Jonathan Kozol: Joe Biden Didn’t Just Praise Segregationists. He Also Spent Years Fighting Busing

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Former Vice President Joe Biden made headlines last week when he fondly reminisced about his “civil” relationship in the 1970s and 1980s with segregationist senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. While Biden’s recent comments made the news, far less attention has been paid to the former vice president’s actual record. In the 1970s, then-Senator Biden was a fierce critic of Delaware’s attempts to bus students in an effort to integrate its schools. We speak with National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Kozol about Biden’s track record.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Democratic presidential candidates are preparing for the opening debates of the 2020 presidential race this week, with 20 candidates slated to face off in a two-night forum starting Wednesday. Former Vice President Joe Biden will participate in the second of the two nights, Thursday night debate, where he’ll likely face questions about his recent praise of segregationists. He’ll be debating, among others, Senator Sanders and Kamala Harris.

Last week, Biden made headlines when he fondly reminisced about his “civil” relationship in the '70s and ’80s with segregationist senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. Biden reportedly said, quote, “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. … He never called me ’boy'; he called me 'son.'”

Biden was widely criticized by his Democratic rivals, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who said, quote, “Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone. Frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should,” Cory Booker said. Biden has refused to apologize for his remarks.

REPORTER: Are you going to apologize, like Cory Booker has called for?

JOE BIDEN: Apologize for what?

REPORTER: Cory Booker has called for it. He’s asking you to apologize.

JOE BIDEN: Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career, period, period, period.

AMY GOODMAN: He demanded that Cory Booker apologize to Joe Biden.

While Biden’s recent comments made the news, far less attention has been paid to the former vice president’s actual record. In the 1970s, then-Senator Biden was a fierce critic of Delaware’s attempts to bus students in an effort to integrate its schools. In a recently unearthed interview from 1975, Biden said, quote, “We’ve lost our bearings since the 1954 Brown v. School Board desegregation case. … To 'desegregate' is different than to 'integrate.'” He went on to say, quote, “The real problem with busing is that you take [white] people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school,” unquote. CNN recently revealed that in 1977 Biden wrote a letter to the segregationist Senator James Eastland thanking him for supporting his anti-busing legislation.

We’re joined now by the National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Kozol, whose recent article for The Nation is headlined “When Joe Biden Collaborated with Segregationists.” Kozol wrote this weeks before the latest Biden controversy. Jonathan Kozol is the author of many books, including Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, The Shame of the Nation and other books on race and education. He taught fifth grade for two years in Boston’s suburban interdistrict program, the longest-lasting voluntary integration effort in the nation.

Jonathan Kozol, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, you write this piece about the now-presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden’s record with segregationists, and then this whole story blows up, with Vice President Biden speaking at a fundraiser in New York for his presidential campaign, where he praised Eastland and Talmadge, the segregationist senators, and talked about the civility of the old days and said that Eastland didn’t call him “boy,” he called him “son”—to the shock of many, especially African-American Senator Cory Booker, who talked about what it meant for African-American men to be called “boy.” Of course, Joe Biden, not an African American. Jonathan Kozol, your response to all of this and what you feel the media has missed with senator, vice president, now-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s extensive record over the decades?

JONATHAN KOZOL: Well, Amy, the most troubling point, from my point of view—and this is a point that most of the mainstream media has completely dodged or missed—is that, you know, Joe Biden didn’t simply reach out, in consensus, some kind of civility, to these Southern racist senators. It wasn’t hard for him to reach out, because he shared their views in the first place. He didn’t just support legislation introduced by James Eastland, Jesse Helms. He thanked them for supporting his legislation and his own anti-busing legislation. He called busing “asinine.” And worse than that, at one point he even came to the point of saying—I want to get his words exact—of saying, “I’ve gotten to the point where I think our only recourse to eliminate busing is a constitutional amendment.” Just stunning words.

Last week, he said he has no apologies. And the media has quoted him repeatedly saying, “I’ve been involved with civil rights my whole career.” But this is simply—I don’t know how to word this politely, but this is simply not the truth. To the extent that he’s been involved in civil rights, it hasn’t been as an advocate. It’s been as an opponent. And, you know, like other careful centrists, Biden threads the needle on the subject of diversity by saying that he favors it in principle; he simply opposes the only way in which to make it possible. In a nation in which residential segregation and redlining on the part of banks and mortgage lending institutions remain absolutely unabated, Biden knows absolutely well—he has to know—that by opposing the use of transportation, he’s making school integration virtually impossible.

And I just—you know, I’d go on, just briefly, for a moment, about his antipathy to the bus, because it’s remarkably selective antipathy. All over America, every single day, we see the good old yellow school bus stopping by the road to pick up kids in front of their homes and take them to school, and around 3 in the afternoon we see the bus again. Some of those buses—not enough, but some of them—are transporting inner-city children from virtual apartheid schooling systems into very well-funded, beautiful schools in affluent suburban communities.

Now, I’m very close to this issue because way back in the 1960s I first taught for a year in inner-city Boston, in a nightmarish school, a classic separate-and-unequal school. But a year or two after that, I was hired to teach in the first major interdistrict integration program in the country, which involves today about 30 suburbs close to Boston. And I had a very close friend in that struggle, one of the activists in Boston, an African-American woman named Julia Walker, who’s now 86 years old. And she sent her kids and her grandkids, and now she has a few great-grandkids, on the bus in that program to some really marvelous schools, where 95% of the black kids who ride the bus—this is an amazing statistic, where more than 95% of the black and Latino kids who ride the bus have a four-year high school graduation rate, as you can compare to the classic segregated urban school where it’s more like 60%. And the overwhelming majority of those kids go on to college, go on to four-year colleges. I know a number of the first students in that program who went on to become teachers, and they’re now the first black teachers in suburban public schools, so they can serve as role models for the next generation of kids.

