Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden defended his civil rights record Friday, seeking to regain ground lost a day earlier when fellow 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris challenged his record on busing and working with segregationists.
In a fundraising letter to supporters, Mr. Biden said the Democratic primary “shouldn’t be about the past” — but also cited his eight years with President Obama as evidence he’s able to carry Democrats’ inclusiveness message going forward.
“I will reinstate the policies we pushed during the Obama-Biden administration to finish the work of desegregating our schools — because we have a national interest in creating diverse student bodies,” Mr. Biden said.
The email came minutes after Mr. Biden defended himself in a speech to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, saying his widely panned explanations of his record in Thursday night’s debate didn’t do justice to his history.
“I heard and I listened to and I respect Senator Harris, but we all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on the campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime committed to civil rights. I want to be absolutely clear about my record and position on racial justice including busing,” the Delaware Democrat said.
On Thursday, at Democrats’ first 2020 presidential primary debate, Ms. Harris said she didn’t believe Mr. Biden was racist, but she questioned the message he sent by highlighting his work with segregationist Democratic senators early in his career.
She also accused him of opposing busing as a means of integrating schools, saying Mr. Biden’s position was personally “hurtful” to her.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to public school every day and that little girl was me,” Ms. Harris said.
On Friday, speaking to Mr. Jackson’s group, Mr. Biden said he respected that experience.
“I never, never, never, ever opposed voluntary busing and as a program that Senator Harris participated in and it made a difference in her life. I did support federal action to address root causes of segregation in our schools and our communities, including taking on the banks and redlining and trying to change the way in which neighborhoods were segregated,” he said.
Mr. Biden did back some anti-busing measures in the 1970s, including in letters enlisting help of Senate segregationists to try to pass anti-busing legislation.
In one, he said busing was “a bankrupt concept” and thanked Sen. James Eastland, who frequently said blacks are “an inferior race,” for attempting to bring his measure up for a vote.
But Mr. Biden opposed other anti-busing measures.
On Friday he highlighted what he called “the deciding vote” he cast against a measure in 1974 that would have limited court-ordered busing to end school segregation. He said that vote was not popular with his constituents.
“I fought my heart out to ensure that civil rights, voting rights, equal rights are enforced everywhere. These rights are not up to the states to decide, they are the federal government’s duty to decide. It’s a constitutional question to protect the civil rights of every single American, and that’s always been my position,” he said.
Mr. Jackson, speaking to CNN in an interview before the event with Mr. Biden, condemned the former vice president’s saying he “was on the wrong side of history.”
“I don’t know why he took that side of history, but I think he’s changed,” Mr. Jackson told CNN.
“We hope he’s outgrown those problems, but his competition will force him in the primary to deal with that,” Mr. Jackson added.
In his fundraising email Friday afternoon, Mr. Biden said he’s looking ahead.
“The discussion in this race today shouldn’t be about the past,” he said. “It should be about how we can do better and move forward and give every kid in this country an opportunity to succeed. That means good schools in every neighborhood. No child’s future should be determined by their zip code.”
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