This is a really critical point. On school segregation, Joe Biden wasn’t working with segregationists to cut deals to produce liberal outcomes. He was working with them to produce conservative ones:
There was a backlash to Harris’s comments, most of it centered on decorum. By this line of reasoning, it was unfair of Harris to bring up her experiences, to make race part of the conversation, to put Biden on trial for past positions and make more ordinary Americans feel guilty about their views on this or any other race-inflected issue. Biden, too, had a response, invoking his work with President Obama: “I know and you know, I fought my heart out to ensure that civil rights and voting rights, equal rights are enforced everywhere,” Biden told Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition convention the day after the debate.
But these objections miss the heart of Harris’s point. Biden’s relationship with Eastland and Talmadge wasn’t neutral. It occurred in the context of a national fight over desegregation. And Biden stood with a status quo that denied equal opportunity to black students, against the mandate of the Constitution. Whatever her faults as a public figure, it was good that Harris was onstage to confront Biden with what his choices meant for real people. It wasn’t the politics of “racial strife,” it was the politics of accountability. If any of it is new to the former vice president, it’s because the Senate of his era had very few people who looked like Booker and Harris — few people with any connection to the black side of America’s racial segregation.
The dispute between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris isn’t really about desegregation. It’s about innocence. Biden may have opposed this singular effort to desegregate America’s schools, but should that weigh on our view of him in 2019? Should we accept his good intentions or should we hold him — and by extension, his many contemporaries — to account for the harm he helped perpetuate?
In 1963, James Baldwin provided an answer to this question: “One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
One critical thing to understand here is that during the all-too-brief period in which federal courts were actually imposing active desegregation measures, they worked. Real, substantial progress was made, progress that has been eliminated because the Biden/Eastland side won the war to reduce Brown v. Board to a nullity:
In related news, the filibuster of Abe Fortas was a major inflection point in American history. The gutting of Brown wasn’t an inevitability; a world in which Hubert Humphrey wins in 1968 would look quite different. And when the conflict was happening Biden was on the wrong side, and that’s relevant.