Sparks fly as Kamala Harris challenges Joe Biden's record on race

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Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., attacked former Vice President Joe Biden over his record on race during Thursday night's Democratic debate, sharply criticizing him for his fond recollection of serving with “civility” in the Senate with two segregationist senators.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said, turning to Biden. “And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.”

Harris, the only African-American woman in the 2020 presidential race, said it was “personal” and “hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country.”

Speaking at a fundraiser in New York City last month, Biden waxed nostalgic for the times of political fellowship when he was a senator in the 1970s and 1980s, contrasting it to today when political rivals are considered “the enemy.” To emphasize his point, Biden cited his ability to work with staunch supporters of racial segregation like the senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, who Biden said was “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”

“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said and then, imitating a Southern accent, added that the senator “never called me ‘boy,’” a racial epithet used against black men. “He always called me ‘son.‘”

Harris also accused Biden of working with them to oppose busing.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. (Photos: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school, and she bused to school every day,” Harris said. “And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”

Biden called it a “mischaracterization of his position across the board.”

“I did not praise racists. That is not true, number one,” he said. “Number two, 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.”

“I was a public defender, I didn’t become a prosecutor,” Biden said, taking an implied swipe at Harris's résumé. (Harris was a prosecutor, district attorney and state attorney general before becoming a U.S. senator.)

“I was a public defender when in fact my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. [Martin Luther] King,” Biden said.

He said that Harris’s childhood busing would not have been affected under the federal plan he supported as a senator because “it was a local decision made by your city council.”

Biden added: “The bottom line here is, look, everything I’ve done in my career, I ran because of civil rights, I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights. And those civil rights by the way include not just African-Americans but the LGBT community.

Harris asked Biden if he was “wrong to oppose busing.”

“I did not oppose busing in America,” he replied. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”

Harris argued that the federal government “must step in.”

“That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act,” she said, her voice rising. “That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. There are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”

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