During the second night of Democratic debates, Senator Kamala Harris took on current front-runner Joe Biden on race and said his comments about segregationist senators were “hurtful.”
In the emotional exchange, Harris said she did not believe Biden was a racist but his comment hit home for her.
In a breakout performance, the daughter of a black father from Jamaica and an Indian mother was at the center of several heated exchanges during the second night of debates among Democrats vying for the right to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
Harris said the issue of race was deeply personal for her. She noted she was bused to school as part of integration efforts in California, and she questioned Biden’s 1970s opposition to school busing.
Harris challenged Biden to defend his comments.
“I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris started. “But I also believe – and it’s personal and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
“You also worked with them to oppose busing,” the California Senator continued, speaking of the buses used to take African American students to recently desegregated schools.
“There was a little girl who was a part of the second class to integrate public schools and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me,” Harris said. “So, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously, we have to act swiftly.”
“Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America?” Harris asked.
The audience cheered the question before Biden answered and defended his previous remarks. The former Vice President called Harris’ comments a “mischaracterization” and said he only resisted the Department of Education ordering state governments to implement public school busing.
Biden, who was on the defensive throughout the night, has faced heavy criticism for his recent comments that he worked decades ago with two Southern segregationist senators as a way to get things done in the U.S. Senate.
He appeared shaken by the attack, but defended his record on civil rights and said his remarks had been mischaracterized as praise for racists.
“If we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that,” he said, noting he had only opposed busing for school integration ordered by the federal government, not by local governments.
“Everything I have done in my career, I ran because of civil rights and continue to think we have to make fundamental changes,” he said.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) June 28, 2019
Here’s more, from the Associated Press:
Senior advisers to Biden insisted afterward that they weren’t surprised by the confrontation with Harris and were satisfied with his response in the time allowed. They noted that while he dismissed Harris’ characterization of his relationship with segregationist senators in his early years in the Senate more than 45 years ago, Biden appeared to be listening while she criticized his position on busing.
“I thought it was an important moment. He listened. And you don’t judge other people’s pain,” said Cedric Richmond, Biden’s campaign chairman.
The fallout was quickly realized as Politico reports: “Kamala Harris captured a lot of the attention, not least for her ability to go toe-to-toe with frontrunner Joe Biden on Thursday night.”
And poor, anachronistic Biden. He seemed lost in his responses. He was eaten alive by Harris’ “that little girl was me” line, and he spent a good chunk of his time defending his antagonism to busing. It will be a slow (or fast) glide-path out of first place for him. The contours of the race are becoming clear, and they likely don’t involve Joe Biden.