Politics

10 Questions Joe Biden Needs to Answer About His Views on Race

Joe Biden.
Joe Biden.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

Did Joe Biden exploit racism 40 years ago? Critics are raising that question about the former vice president based on letters and interviews in which, as a young senator, he argued against court-ordered busing. Biden supported civil rights, voting rights, and fair housing. But in recent months, tipsters and reporters have unearthed a stash of letters and a pair of 1975 interviews—one with NPR, the other with a print outlet called the People Paper—that, in the almost identical words of CNN and the Washington Post, could tarnish Biden in the eyes of “a Democratic Party that has moved to the left and grown more ethnically diverse.”

The implication is that Biden sucked up to fearful whites in the 1970s and now must answer for that demagoguery in a party that has become more vigilant against racism. So let’s look more closely at what he wrote and said. The issues were complicated, as were Biden’s positions and arguments. Whether those arguments were correct or in good faith is up to voters to decide. But here are some of the questions he needs to answer.

1. Did he underestimate economic segregation? In the busing debate, Biden focused on a distinction between “de jure” and “de facto” segregation. “De jure” segregation, as he described it, meant that school district lines had been “deliberately drawn” to “segregate children by race.” In those situations, Biden supported court-ordered busing. But where there was “no evidence that the governmental officials intended to discriminate,” Biden concluded that any observed segregation was “unintentional,” and he proposed to ban court-ordered busing in such places. In his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep, Biden reaffirmed that he opposed “busing to remedy de facto segregation owing to housing patterns.”

Was that a mistake? Does Biden believe that economic segregation, in the form of rich white neighborhoods and poor black neighborhoods, can be overcome without aggressive interventions such as busing? Or has this kind of stratification proved to be so persistent that stronger action is warranted?

2. Did he endorse a version of “separate but equal”? In his memoir, Biden spoke with reverence of “the heroic Brown v. Board of Education” decision, which “ruled that separate schools were inherently unequal.” But in his 1975 print interview, he scorned the idea that black children could learn only if they “sit next to” white children. Biden said it wasn’t necessary for black kids to “rub shoulders with” white ones. Unlike segregationists, he confined this argument to de facto segregation. But in retrospect, was he wrong? Does he believe that equal educational opportunity requires integration?

3. Did he misapply the idea of black pride to justify segregation? In the NPR interview, Biden said “the concept of busing,” the idea that “we are going to integrate people so that they all have the same access and they learn to grow up with one another,” was “a rejection of the whole movement of black pride.” It was a rejection, he argued, of the idea that “black is beautiful, black culture should be studied, and the cultural awareness of the importance of their own identity.” Does he still believe this? Or does he think, looking back, that this argument falsely assured whites that de facto segregation was good for blacks?

4. Did he misjudge the necessity of quotas? In the print interview, Biden denounced “quota systems [designed] to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school.” He proposed legislation that, in his words, would prevent federal officials from “deciding that any child, black or white, should fit in some predetermined ratio.” Under the legislation, Biden explained, no “bureaucrat” could “tell a school district whether it is properly segregated or desegregated.” He also endorsed legislation that would block federal officials from collecting data on how many students or teachers in a school were black or white.

Without such data, how could the government monitor or rectify de facto segregation? Does Biden regret opposing the use of racial metrics? As president, would he direct the Department of Justice to defend the use of racial statistics in affirmative action?

5. Does he believe busing did more harm than good? Biden made serious arguments against busing. He warned that diverting kids to faraway schools, against the will of their parents, would antagonize parents. “It makes no sense to people that they can’t send their child to the school that’s two blocks down the street,” Biden observed. He worried that it would “take people who aren’t racist” and “fill them with hatred.”

In his memoir, Biden recalled that with the arrival of court-ordered busing, many whites fled to suburbs or pulled their kids out of public schools. He described strikes by teachers who faced mandatory transfers and in some cases pay cuts. “Busing was a liberal train wreck, and it was tearing people apart,” he wrote.

