Moments after former US Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, announced Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate, President Donald Trump was quick to attack Harris for her comments against Biden during the primary debates.
At a press conference at the White House Tuesday, President Trump said that he was surprised Biden had picked Harris as a running mate after she allegedly disrespected him during the democratic debates. “She was probably nastier than even Pocahontas (Senator Elizabeth Warren) to Joe Biden. She was very disrespectful to Joe Biden,” he told reporters.
“Oh my God.”
— Bloomberg (@business) August 12, 2020
A statement released by Trump’s campaign adviser Katrina Pierson read, “Not long ago, Kamala Harris called Joe Biden a racist and asked for an apology she never received.”
But, what is Trump referring to?
Trump’s scalding comments appear to refer to a heated exchange between Harris and Biden during the first democratic debate, in June, last year, where she criticised Biden for opposing court-ordered ‘busing’ for school desegregation in the 1970s. She also called out the then-democratic front-runner for remarks he had made about working with two well-known segregationist senators.
Harris attacks Biden on his stance on busing
“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me,” Harris told Biden in June, in what was perhaps one of the most talked-about moments from her campaign.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 28, 2019
‘Busing’ was a controversial initiative introduced in the United States almost 50 years ago to address the issue of racial segregation by transporting both black and white students to schools, which were often located very far from the neighbourhoods they resided in.
Opponents of busing, believed that students were being subjected to long commutes, and were being brought to unsafe neighbourhoods to study. Biden, too, opposed the concept of busing as he believed it would encourage racial quotas and keep children from having equal opportunities.
“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,” Harris added.
‘Hurtful to hear you talk about reputations of segregationist senators,’ says Harris
During the debate, Harris also assailed him for invoking two segregationist senators — James O Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E Talmadge of Georgia —while recalling a period of “civility” in the senate.
“I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris began. “But I also believe — and it’s personal, and I was actually very — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.
Harris’ comments were with reference to an anecdote narrated by Biden at a fundraiser event days before the primary debate. “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden told the audience. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
Biden’s remarks drew criticism from other democratic leaders as well, including his then-rivals in the presidential race — Cory Booker and York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Both Blasio and Booker insisted that Biden should apologise for his comments.
It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of “civility” typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to “the pursuit of dead n*ggers." (1/2) pic.twitter.com/yoOOkpaTX2
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) June 19, 2019
I do not praise racists: Biden’s response
Biden’s response to Harris’ attack during the primary debate was defensive. “It’s a mischaracterisation of my position across the board. I do not praise racists. That is not true,” he said. He went on to describe his career as a public defender, his work as Barack Obama’s Vice President and the riots that broke out after Martin Luther King King Jr’s assassination.
Biden hit back at Harris, who had also faced criticism for her record as a California prosecutor. “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,” he retorted. “I was a public defender, I didn’t become a prosecutor.”
In an interview with CNN the next month, Biden said that he had been caught off guard by Kamala’s comments. “I was prepared for them to come after me, but I wasn’t prepared for the person coming at me the way she came at me,” Biden said, referring to his personal relationship with the former prosecutor. He added that Harris had also known his late son, Beau Biden.
He also reiterated that while he did not support federally mandated busing, he believed that voluntary local busing efforts could help desegregate schools. He went on to apologise for his comments at the fundraiser earlier that month.
At second primary debate, Harris and Biden at loggerheads again
At the second democratic debate, the moderators raised the issue of busing for school integration — Harris was asked if she believed Biden’s claim that the two candidates shared the same stance on the subject of busing. According to Harris, their views differed.
“Had I been in the United States Senate at that time, I would’ve been completely on the other side of the aisle, and let’s be clear about this: had those segregationists their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate,” she said. “So on that issue, we could not be more apart.”
Biden responded by pointing out that Harris had done little to promote school integration during her time as California attorney General. “I didn’t see a single solitary time she brought a case against them to desegregate them,” he said.
Outcome of the exchange
According to the New York Times, polls conducted after the first debate showed that support from Biden had dipped, while Kamala Harris saw a significant increase in support. Her performance at the first primary debate also led to an increase in fund-raising.
However, both candidates came under scrutiny for their stance on racial issues after the debates. Biden continued to unequivocally defend his past civil rights views. Harris, on the other hand, faced flak from liberals, particularly from within the black community, who criticised her for not taking a tougher stance on racism in the legal system and police brutality.
In the months that followed, Harris’ low poll numbers ultimately led to her pulling out of the presidential race in December, last year. Meanwhile, earlier this year Biden successfully clinched the Democratic presidential nomination.
However, he faced flak for ill-informed and racially charged comments once again this month, when he compared the diversity in African American and Latino communities.