Opinion » Editorial

Harris, Biden, and Busing

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We have no objection to the sudden rise to viability as a presidential contender of California U.S. Senator Kamala Harris. As the sentient world knows, Harris' ascension to contender status was shaped last week by her strong performance during the second nationally televised debate of Democratic candidates.

Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden

It came at the expense of former Vice President Joe Biden, the putative Democratic front-runner, who was slow on the uptake when challenged by Harris for his previous remarks regarding his ability, while serving in the Senate, to co-exist and seek common ground with out-and-out segregationists like then-Senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, "old bulls" who, due to the prevailing seniority system, had outsized power over the Senate committee system and could obstruct or facilitate legislation.

Biden's point was that he retained the ability to work constructively with political figures of different persuasions from his own — something likely to be highly relevant in post-2020 Washington. Still, Harris' well-stated rebuke was on point and timely, given today's different sense of priorities and impatience with foot-dragging on matters related to human justice.

And we like Harris' prosecutorial style, hitherto in her public interrogations of disingenuous functionaries of the Trump administration.

We are not so enamored of Harris' follow-up point in her confrontation with Biden, wherein she took him to task for having, as she alleged, opposed busing back in its heyday as a means of desegregation. The fact is that, in urban locales ranging from Boston in the northeast to our own case in Memphis, the ultimate outcome of court-ordered busing, however well-meaning, was to foster, not integration, but resegregation via a host of hothouse private schools and new residential enclaves beyond the reach of judicial orders. Court-ordered busing in the Memphis case in 1972 was upheld 2-1 by a federal appeals court, but, as former Flyer writer John Branston noted in a retrospective years afterward, "History would show that it was dissenter Paul Weick who got it right: 'The burden of eliminating all the ills of society should not be placed on public school systems and innocent school children.'"

In 1973 and 1974, as Branston further noted, "Some 30,000 students left the Memphis public school system in white flight in reaction to court-ordered busing for integration." That out-migration, augmented by a generous number of middle-class blacks, increased year by year, to the point that what remains of the Memphis City Schools system, now reorganized ironically as Shelby County Schools, is virtually segregated, serving an impoverished population, while most white students are cloistered in a small network of "optional" schools or attending classes in private institutions or in public schools operated by the county's suburban municipalities.

Perhaps the best verdict on busing was rendered by the federal judge who ordered it, Robert McRae, who recalled in his retirement, "I was disappointed in the reaction to Plan Z. But I had to keep a stiff upper lip because this [reaction] was an act of defiance. Still, I was disappointed that we hadn't come up with something that worked."

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