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Jonathan Kozol on “When Joe Biden Collaborated with Segregationists”

Web ExclusiveJune 26, 2019
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Web-only conversation with longtime author and education activist Jonathan Kozol. He talks about his recent article, “When Joe Biden Collaborated with Segregationists,” school segregation and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. “When Joe Biden Collaborated with Segregationists.” That’s the headline of a new piece in The Nation by Jonathan Kozol, the National Book Award-winning author of a number of books on race and education. We’re going to continue our conversation with him right now.

This week, Democratic presidential candidates are preparing for their opening debates of the 2020 race, on Wednesday and Thursday, 20 candidates slated to face off in two nights of debate. Former Vice President Joe Biden will participate in the second of the two nights, where he’ll likely face questions over his recent praise of segregationists. He will be debating Senator Kamala Harris, as well as Senator Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, among others.

Last week, presidential candidate Biden made headlines when he fondly reminisced about the civility of the olden days of the '70s and ’80s with segregationist senators like James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. He boasted, “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, and Biden refused to apologize for his remarks, even going so far as to say that Senator Cory Booker should apologize to him for criticizing him. But he didn’t say “Senator Booker”; he said, “Cory should apologize to me.” Senator Cory Booker is the African-American senator from New Jersey.

Jonathan Kozol is still with us from Boston, well-known education activist. What’s amazing, Jonathan, is that you wrote a piece about Biden’s relationship with segregationists well before this controversy was brewing. And you were particularly irritated that the press didn’t put it into the context of not just a throwaway line, but his long history of his relationship with segregationists, particularly when it came to him wanting them to support his anti-busing proposals when he was in Congress, when he was a senator.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Well, that’s true. And, I mean, he was very explicit about it. He spoke of the all-important Supreme Court decision, perhaps the most important decision of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education—he spoke of it with contempt.

And it struck me as standing in dramatic contrast to at least one other Democratic candidate, and that’s Bernie Sanders, because Sanders, meanwhile, had just introduced a powerful education platform, which he named for Thurgood Marshall. It’s called—Bernie Sanders’ education platform is called the Thurgood Marshall education plan. Now, for very young viewers, Thurgood Marshall, of course, was the architect of the legal actions that ultimately consummated in Brown v. Board of Education. And so, you know, here we have one candidate, Joe Biden, who—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me—let me interrupt—

JONATHAN KOZOL: —essentially is trashing that decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me—let me interrupt by playing Senator Bernie Sanders unveiling his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, the plan aiming to end school segregation, support public school teachers and uplift low-income students across the country. This is Sanders introducing the plan.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Thurgood Marshall’s core belief was pretty simple, not complicated. He believed that it is—and I quote—”the right of all of our children, whatever their race, to an equal start in life and to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens,” end of quote. I agree with what Thurgood Marshall said. And in my view, the only way to accomplish that goal is to guarantee every person in our country a quality education as a fundamental human right, regardless of their income—regardless of their income, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of their gender, regardless of their religion, regardless of their sexual orientation. This is not a radical idea. This is the idea that America is supposed to be about.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Bernie Sanders introducing the Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education. Jonathan Kozol?

JONATHAN KOZOL: Yes. And what’s also very important is that in that plan he specifically referred to the use of transportation, if that’s what it takes to make school integration possible. So, you know, coming from Vermont, I’m sure he grew up with the yellow bus bringing kids all over the state to get to their public schools. Dramatic contrast to Joe Biden, who essentially trashes Thurgood Marshall’s entire legacy.

And, you know, I’d just make one other point. Some of the media refer to this as—well, they’ll pick up on Biden’s statement that, you know, he’s not responsible for what happened 300 years ago. At one point he said, “I don’t feel any responsibility for what my great-granddaddy might have done.” But this is, to me, missing the point entirely. It’s not simply—you know, it’s easy for people to make that argument. You know, “I didn’t live in the United States 300 years ago. I didn’t live in this country when there was slavery. My relatives came from Poland or Russia, somewhere else.” That’s not the—I mean, anyone who knows the schools today knows that’s only a small part of the issue. The fact of the matter is that this evil has continued since emancipation and has grown greater and greater in the years between 1968 and 2019, where we are today. Our schools are now more intensely segregated than they were the year that Dr. King was assassinated.

