultaneously normalizing social interactions between white kids and black kids.

The arguments against forced busing were more nuanced and easier to misconstrue. As Biden himself said in 1975, “I don’t want to be mixed up with a George Wallace. There are some people who oppose busing because they are racist.” So why did Biden and so many other champions for civil rights oppose busing?

According to a now-infamous 1975 interview, Biden saw busing as heavy-handed, condescending, and ineffective. He saw it as a “quota system” in which the federal government would not make nuanced decisions based on local knowledge, but generalized decisions based on abstract reasoning. Biden explained, “It is one thing to say you can’t keep a black man from using this bathroom, and something quite different to say that one out of every five people who use this bathroom must be black.”

Biden also considered forced busing to be condescending. “Who the hell do we think we are, that the only way a black [child] can learn is if they rub shoulders with [a] white child?” This is a view many African-Americans held at the time as well. Many were uncomfortable with the idea that the only way African-Americans could succeed would be to abandon their own communities and enter white communities.

Finally, Biden considered forced busing to be ineffective. Because majorities of both whites and African-Americans opposed busing (even while favoring integration,) it’s not surprising that the resistance was intense. Many white families simply fled urban areas to self-segregate. Others enrolled in private schools. It is rarely effective to impose on a group of people by fiat a solution they do not want, however desirable that solution might be.

My main objection to the legacy of federally-mandated busing is that it was a bandaid solution which kept us from focusing on the bleeding wound beneath, a wound which required and still requires far more intensive care than busing offered. Poor communities everywhere—largely  African-American but white as well—are still suffering. The proper response to this need is vigorous and sustained help and attention. The solution to struggling communities, whether black, white, urban, or rural, is to help those communities become stronger and healthier, not to give up on them by encouraging their most talented members to leave them.

I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware—the very city Biden had before his eyes when thinking about racism, segregation, and busing. I’m embarrassed to admit that there are whole depressed sections of the city which, growing up, I literally didn’t know existed. We could certainly bus a select, lucky few minority students from these communities to more affluent schools, but this maintains the illusion that we’ve done our part to help these places. We haven’t. We’ve helped individuals, but we’ve given up on the places. As long as they remain invisible to us, or nearly so, we have not done our patriotic duty.

Barack Obama put it best in 2004 in one of the greatest speeches in US history:

[We know] that it’s not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we’re all connected as one people.

If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief, it is that fundamental belief, I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

Unlike many of my progressive friends and colleagues, I don’t believe much explicit racism exists in our country today. Nor would I say that inadequate awareness of the poverty in our midst—a trait shared by many conservatives and progressives—is a kind of racism. But such a lack of awareness is wrong and it is destructive. Ignorance can be just as harmful as hostility.

I am personally willing to make great sacrifices to help my impoverished fellow Americans–whether they be in urban ghettos or rural slums—but I believe the solution requires us to heal these broken places, not merely to help people escape them. If we bus one student to an affluent school but leave nine students behind, we haven’t done our duty.

If we want all Americans to flourish and thrive, we have no choice but to help heal the many broken communities in our land, whatever inconvenience or sacrifice of resources it requires. If improving our struggling schools requires that we find the best teachers in the country and pay them triple the usual salary to work there, we should do it. If improving our struggling schools requires a wholesale change in our economy to ensure good-paying jobs exist in inner cities, we should do it. If improving our struggling schools requires a service requirement of every citizen, we should do it. We should do it because Obama was right: as long as one of my fellow Americans is suffering, I am the poorer for it, even if I never encounter that person directly.

The prophetic writer Wendell Berry wrote in 1988:

“My own experience suggests to me that busing for any reason is, in reality, a tool of disintegration. I believe in neighborhood schools for the same reason I believe in neighborhood shops and stores, for the same reasons I believe in the neighborhood. There can be no greater blow to the integrity of the community than the loss of its school…. [Today’s schools] exist to aid and abet the student’s escape from the community…”

If Berry’s words seem strange or quaint, it’s because we have become so unaccustomed to thinking about community that invoking it as a standard sounds like something out of another era. But I believe Berry is right. If there is a need to bus students out of a community, the solution lies not in busing those students but in healing the community. It is a harder job, a job which requires more sacrifice—but it is the only way to heal those communities and truly respond to the needs of our fellow Americans.

