Vice President Joe Biden has been telling a story about his record on busing in the 1970s, when he was a senator. The story is that although Biden opposed court-ordered busing of students to rectify de facto racial segregation—that is, segregation caused by prejudice, economic stratification, white flight, and other factors short of explicit government discrimination—he supported busing as a remedy, in his words, for “de jure segregation, meaning segregation imposed by law.”
The purpose of this story is to assure liberals that Biden supported civil rights. And he did support civil rights. But he didn’t support mandatory busing, even to rectify explicit segregation. His story isn’t true.
The controversy over Biden’s record erupted in a Democratic presidential debate on June 27, when Sen. Kamala Harris of California accused him of having opposed busing. Biden replied that Harris was misrepresenting his record. “I supported busing to eliminate de jure segregation,” Biden insisted in an MSNBC interview after the debate. A week later on CNN, Biden told the same story: “I was for busing where the court showed that, in fact, a legislative body took an action preventing black folks from going to a school.” In that circumstance, said Biden, his position was, “You should bus.”
It’s true that Biden, like other politicians and judges in the 1970s, distinguished de jure segregation from de facto segregation. It’s also true that he sometimes referred to this distinction in legislation and in Senate debates. But it’s misleading to say that he supported busing to eliminate de jure segregation. What Biden actually believed—and, by all appearances, believes today—is that forced busing was a lousy way to integrate society.
As a senator, Biden offered and voted for anti-busing amendments without regard to whether the segregation was de facto or de jure. In 1975 and 1976, he proposed to ban the use of federal money “to assign students or teachers by race” or to require “the transportation of any student to a school other than the school which is nearest the student’s home.” In explaining his proposals, Biden said that he was targeting “desegregation orders which include busing” and that he wanted to make sure federal officials “could not use busing as a desegregation remedy.” In 1982, Biden supported additional amendments against court-ordered and federally orchestrated busing, even after senators explicitly said the amendments would “limit the remedies which the courts may impose in connection with findings of de jure segregation.”
Biden now claims that he opposed “busing ordered by the Department of Education,” not busing ordered by courts. But the record says otherwise. In the 1970s, when Biden targeted the federal education department (in those days, it was the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare), he made clear that he also hoped to constrain judges. “I would like to see us be able to prevent the courts from ordering busing,” Biden told colleagues during a 1975 Senate debate over HEW’s role in desegregation. “I would like to see them have the one tool, the busing tool, eliminated.” In 1976, while offering an amendment to limit the Justice Department’s involvement in busing, Biden lamented that his amendment “does not go far enough” because it “does not affect the courts. I am working diligently and fervently, to the chagrin of some, to get at the remedial jurisdiction of the courts.”
Sometimes Biden stipulated that his anti-busing measures wouldn’t extend to de facto segregation. But to him, that boundary wasn’t a matter of principle. Biden explained that while he wished he could cross the boundary, he was legally impeded from doing so. “The courts have been basing their decisions … on the concept of de facto or de jure segregation,” Biden told his colleagues during a 1975 floor debate. “All I am saying is that that is up to a court to decide. I have not even figured out how to stop a court from deciding. If I could, I would.” Two years later, Biden introduced legislation to bar court-ordered busing “unless the court determines that a discriminatory purpose was a motivating factor by the school officials” in creating local segregation. In a letter to senators, Biden explained that the bill “only goes as far as the ‘discriminatory purpose’ rule” not because he personally supported the rule, but because “Congress could not go beyond the rulings of the Supreme Court.”
Even in explicit cases of de jure segregation, Biden argued that other remedies—building new schools, for example, or promoting equal opportunity in credit and housing—were better than busing. In 1975, Biden was asked about a scenario in which “we would all agree there was specific intent by [a school] board to segregate.” He conceded that courts would have to step in, but he added that “the court order need not be a busing court order.” In a 1981 CNN interview, the senator expanded on this caveat. “Where the court has concluded that a school district, a state, or a particular area has intentionally attempted to prevent black[s] or any group of people from attending a school,” courts had to impose a remedy, Biden argued. But in his next breath, he cautioned that “the least effective remedy to be imposed is the busing remedy.”
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Nowadays, to prove that he supported busing, Biden likes to cite his 1974 vote against an anti-busing measure known as the Gurney amendment. “I was the deciding vote,” Biden boasted on MSNBC immediately after last month’s presidential debate. He noted that the amendment would have stripped “the power of the court to stop busing. I voted against it.” The next day, speaking to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Biden repeated his story: “I cast the deciding vote in 1974 against … the Gurney amendment, which would have banned the right of the federal courts to be able to use busing as a remedy.”
But that wasn’t why Biden voted against the amendment. The measure went far beyond busing. It proposed sweeping restrictions on court-ordered desegregation and invited civil suits from people who felt wronged by such court orders. When Biden was asked in a 1975 interview why he had voted against “the anti-busing Gurney amendment,” he rejected that characterization. The amendment “would have allowed anyone affected by a civil rights decision from 1954 onward to reopen their court case,” Biden explained. “Ninety percent of those cases had nothing to do with busing. It would have created havoc in our court system.”
The debate over the Gurney amendment doesn’t show that Biden supported busing to correct de jure segregation. It shows that he didn’t. Moments after he voted to table the Gurney amendment, Biden voted for an amendment by Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana that said “no court of the United States shall order the implementation of any plan to remedy [a] finding of de jure segregation which involves the transportation of students, unless the court first finds that all alternative remedies are inadequate.” Even if the court made such a finding, said the amendment, the desegregation plan had to “minimize” busing. Supporters of busing voted against Bayh’s amendment. Biden voted for it.
Biden also claims that a statement he made at a 1978 town meeting in Delaware demonstrated his courage in standing up for busing. “I tried to explain [to the crowd] the difference between de facto (or unintentional) segregation and de jure (or government-intended) segregation,” he recalled in his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep. “I told them, I was against busing to remedy de facto segregation owing to housing patterns and community comfort, but if it was intentional segregation, I’d personally pay for helicopters to move the children.” Last week in his CNN interview, Biden repeated that story. But the key to the story is the setting: Biden was speaking in Delaware, which, as he routinely explained to home-state audiences, had no de jure segregation. He was assuring his constituents that he wouldn’t let their kids be forcibly bused.
The truth is that Biden opposed mandatory busing. He saw it as the worst solution, even where local officials had deliberately segregated their schools. He believed it was disruptive and traumatic for students, parents, and teachers of all backgrounds. He thought it was socially and politically counterproductive, causing fear and resentment, white flight, and damage to public schools. Biden preferred other measures to equalize opportunity, such as low-income suburban housing, broader access to credit, and pooling property taxes from rich and poor communities.
Why not defend that position? Instead of pretending that he supported forced busing, Biden should explain to the Democrats of 2020 why so many Democrats of the 1970s turned against it. That’s a debate worth having.
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