Democratic U.S. presidential hopeful and former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the Moral Action Congress of the Poor People's Campaign June 17, 2019 at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC.
Joe Biden's controversial history with school busing
03:10 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

It was the moment everyone was talking about after Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate.

At the center of the heated exchange between Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden was the use of busing to desegregate American schools – and Biden’s opposition to it in the 1970s.

Here’s what you need to know about the issue.

What is busing?

Black students in Woodville, Mississippi, board a school bus for their first day at a formerly white school.

The 1954 US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education brought an end to legal racial segregation in schools. But because of demographic trends, white flight to the suburbs and discriminatory housing practices like redlining, many neighborhoods across the country remained segregated. Combined with how cities drew school district lines, that meant schools remained segregated, too.

Enter busing.

After the 1971 Supreme Court ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, lower courts began mandating busing to effectively desegregate schools. Black students started taking school buses to majority-white schools and white students to majority-black schools, often in neighborhoods far from where they lived.

It became one of the most controversial topics in US politics at the time.

Why was it controversial?

Before the Supreme Court mandated school desegregation, schools for African American children often had meager resources compared to those white children attended, which in turn created racial gaps in achievement and opportunities.

Supporters of busing argued that the practice was necessary to effectively integrate schools – and help correct the damaging legacy of school segregation.

But opponents of busing, many of whom were also opponents of school desegregation, argued that children were being transported to unsafe neighborhoods and objected to the long commutes children experienced. Others, including Biden, said that busing forced schools to achieve racial quotas and did not achieve equal opportunity for students.

In 1974, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to school integration efforts through its ruling in Milliken v. Bradley. The court held that a mandatory plan to bus black students from Detroit across school districts to mainly white suburbs was unconstitutional, arguing that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the suburban school districts were deliberately engaging in segregation. The decision accelerated white flight to the suburbs and worsened the problem of segregation in urban schools.

In Boston, opposition to busing turned violent. After a federal judge ordered