Excuse me for not addressing you as Mr. Vice-President or even Mr. Biden. I suppose that would be more appropriate, but you seem to revel in being a regular guy from Scranton, so I’ll dispense with the formalities for now.
I know you weren’t pleased with Kamala Harris’s critique of your stance on busing at the recent Democratic candidates’ debate. You thought she mischaracterized your position and you felt her personal story of the benefits of busing was irrelevant.
As you explained it, you never opposed the kind of voluntary busing efforts undertaken by Harris’s Berkeley city council. You always supported such initiatives if chosen by local communities. It was just federally mandated busing you opposed.
I’d like to think you just haven’t thought about this for a while. Perhaps debates over school desegregation — holdovers from an era before the courts relinquished oversight of such matters — are now so distant as to be but faded memories to you. Perhaps you haven’t given thought to how problematic your position was because the issue of busing is so dated as to mean virtually nothing to at least one if not two full generations of American students.
But given your fiery defense of your previous position during that debate, I doubt you’ve moved even an inch from where you were on this forty years ago. As such, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.
I say these things not because busing is relevant to the 2020 presidential race. It isn’t. As a desegregation tool, the practice has been dead since the early 1990s. But your position on it many years ago, and your seeming reluctance to critically assess that stance calls into question how much you understand the issues of racial inequity and injustice with which the nation is still plagued.
And that is relevant to the 2020 election. Very much so, in fact.
I remember the first time I became aware of you, Joe. It was July of 1986, the summer between my high school graduation and first year of college. And there you were, upbraiding Secretary of State George Shultz for the Reagan Administration’s unconscionable soft-pedaling of South African apartheid.
I was riveted. To C-SPAN no less, an outlet about which the term “riveting” has never before been spoken, and probably never will be again.
I had rarely seen a politician speak so directly to the matter of racial injustice and the need for change to be forced on those who would maintain segregation.
Not to let them “voluntarily” come around to it on their own timeline.
Not to allow segregationists and racists to dictate the terms of someone else’s justice, but to demand change immediately, and for the government of the United States to take steps to help bring that about.
In case you don’t recall that version of yourself, here it is:
But now, apprised of your views on busing, I wonder: Did you only believe in forcing an end to segregation when that evil was being practiced elsewhere?
See, like Kamala Harris, I am a child of desegregation. But not the kind taken up voluntarily.
Instead, it was desegregation implemented in a way that was neither deliberate nor speedy — counter to what the Supreme Court had called for twenty years prior — and which was met with resistance and even violence by those opposed to “race-mixing.”
And some of that resistance came wrapped in precisely the kind of rhetoric you were offering in the 1970s, and continue to defend today: rhetoric extolling the virtues of “neighborhood schools” and the importance of “local control.”
In the 1930s, my grandfather had lived on Jefferson Street, in the heart of Nashville’s black community. But far from being allowed to attend his “neighborhood” high school, he was required to travel two miles away to a white school.
My parents were just finishing first grade when the Brown decision came down, and despite my father spending the next eleven years in Nashville public schools — and my mother ten more there and one in West Virginia — they would never attend a school with even one black student.
Early attempts at integration in Nashville were rewarded with the bombing of an elementary school slated to be integrated in 1957 and the Jewish Community Center the following year because the head of the school board was Jewish. Though the city’s desegregation plan only called for the integration of one grade at a time, even this was too much for some.
As a result of the violence, as well as the skittishness of city leaders, and the lack of any mechanism to produce integration in a community where housing patterns virtually guaranteed segregated schools, things remained as they had been for more than another decade. It would only be in 1971 when Nashville schools were required — thanks to a federal court order — to begin busing for the purpose of desegregation. A few years later, I started school in that same system.
So when my classmates and I graduated in 1986, we did so as one of the first fully integrated graduating classes in Nashville public school history.
And that mattered.
It mattered because that integration, which was forced upon us, changed who we would become. It created bridges across racial lines that otherwise would have gone uncrossed. It fostered genuine friendships, provided a more equitable distribution of resources, and helped lead to a newer, more culturally diverse, and cosmopolitan community.
Of course, busing, and even integration itself was not without its limitations, as I’m sure Kamala Harris would readily admit.
These were not panaceas. Even as hundreds of thousands of kids across the country went into the same school buildings in the morning, we were too often re-segregated once inside.