These are complex issues in which people of goodwill can certainly disagree. But what we saw on the debate stage several weeks ago was not a serious reckoning with this challenging and difficult issue. The standard shouldn’t be whether a candidate’s views are “hurtful,” but whether they are true.

In an attempt to score points or a memorable sound bite, the candidates missed an opportunity to have a real discussion of these issues. But we can’t wait for our elected officials to lead the way. These are conversation that we, as citizens, need to have. Many of our fellow Americans are hurting, and the help cannot wait.

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9 thoughts on “On Biden and Busing: A Missed Opportunity”

  1. David Ludescher


    Very well done article.

    I would be interested in your thoughts about whether you believe that it is possible for us, as a nation, to have complex and nuanced discussions about busing or any other issue in politics today. For example, you note the your progressive friends take a position that explicit racism is everywhere. It seems to me that it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a complex and nuanced discussion with someone who holds this position (Kamala Harris types) even outside the context of a short debate.

    1. Justin Naylor

      Thank you David for the kind words about the article. Yes, I do think it’s possible because I’ve done it! The essential thing is to hear what the other person is saying so they feel respected in the conversation. One of the great things about Braver Angels is that it gives us structured formats so that it’s not just on us as individuals. I attended my first Braver Angels debate the other night – on abortion no less – and it was so amazing. It was a safe enough environment for two women on opposite sides of the issue to share their own experience in having an abortion. Can you image sharing that with strangers? But they did because they felt lifted up and respected despite the disagreement.

      Can this be duplicated at the national level? I don’t know. We’ll see. But as much as I work for that lofty goal, ultimately I am only responsible for my own actions and how I interact with people and have hard conversations. On that level, I know it’s possible. I also think that asking questions (real ones, not gotcha types) is a good way to get someone to consider a different position.

  2. I appreciate your generally nuanced approach to an issue that has such a complicated and emotional history with so many levels of complexity. For example, busing cannot be the only or even main solution to the phenomenon of vastly disparate resources existing in neighboring schools, but it can be an effective short-term tool given the typically long time horizon involved in trying to craft effective, operational policy to deal with political (including existing law which has in many cases been crafted to shelter more affluent communities), financial, and social considerations. I believe that you are correct that neighborhood schools should be emphasized as a preferable choice to provide effective and equitable educational outcomes. There are definite drawbacks as well though, given local conditions. Advocating channeling necessary resources to create desired quality education in many circumstances seems to me more aspirational than practical, particularly in the short term.
    Busing is not merely a tool to correct racial imbalance. In rural areas it is a necessity that has nothing to do with race. Yet, it seems that in a generalized national mindset busing is seen as closely associated with misguided (or not) attempts to correct problems in educational outcomes associated with race. And I believe that we as a society are struggling to make sense of the legacy of so many laws and policies at all levels of government that either intentionally, or in consequence, created a vast difference in educational possibilities, economic security, and health for people of typically darker skin tones than for people predominantly with European roots. (Nor do we even have an acceptable or easy vocabulary for discussing differences so often referred to as “race”. We all belong to the same race, from a scientific perspective.) For many people with access to advantages so long denied, or systematically obstructed, to people of African ancestry, in particular, but Hispanic, Native American, and various other groups, it is hard to perceive the problem.
    I have to disagree that few people defend segregation. The defense, however, typically is reframed by such beliefs as local choice or freedom from “bureaucratic” solutions to issues that are of little consequence to them. You and I agree that all of us in society are negatively impacted by the suffering of others. But I believe for too many of us the disparity is viewed as the fault of those suffering. Creating rational constructs to justify and sustain this belief is not only a normal psychological reaction to conditions that might cause stress if thought about too closely, but is also encouraged by a climate of othering and scapegoating which has become far too prominent in our political discourse.
    This article has created a good opening to a very important and difficult policy area. I thank you for that.

