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Biden invokes Obama to defend his civil rights record

“I want to be clear about my record and position on racial justice, including busing. I never never, never ever opposed voluntary busing,” Former Vice President Joe Biden said. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

2020 elections

The former vice president delivered a fiery response after Kamala Harris attacked his past stance on busing.

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Joe Biden delivered a forceful rebuttal to criticism about his past stance on busing and his comments about segregationist senators, invoking his work alongside former President Barack Obama as he laid out his decades-long commitment to civil rights.

“I know and you know, I fought my heart out to ensure that civil rights and voting rights, equal rights are enforced everywhere,” Biden said at the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition convention on Friday. “These rights are not up to the states to decide. They’re our federal government’s duty to decide,” he added.

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He also mentioned his former boss — whose hometown he was speaking in — multiple times, saying he and Obama shared a fierce commitment to civil rights.

“And by the way, with all due respect I say to Chicagoans and everyone: My president gets much too little credit for all that he did — he was one of the great presidents of the United States of America. And I’m tired of hearing about what he didn’t do,” Biden said forcefully. “This man had a backbone like a ram rod!”

Biden’s fiery defense came the day after fellow White House hopeful Kamala Harris confronted him in a primary debate over recent comments in which Biden touted his ability to work civilly with segregationist senators, a clash Harris came out on the winning end of.

“It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris said Thursday of Biden’s work with two segregationist Democrats, in what would become a viral moment. “And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

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Biden on Friday was conciliatory for a moment before launching into his defense. “I heard and I listened to, and I respect Senator Harris,“ Biden said. But he argued, “we all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights.”

“I want to be clear about my record and position on racial justice, including busing. I never never, never ever opposed voluntary busing,” he said, noting that the practice, aimed at desegregating U.S. schools, had made a difference in Harris’ life.

While Biden has asserted he was only opposed to federally-mandated busing, and has continued to defend that opposition, his past comments on the issue paint a murkier picture of where he stood.

This spring, The Washington Post unearthed an interview Biden gave to a local paper in 1975, in which he denounced any sort of quota system and said it was perhaps the practice of busing that was racist.

Biden on Thursday, and again Friday, cited his 1974 vote to sink an amendment that would have banned federal courts from ordering busing as a remedy to segregation, noting that the move was not politically popular at the time.

He argued that he instead supported federal action “to address root causes in our schools and communities” and tried “to change the way in which neighborhoods were segregated.”

The former vice president has overwhelmingly been embraced by black Americans and civil rights advocates, and powerful black lawmakers have come to his defense in the wake of the segregationist comments. Biden leads his Democratic rivals among African Americans in most polls, a critical constituency for the party.

Biden has sought to pivot to his work for criminal justice throughout his time in the Senate and the White House and push the discussion toward the future, as he tried to do after Thursday’s debate.

“The discussion in this race today shouldn’t be about the past,” he told the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “We should be talking about how we can do better. How we can move forward.”

He also returned to a line of attack on President Donald Trump’s 2017 equivocation between neo Nazis and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., which Biden used as the framework of his campaign launch.

“You know, I promise you, if I get elected president, I will be a president who stands against racism,” he said, vowing to fight the forces of “intolerance everywhere in our society, in our institutions and voting booths and in our hearts.”

Here he invoked Obama as well, noting that “Barack was a president our kids not only could but did look up to.”

“Look, what presidents say matters. It matters,” he added.

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