10 Questions Joe Biden Needs to Answer About His Views on Race
By (((WILLIAM SALETAN)))
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?