Tracking, ostensibly based on “ability” but too often based on racist assumptions — which placed whites in mostly advanced tracks and kids of color disproportionately in remedial and standard ones — undermined integration’s impact. Likewise, the firing of many veteran black teachers and administrators in favor of retaining white ones for the newly mixed schools imposed a real and unjustifiable cost on communities of color for the benefits of desegregation.
There is no question that integration and busing were often undertaken in clumsy ways and without regard for the black kids who usually bore the most significant burden. They were the ones uprooted and sent across town because white families were too precious to allow their children to travel to black neighborhoods. This was true even in Nashville, where black schools like Washington and Pearl were known to have some of the best and most experienced teachers in the city.
But these limitations and shortcomings of busing as a be-all, end-all solution to racial inequity were not the reasons you offered for opposing the practice, Joe.
There are principled, even progressive critiques of busing and the way integration efforts were carried out in this country, but these don’t appear to have been the critiques upon which you based your opposition.
You did not base your opposition to busing on the notion that it might create a false sense of security that we had done all we needed to do for equity. That would have been an understandable critique.
But it was not yours.
You did not oppose busing because you were concerned about those black teachers losing their jobs, or because you feared black kids would simply be tracked into lower tracks, undermining whatever benefits they might have gained from being in schools with greater resources. Those too would have been honorable concerns to express, but they don’t appear to have been yours.
You certainly did not articulate a worry that busing would merely integrate the classrooms while leaving the educational philosophy of the dominant group in place — an individualistic one focused on personal success rather than the collective, system-challenging paradigm of education that had long reigned in black communities.
That would have been a genuinely radical critique. It would have signaled a recognition that black schools had fostered a vital culture of opposition to white supremacy. And it would have been rooted in a concern that such a culture might be undermined by the integration of bodies absent an integration of educational philosophies.
But there is nothing to suggest that this critique, often articulated by black folks themselves, was yours.
As you voiced it at the time, your opposition was rooted in a far more pernicious ideology, which is why you found it possible to support anti-busing legislation put forth by arch-segregationist and overt racist, Jesse Helms.
It’s why you went so far as to deny even the inarguable truth that a history of discrimination had provided real advantages to white people, as if such a suggestion were little more than a conspiracy theory woven by irrational militants.
It’s why you equated busing to “giving the black man a head start” or “holding the white man back” — an absurd and racially paranoid position worthy of Klansmen, not statesmen.
You’ve claimed that during that period you were listening closely to the concerns of black families, worried about the effects of busing. Perhaps. But I feel confident they weren’t the ones who fed you that bullshit.
Of course, you tried to elide your pandering to racists by dressing up your position in the finery of legal principle. And so you claimed that you opposed busing only in cases where there was no clear evidence of an intent to discriminate. And you insisted it was this kind of busing that had come to rule the day, much to your chagrin.
You cleaved to the idea that unless overt and blatant racism could be proved as the cause for a school’s monochramy that it should be left alone.
A few more thoughts.
First, as you know, proving discriminatory intent is often nearly impossible. Non-racist reasons can be offered for most any policy that fosters racial inequity, and showing that those non-racist reasons are “pretextual” (in legalese), phony in everyday person speak, is no easy feat.
The GOP claims non-racial reasons for their attempts to limit the franchise by requiring photo I.D., or restricting early voting, even though we know the effect of such policies will be to limit voting by people of color. Southern election officials had non-racist reasons for literacy tests too. Are you truly comfortable with the suggestion that only inequality derived from proven, intentional discrimination should be prohibited?
Oh, and before you answer, it’s worth noting one other thing.
You’re pulling a punch anyway.
Fact is, you opposed court-ordered busing in Wilmington, Delaware even though the court found that the segregation it sought to remedy there had been deliberately imposed in that community. You claimed the court “got it wrong,” but how is that any different than what every southern racist said after Brown?
Additionally, you claimed busing was racist because it suggested that for a black child to be able to learn, they had to sit next to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child. But you know that was never the argument or the mentality of those who believed in busing. No one ever said that or even implied it.
What they did say, and what was inarguable, is that black kids in racially-isolated schools were getting the short end of the stick in terms of resources. Separate was never equal. And the white folks who opposed busing and desegregation efforts rarely ever supported doing anything about that. They didn’t want to vote extra monies for black communities to educate their own as they saw fit.
