Kamala Harris confronting Joe Biden on race emerges as key debate moment

By Camilo Montoya-Galvez

/ CBS News

Harris confronts Biden

Sen. Kamala Harris directly challenged former Vice President Joe Biden on his recent comments on civil rights and segregationist lawmakers, delivering an impassioned critique that became the signature exchange of the second night of the first Democratic debate.

As the other candidates were being asked about race relations and racial inequality on Thursday, Harris, the only woman of color on stage, didn't let the moderators move on without allowing her to share her perspective.

"As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race," Harris said, eliciting fervent applause and cheers among the audience.

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After sharing personal experiences with discrimination and racial profiling, Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, turned her attention to Biden, the early front-runner in the race.

The California senator began to press Biden on his comments about working with conservative lawmakers who supported segregation based on race, as well as his past stance against busing to desegregate public schools.

"I do not believe you are a racist," Harris said, looking straight at Biden. "I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground … [But] it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputation and careers on the segregation of race in this country."

WATCH: Harris says she doesn't think Biden is a racist, but she talks directly to Biden about his having worked with segregationists on the issue of school busing. #DemDebate2 pic.twitter.com/Ytb2xvOhux

— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 28, 2019

Harris also noted Biden opposed federal measures to ensure that local jurisdictions used busing to desegregate public schools during the 1970s. She said that was personally painful for her.

"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 everyday, and that little girl was me," she said. "So, I will tell you: on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly."

Harris' passionate appeal elicited some of the loudest applause of the night. Given a chance to respond, Biden challenged Harris' portrayal of his record on race.

"That's a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists," he said, touting his support for civil rights and highlighting his work as public defender.

"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," Biden said.

Harris continued her questioning. "But Vice President Biden, do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?" she asked.

"I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed was busing ordered by the Department of Education," Biden replied.

Harris noted that many local jurisdictions — including in Berkeley, where she attended public schools — failed to quickly desegregate schools after the Supreme Court issued the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which outlawed segregation in public schools based on race.

When she mentioned that her schools in Berkeley fully desegregated nearly two decades after the Brown ruling, Biden said it was because of the decisions of local governments.

"So, that's when the federal government steps in," she countered, adding later, "There are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people."

Biden then stressed that he's been an ardent supporter of measures to crack down of the disfranchisement of racial minorities, before cutting himself off.

"Anyways, my time is up," he said.

Along with his comments about collaborating with segregationists and opposition to federal policies to compel local jurisdictions to change busing routes to end segregation in schools, Biden has also faced scrutiny from progressives for other positions he held during his long tenure in Congress.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he oversaw the contentious Anita Hill hearings during the confirmation process for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. He also helped spearhead efforts to pass the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which many believe fueled a period of mass incarceration that disproportionately affected African Americans and other minority groups.

First published on June 27, 2019 / 11:45 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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