Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) sharply criticized former Vice President Joe Biden’s record on racial segregation in a dramatic, bracing exchange that marked the defining moment of the Democratic primary debate on Thursday night.
Harris broke into a conversation about race among the other candidates by pointing out she was the only black person onstage. She recounted discrimination she experienced growing up, then turned to Biden, who earlier this month fondly recalled collaborating with two segregationist senators during his Senate career.
“I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris said. “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.”
Biden’s remarks had previously sparked rebukes from Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), presenting perhaps the sharpest disagreement in the Democratic primary so far. Speaking of former segregationist Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), Biden said at a New York fundraiser that “at least there was some civility” and “we got things done.”
On Thursday night, Harris made it personal, connecting Biden’s opposition to busing programs that integrated schools to her own experience attending public schools as a child.
“There was little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”
As a young senator in the early 1970s, Biden worked to oppose federal initiatives to use busing to integrate public schools in an effort to overcome decades of schooling and housing discrimination across the United States.
Biden said Harris had mischaracterized his career. “I did not praise racists,” he said.
Biden invoked his record on civil rights issues and said he became a public defender when his city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
“I ran because of civil rights. I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights,” Biden said.
Harris asked whether Biden agreed he was wrong to oppose busing in the United States.
“I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed was busing ordered by the Department of Education ― that’s what I opposed,” Biden replied.
Harris pointed out that states had failed to integrate public schools. Biden once again suggested that the federal government shouldn’t have played a role in busing and that it should have been left up to local jurisdictions.
“There are moments in history when states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people,” Harris said, adding that that’s when the federal government needs to step in.