Those whites who opposed desegregation didn’t do so because they believed black kids capable of doing fine no matter where they attended school. Far from it. They didn’t suspect black folks to be capable of much at all. If anything, they feared the presence of black children next to those blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids, would drag the latter down to the level of the former. This is what they said, Joe.
To suggest your opposition was some principled defense of black ability and that the supporters of integration and busing, like Thurgood Marshall, were the ones who doubted black intellect is vile.
So too, you opposed busing because, you said, communities should make these decisions for themselves, presumably because to do otherwise would intensify racial hostility and division.
But this is what South African whites said about sanctions and divestment, both of which you supported. It’s the same thing segregationists in this country said about every step forward for civil rights. They said the same about everything Dr. King ever did: every march, every sit-in, every protest.
It’s what slaveowners said about the activities of abolitionists too, Joe.
And no, I am not comparing you to Bull Connor or P.W. Botha, let alone an antebellum plantation owner. But the apologetics you offered in your paeans to voluntary, slow change are nothing if not similar. The players are different, but you cribbed their notes, only scrubbing the slurs while leaving the gist intact.
Now, at the risk of seeming unfair, I do thank you for your apology this weekend — the one in which you acknowledged the unseemliness of your previous brag about having gotten along so famously with characters like the late Senators Eastland and Talmadge. They were unrepentant, knuckle-dragging hate-mongers of the first order. So to boast about one’s ability to have worked with people like that, to be collegial with bigots is, as the kids say, “problematic.”
We don’t need an ecumenism towards racists, whether the type who don swastikas in Charlottesville, or the kind who used to smoke cigars with you in the Hart building. The days of compromising with Confederates is over, Joe.
They must merely be replaced and removed from power, shunned, shamed, and defeated mercilessly. No apologies, no pretty eulogies when they die, nothing but ignominy.
Which is why I worry about you.
Even with your apology for having played political footsie with Dixiecrats, I worry that you still subscribe to the school of thought that counsels bipartisanship with the forces of Trumpism.
You seem to believe there are honest brokers on the other side, perhaps only pretending to go along with the new nativism and the politics of prejudice that have been the staple of this president’s administration. You seem to think that once removed from power Trump will hold no sway over them and you’ll be able to sit with them and get back to the business of infrastructure bills, sane energy policy and…what? Merrick Garland?
You do remember those eight years you were Vice-President, right?
These are not people of honor, Joe. Likewise, the Trump voters you seem to covet are not who you think they are. You suspect they only voted for Trump because of economic anxiety, but all the evidence says otherwise. If economic pain were the motivation for a Trump vote, black folks would have been lined up around the block to cast their ballots for him. For them, economic anxiety isn’t new. It’s called Wednesday.
No, white Trumpsters didn’t vote for him because of concerns over jobs and wages. Except in so far as they believe black and brown folks are taking those from them. Every survey says it was the racism Joe; it was about the feeling that racial and cultural “others” were somehow jumping them in line for the American dream. This, despite the fact that for every pain felt by white America, people of color have at least the same, if not more.
They are not rational Joe, and they are lost to Democrats unless you agree to abandon the voters of color who are your base.
I know, you think the base is comprised of hard hats in some Appalachian coal mine or on the assembly line in Youngstown. You and Bernie seem to share this fatuous conceit. It is no surprise, I guess, that the two oldest candidates in the race still have a fetish for the 1930s New Deal coalition.
But that coalition is broken and it has been for a long time. Those white working class voters capable of solidarity will vote Democrat no matter whether you pander to them or not. They know their interests. But the rest? They are gone, lured by the siren song of racial resentment and a longing for days gone by.
What the Democrats need to do is not go chasing them past the political graveyard. Rather, the task is to win, to get those folks affordable, accessible health care, better schools and jobs and drag them, kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Pander to them in an attempt to win, however, and you may well not. Because the people of color who have so long felt taken for granted will stay home yet again. No Democrat can win without them. They are the base. Know that.
America has moved on Joe; and unless you are truly prepared to move with it, it is time for you to do the same.
Look, if you get the nomination, of course I would support you. I am no fool and I understand the difference between you and Donald Trump. But if this country is to move forward, we need you to look in that direction as well. For your sake, and for the sake of the nation. For the sake of everything you say you believe in.
There can be no looking back. Let the past belong to the right. Let the left be about the future.