Did anybody have “busing” on their Democratic Debate Bingo Card? I sure didn’t, and yet Kamala Harris, latching onto a race issue that didn’t involve her imprisoning black people or defending cops who killed them, nailed the landing as far as her supporters are concerned.
Some have complained that Harris has diverted attention away from things that matter today to rehash the 70s, a time when Biden is exposed if viewed through the lens of today’s social justice. Back then, Biden worked with, was civil with, segregationists to get things accomplished in Congress. Today, the nicest he would be allowed to be is to milkshake them on the Senate floor, and still be subject for criticism for not punching a Nazi or a small gay conservative man.
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.
Upon first reading, I thought some wag NYT editor had pulled a prank on Jamelle, since the first sentence about decorum obviously had no rational connection to the second. Harris’ tone had nothing to do with her substance. But upon rereading, I realized that Jamelle meant it, that Harris’ tone and method of attack was inextricably tied to her experiences because she was trying to make Biden, and “ordinary Americans,” feel guilty about this “race-inflected issue.”
After all, her statement that she knew no black person who hadn’t suffered “profiling or discrimination” was a problem, given that it was likely at her hands. Harris had to get far away from this touchy subject as quickly as possible before anybody added up the numbers.
But was it “unfair” of Harris to use her personal experience to attack Biden for what he did so many years ago? Whether Biden’s actions “aged out” is one question, and while it’s certainly possible that Biden has changed his views or approach since the days when he neglected to punch Georgia’s Herman Talmadge, as would be expected of him by the woke today, he brought it up and there’s nothing unfair about being questioned about one’s prior actions.
Granted, Biden raised his ability to work with people he found reprehensible to make a different point, that without the capacity to not punch people you despise, nothing gets done, but whether that reflects moral depravity or pragmatic civility can be decided by each voter. To each his own.
Bouie, however, hits on the problem with Harris’ approach, though he appears not to have any grasp of his insight. Harris attacked Biden’s actions as a legislator with her “truth,” her claimed experience. She spoke of how busing affected her personally. She challenged Biden to either call her a liar or tell her that her “truth” was false, because there was no alternative to confront her assertion that busing was good because it was good for her.
Harris made this patent when she uttered, “it’s personal,” “it was hurtful” and “it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats.”
Is Harris vindicating her personal childhood issues? If she’s to be a senator, no less a president, it’s not to address her personal problems, but to make policy, make decisions, make choices for a nation. Kamala Harris’ personal experiences are not the bar by which the American experience is decided.
Government-compelled busing was hated in the 1970s. It was hated by white parents. It was hated by black parents. Not all, and not everywhere, but by most. It wasn’t because the disease of segregation wasn’t real or a problem, but that busing wasn’t the cure. It took children from their neighborhood, their friends, on long, unpleasant rides to unfamiliar places where they didn’t want to be.
And the reality was that it mostly failed to improve education for anyone. The same inner city schools that sucked for black kids sucked for the white kids who were bused in as well. And the good suburban schools didn’t magically make black kids learn at grade level or behave differently than they did before, when attending schools where studying hard was cause to get beaten up. The shame here is that poor black students who attended crumbling schools where their fellow students made learning impossible got caught in the middle.
There were very real problems. Busing was not the solution to those problems. There is still segregation, still bad schools, still inner city students who are denied a decent education, as is their right. There is still a need for a solution to this problem, and the only way to find it is to have an “intellectual debate,” because all students didn’t share Kamala Harris’ “truth,” and just because it worked for her doesn’t mean her personal feelings make it sound policy for a nation.
What Kamala Harris did in confronting Joe Biden was take historic reality and turn it into a race challenge. Whatcha gonna do, Joe, call the black woman a liar, deny her lived experience, use your privileged white man “intellectual debate” skills to tell Kamala Harris that she didn’t experience her “truth”?
Harris is, as Bouie argues, entitled to her experiences. What she is not entitled to is to substitute her personal experiences for the experience of others so as to silence any “intellectual debate” about how to address the problems that confront a nation. If we don’t need any “intellectual debate,” then we’ve already got someone in the office that fits the bill.
But if Harris, or any Democratic presidential candidate, wants to run a nation, then gaming the debate by using their personal “truth” to shut down any intellectual debate isn’t going to cut it. Nor is revisiting archaic failures like busing, through the social justice lens of “disagree with me and you’re racist.” There’s nothing racist about not making the same mistake again by changing historic reality into Kamala Harris’ personal “truth.”