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Joe Biden and Kamala Harris reignite 1970s controversy

Editor's Note: (John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.)

(CNN) If you're a little confused about why Democrats are busy debating the 1970s school integration policy known as busing, you're not alone.

In fact, according to a search of transcripts, the term has been used four times more on cable news in the past month than in the previous 10 years.

John Avlon

That's probably because it hasn't been much of a hot-button issue in decades.

But that all changed in the first Democratic debate, with Kamala Harris making the issue personal.

"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."

Harris raised the issue after front-runner Joe Biden had made a point at a fundraiser of touting his working relationship in the 1970s with notorious segregationist senators. Joe Biden has finally apologized for offending folks with that remark.

In an exclusive sit-down with CNN's Chris Cuomo on July 4th, he tried to clarify his position on the busing issue, citing the experience in Delaware.

"Busing did not work. You had overwhelming response from the African-American community in my state. My state is the eighth largest black population in the country as a percent of population. They weren't -- they did not support it. They did not support it."

What are the facts? "Busing" was the federally mandated integration of public schools by forcing the transportation of school children into different neighborhoods -- moving white students into predominantly black school districts and vice-versa.

This was done with the best of intentions -- trying to fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education after a century of segregation that followed slavery.

Progress had been slow and the courts ordered that the federal government step in and step up the integration efforts.

In the rear-view mirror, this looks like a principled attempt by the government to right a historic wrong.

But at the time, it was deeply divisive.

Some of the backlash was rooted in racism -- as captured by a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Stanley Forman titled "The Soiling of Old Glory" taken at a busing rally in Boston, by the way, not Birmingham.

But not all opposition was racist. The policy was deeply unpopular in both black and white households, according to a 1973 Gallup poll.

The topline conclusions? "A majority of Americans continue to favor public school integration, but few people -- black or white -- think that busing is the best way to achieve that goal."

And by "few people," here's specifically what they found: only 9% of African-Americans surveyed and 4% of whites said that forced busing was their first solution to improved school integration.

More popular alternatives included expanding school districts to ensure greater racial and economic diversity -- as well as building more low-income housing in middle income districts.

And for what it's worth, when Gallup polled busing in 1999 -- just 20 years ago -- it found similar results to 1973. Nearly 6 in 10 believed more should be done to integrate schools, but over 80% opposed busing as the best way to achieve that, and 60% preferred increased funding for urban schools instead.

This highlights the fact that good people can disagree on specific solutions while agreeing on the importance of broad goals.

And that's what a lot of the reignited debate over busing between Biden and Harris is about. In fact we've learned since the first debate that their actual substantive positions on busing today are not that far apart -- it can be an appropriate remedy for specific districts because of court orders or their own request -- but not necessarily broad-based federal imposition of busing.

Now, speaking of how good people can disagree, polling results on busing can be dismissed under the idea that civil rights shouldn't be subject to popularity contests; it's the underlying principle that matters most. Fair enough.

And it's clear that Biden's perspective as a US senator in the 1970s was very different and far less personal than Harris' perspective as a child who benefited from the impact of busing in Berkley.

In the debate, the policy punch landed because of that personal gap -- and because it is a subtle but effective way to highlight Biden's age.

Busing retains its ability to inflame debate. But it's worth noting that it is not anywhere near the top issues Democratic voters want to hear candidates address; those would be healthcare, immigration, the economy and the climate crisis.

But before we buy into the idea that school integration is a settled issue entirely we also need to confront this uncomfortable fact: by some measures we have lost ground in recent decades in the effort to desegregate our public schools, with eight of the top ten states with the most segregated schools outside of the South.

There is still much work to do. And as we address it, we should try to resist the temptation to impose our current values on the past without trying to understand crucial context, or always assuming the worst motives.