  3. Justin, when you wrote that “white supremacist groups these days are more animated by the perception that they are being ignored or left behind, rather than the desire to hold others down”–I see white supremacist and white nationalist groups very much wanting to hold others down. Some of the means various groups propose for holding down non-white “others” include sealing the border and dividing the country into separate racial enclaves. I assume most white supremacists would also be very strongly in favor of voter suppression and disenfranchisement of non-white voters And though it’s not currently on the table, I feel certain they would be happy to see anti-discrimination laws repealed. Until these things come to pass, they take matters into their own hands by attacking, harassing and intimidating people of color, “holding them down” either literally or by making them feel afraid.

    If white people feel left behind and want to be doing better, I believe there are policies they could be supporting that would help lift up everyone who’s hurting. Instead, they’re advocating for the policies that would hurt non-whites in the hope that, by keeping non-whites down, whites will be better off.

    1. Justin Naylor

      Thanks Erica. My comment was based on a few interviews I’ve heard with those who have left white supremacy movements and now work against them. It’s an issue I’d like to explore in more depth by reading the books by some of these people. When I first heard these views expressed in interviews I was quite surprised. I assumed that white supremacists hated certain minorities, and some certainly do. But I was stuck by the sentiment that they were more upset about being left behind and that minorities were being preferred to them. I certainly don’t agree with those sentiments, but it might help begin a hard conversation with such a person to imagine them being motivated by insecurity more than hatred. It’s definitely something I want to understand better!

      1. On a similar note, I’ve also heard Christian Picciolini (former skinhead) from Life After Hate talk about how many young men are attracted to hate movements not for the racist ideology per se but for the sense of belonging, community and purpose. Once they join, they get indoctrinated in white supremacy but it doesn’t always run deep, and they will abandon it if their lives outside of the hate movement provide meaning and meet their social needs. All that can be true and, at the same time, while participating in white nationalist/supremacist movements, they are taking actions aimed at keeping down/harming people of color.

        1. Justin Naylor

          Thanks Erica! Yes, Picciolini is one of the people I have in mind. I’ve only heard an interview, not read his book, but I’d like to do so to understand better. The distinction you make seems exactly right to me. And this is the key. If we understand that the hate is motivated by feelings of being left behind or inadequacy, it’s much easier to engage with such a person and see common humanity. If we only see the hate, we dehumanize and dismiss.

  4. Aloha,
    There are many complex nuances that can also be included about race. For example, busing in Hawai`i, is presently more about having access to a limited number of Hawaiian immersion schools, than busing into more affluent neighborhoods. Historically, as a consequence of white supremacist ideology, along with the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom(backed by American businessmen), the Hawaiian language (among other things such as hula) was banned and illegal, subject to punishment by law. So, in this context, the national discourse about race, must also include the erasure of indigenous culture, politics, religion and worldview. Worldview of indigenous peoples largely define who we/they are in reciprocal relationship to the land, air, and ocean. From a Hawaiian worldview, race includes the socio-ecological kinship of and to place; a homeland as a source of nourishment that all humans give back to and protect. The racial divides in Hawai`’i are not so much about race or ethnicity, as it is, at least to me, more about the tension and resistance to the re-integration of indigenous knowledge systems within our institutions that embrace or hold on to a supremacist ideology – devaluing indigenous wisdom and native discourse. As a result, Proud Boys Hawai`i and of the like, attract men of all ethnicity and backgrounds. They organize on college campuses, and espouse a return to “Western values” as opposed to the messaging of preserving the white race. And, big business, along with international institutions support the construction of a thirty meter telescope on the sacred slopes of Mauna Kea, also systemically enforcing “western values,” at the cost of indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge systems.

    1. I’ve always had a kind of horrified fascination when I see people of color participate in hate groups. I assume they’re attracted to the misogyny, homophobia and/or violence–that the hate movement gives them a space to embody toxic masculinity with like-minded men. Are native Hawaiian men participating in Proud Boys? Are they rejecting their own indigenous heritage in favor of “western chauvinism” and, if so, why do you think that is?

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