When I hear Joe Biden stand up and say busing is a terrible mistake, it just breaks my heart. I mean, these aren’t perfect programs, but the program in Boston, for example, has long had a waiting list of 15,000 children. And, you know, the way I see it, as long as African-American and Latino parents, who still believe in the dream of Dr. King, are lining up to get their children into these programs, I don’t want to see a Democratic nominee who’s going to slam the gate in their face and lock them out. And he’s said nothing to indicate that he’s changed his views.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go back to some of the things he’s said, that you also have pointed out, to specifically address them.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: In October 1975, U.S. News & World Report published a special feature on busing, featuring political leaders with opposing views on the issue. Ed Brooke argued in favor of busing, Joe Biden against. When asked whether busing caused more harm than good, Biden replied, quote, “Absolutely. … It implies that blacks have no reason to be proud of their inheritance and their own culture.” In a recently unearthed interview from '75, Biden said, quote, “We've lost our bearings since the 1954 Brown v. School Board desegregation case. … To 'desegregate' is different than to 'integrate.'” He went on to say, “The real problem with busing is that you take [white] people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school.” Again, those are the words of Joe Biden.

JONATHAN KOZOL: I don’t—

AMY GOODMAN: And it will be very interesting—go ahead.

JONATHAN KOZOL: I don’t—I mean, the notion that a school in which black and white children or children of multiple ethnicities sit together in class is doomed to be an inferior school is what I find most offensive, and ignorant. It’s simply not so. His concern for the stunting of white children is awfully selective. The stunting of black children in badly underfunded, often physically decrepit, disgusting, separate-nonequal schools doesn’t seem to elicit the same sense of alarm.

You know, I’m 82 years old. I’ve been at this since I was 28. And I just—I find it almost unbearable to see a Democratic candidate who has been willing through the years to trample on the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer; Thurgood Marshall; those three young men, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, who went down to Mississippi in 1964 to try to break the back of apartheid and gave their lives for their beliefs. When Biden—you know, he’s very good at waffling, depending on what audience he’s in front of. The talk he gave last week about developing an amicable relationship with these Southern racists, he gave that talk in front of a group of very wealthy donors at a fancy party, a fundraising party. I think it was at the hotel Carlyle in New York. I wonder if he dare to give that same speech in front of an audience of young black and Hispanic voters.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, interestingly, he gave that talk last Tuesday night. Wednesday was Juneteenth, the day African Americans, enslaved African Americans, in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation and were freed. That day, Juneteenth, there were two historic hearings on Capitol Hill. One was around poverty and extreme racism in this country, that was led by the Reverend Barber.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The other was a hearing, the first in 12 years, on reparations. The leadoff speaker was Ta-Nehisi Coates. And the next morning, we spoke to Ta-Nehisi, the critically acclaimed writer, about Joe Biden’s comments.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Joe Biden says that he’s been involved with civil rights his entire career. It’s worth remembering Joe Biden opposed busing and bragged about it, you know, in the 1970s. Joe Biden is on the record as being to the right of actually the New Democrats in the 1990s on the issue of mass incarceration, wanted more people sentenced to the death penalty, wanted more jails. And so, you know, I’m not surprised. I mean, this is who Joe Biden is. You know there’s that saying: When somebody shows you who they are, believe them. This is who Joe Biden is.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ta-Nehisi Coates went on to say Joe Biden shouldn’t be president. The New York Times says, “While segregation was once most severe in the former states of the Confederacy, in 2016 it was in four liberal states—New York, California, Maryland and Illinois—that black children were most likely to attend intensely segregated schools. Latinos were most likely to attend intensely segregated schools in California, New York, Texas and New Jersey.” New York, California, Maryland and Illinois, the most severe school segregation in 2016. Jonathan Kozol?

JONATHAN KOZOL: Yeah, well, there are three points about that. One is, Biden didn’t just agree with Southern segregationists. He, in a way, helped to let Northern senators, who might have been reasonable and enlightened on this issue—he helped to steer them away from integration. He helped to give them a convenient rationale for not supporting integration in their schools. And he did it by saying that in the North, de jure segregation—sorry, de facto segregation was not intentional, and therefore could not justify court-ordered integration. In other words, it was just demographic happenstance that people happen to live on the opposite sides of town.

And he also—on the subject of reparations, he was very clear. He said, “I do not buy the concept that we have suppressed the black man for 300 years.” No reference to black women. And he went on, “And that as a result”—that’s my paraphrase—”we have to give the black man a head start,” which he inferred—actually, stated—would hold the white man back. I mean, these are absolutely unspeakable positions. And, you know, if he had the courage to stand up today and not waffle about it, but say openly, “I was totally wrong. Forgive me,” that might—that might be reassuring, although, because he changes his tune so frequently, one cannot be sure. I just—

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Kozol, we have to break, but I want to ask that you stay sitting there in the studio in Boston. We’d like to do Part 2 of our conversation after the show, and we will post it under web exclusives at democracynow.org.

Jonathan Kozol is the National Book Award-winning author of Death at an Early Age, also Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation, among other books on race and education. We’ll link to your piece in The Nation, “When Joe Biden Collaborated with Segregationists.”

When we come back, we go to Oregon, where the state government is in a standoff after 11 Republican lawmakers, supported by right-wing militias, have fled the capital of Salem—Salem, Oregon—to avoid voting on landmark climate change legislation. Apparently, some have fled to Idaho. We’ll speak with a Democratic lawmaker in Portland. Stay with us.

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