“I do not believe you are a racist,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) told former Vice President Joe Biden at Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate.
Then she proceeded to press him—hard—on his complicated history on race and civil-rights issues.
In recent weeks, that past re-emerged as a controversial topic when Biden touted his ability to work with senators who were staunch segregationists.
“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two U.S. senators who built their reputations and careers on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said. She went on to say Biden worked with those senators to oppose the policy of school busing to integrate schools. When Biden said he only opposed federally mandated busing, Harris shot back “there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America.”
“On this subject,” said Harris, “it can not be an intellectual debate among Democrats.”
If Harris got at one of Biden’s core vulnerabilities, the former vice president and veteran senator tried to work in one of Harris’ perceived weaknesses—her long career as a prosecutor—in his response.
“If we want to have this litigated on who supports civil rights, I’m happy to do that,” said Biden. “I was a public defender. I was not a prosecutor.”
But Harris made it personal, too. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day,” she said. “That little girl was me.”