Was he right? Did court-ordered busing rend the fabric of families and communities? Was it socially and politically untenable? If so, would Biden oppose any of today’s remedial policies or ideas, such as reparations, on the same grounds?

6. What measures does Biden support to equalize opportunity? “There are other things besides busing that we should be addressing to deal with these problems,” Biden proposed in the print interview. “For example, during my [1972] campaign I went on record in support of a single statewide school district tax.” That measure, he argued, would have balanced the “distribution of educational benefits.” He also touted his work on behalf of “public housing in the suburbs of New Castle County,” which could rectify “discrimination in housing patterns.” Biden said the government should “put more money into the black schools,” “upgrade facilities,” and “open up housing patterns.” Does he think we’ve done enough in these areas? What more would he do?

7. Does he believe race-based policies are morally wrong? Biden didn’t just criticize the social effects of busing. He also challenged remedial racial policies on moral grounds. He argued that “quota systems,” such as those used in busing, forced people into “a planned society, which I abhor.” A “true liberal,” Biden reasoned, stood for “as much flexibility in society as possible.” Second, he argued that such policies dehumanized people, reducing every individual to “part of a racial percentage instead of a person.” Third, he said it was “wrong to penalize someone who has committed no wrong, based simply on the generalization of his race’s violation of the civil rights of another race.”

Looking back, does Biden recant those arguments? Or does he still believe them?

8. Does he think some accusations of racism are unjust? In his memoir, Biden complained that his position on busing in the 1970s was misunderstood as racist. He wrote: “For my effort to restore a little common sense, a few of my colleagues pulled me aside to ask how and when ‘the racists had gotten to me.’ At one of those hearings I was accused of attempting to ‘propel us back to the segregated policies of the fifties.’ ”

Today, Biden’s role in the busing debate is again being portrayed as evidence of his complicity in racism. Does he feel, on reflection, that he earned this criticism? Or does he think that today, much like 40 years ago, he and other moderates are unfairly accused of bigotry?

9. Was he influenced by the political power of white resentment? Throughout the busing debate, Biden distanced himself from overt racists. “I don’t want to be mixed up with a George Wallace,” he said. But in his memoir, he conceded that as the anti-busing movement surged in Delaware, “I started to get the feeling that busing might cost me my seat in the coming election.” He recalled being counseled by two Southern senators to go home and “demagogue the shit out of the issue.” Biden claims he didn’t do that. But he did assure crowds at campaign events in the 1970s that busing should be prohibited in situations of de facto segregation—i.e., in Delaware. Did fear of alienating white voters contribute to his advocacy of restrictions on busing? And does that make him complicit in a racial backlash?

10. Was he biased by his perspective as a white man? Some of the language in Biden’s print interview is jarring. He ridiculed the idea that in order to learn, “your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin … needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son.” He asked, “Who the hell do we think we are, that the only way a black man or woman can learn is if they rub shoulders with my white child?” He spoke of whites as us but of blacks as them.

In the NPR interview, Biden assured listeners that he had examined himself for prejudice. He described “meeting with leaders” and calling “the blacks in my staff together” to ask, “Is there something in me that deep-seated, that I don’t know?” He implied that these consultations had cleared him. Did they? Looking back, does he believe that he identified more with whites than with blacks? Does he think this skewed his understanding of economic segregation and busing?

To his credit, Biden is introspective. He understands humility. “We tend to make instant heroes out of our public figures,” he mused in the 1975 print interview. “[We] turn them into clay, which then becomes very brittle. Then we break them. We say, ‘See, they never were what they said they were.’ But they never said they were what we said they were.” The young senator reminded his interviewer, “Every individual makes mistakes.”

Biden, too, makes mistakes. But in his memoir, recalling his role in the busing debate, he didn’t really acknowledge any. Now he’ll have to think harder.