And I just—I mean, I don’t like to overstate. I don’t like to be cruel in anything I say. But whether he recognizes it or not, what Biden is essentially saying—what he’s essentially doing is to drag us back to the poison legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson.

AMY GOODMAN: And Plessy v. Ferguson was?

JONATHAN KOZOL: Well, Plessy v. Ferguson was essentially, you know, a decision that said it’s OK to have segregated schools. The phrase was “separate but equal is OK.” And that came at the end of the 1800s, in the 1890s. Brown was intended to reverse that decision. But since separate schools have never been equal, any effort to drag us back to that era is just absolute betrayal of common sense and moral decency.

AMY GOODMAN: I referenced this in the first part of our discussion, this letter that Joe Biden wrote. But can you explain exactly who the segregationist Senator James Eastland was, who Biden was saying—you know, sort of harkening back to the days of civility? Because in 1977, Biden wrote a thank-you letter to the Mississippi senator, again, a Democratic senator, James Eastland, a segregationist who frequently referred to black people as an inferior race. Biden expressed gratitude to Eastland for supporting his anti-busing legislation, writing, quote, “I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help … in attempting to bring my anti-busing legislation to a vote.” Again, Senator Eastland, the man known as the “voice of the white South.”

JONATHAN KOZOL: Senator James Eastland was only one of several virulent opponents of the entire civil rights movement. Also, Strom Thurmond, with whom Joe Biden had apparently a very warm relationship, because he delivered the eulogy when Strom Thurmond passed away. Just extraordinary. Also, Jesse Helms. Also—

AMY GOODMAN: Strom Thurmond, just, again, for a younger audience, what, ran for president, I believe in 1948, with the campaign slogan “segregation forever.”

JONATHAN KOZOL: Exactly, exactly. And the reason Biden had this specific relationship with Senator Eastland was that Eastland was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Joe Biden was a very young senator. And so—and Biden wanted to be appointed to that committee. So, in order to—partly in order to court favor with Senator Eastland, he joined him in his cause. But that’s not the only reason, as I said. As I say repeatedly, he didn’t just join Eastland in his cause; he shared that cause in the first place. He was already a strong opponent of any practical means by which to make school integration possible.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think reporters should be asking Joe Biden as he runs for president? And your assessment of him—I mean, this, he continually raises—as being the vice president of the first African-American president in this country, President Obama?

JONATHAN KOZOL: Well, I think—I wish the media or his opponents would, first of all, ask—challenge him directly with tough questions, like the following: Are you willing to stand by a record in which you directly rip apart the legacy of Martin Luther King? I say this because almost every politician, at least on Martin Luther King Day, gets up there and says, “I, too, have a dream.” And I always wonder what the dream is, because usually these are people like Biden who have eviscerated the dream. I’d like to see somebody just ask him that directly, ask him, “Do you still view the Brown decision with contempt?”

I’d like them to not allow him to waffle in his answers. I’d like to see them ask him if the words that he spoke last week to a audience of wealthy donors in New York, when he was reminiscing warmly about his friendship with Eastland and other Southern segregationists—whether he would dare to repeat that in the midst of a debate, or whether that was simply a message that he reserves for one specific part of the population. I’d like to see them challenge him on his amazing gift for adjusting his beliefs, or at least his pretense of beliefs, depending on the race or class of the audience he’s addressing.

And just finally, I notice the media’s sole discussion, or ultimate discussion, when it comes to—ultimate concern, when it comes to Biden, is always the question of electability: Is this going to damage his electability? Well, on that, I would say two things. Yes, I definitely think it will damage his electability. But the second point is, beyond electability, it’s simply a matter of moral principle.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Kozol, the National Book Award-winning author of Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, The Shame of the Nation and other books on race and education. We will link to his most recent piece in The Nation. It’s headlined “When Joe Biden Collaborated with Segregationists.”

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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