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After a night of few fireworks Wednesday, tension over the issues of race boiled over to the forefront during Thursday night’s Democratic primary debate.

Senator Kamala Harris challenged former vice president Joe Biden over his record on civil rights issues in the Senate in the 1970s.

“I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” she said. “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two US senators who built their reputation and career on the segregation of race in this country.”

Harris accused Biden of working to oppose the busing of African American students to racially segregated schools in the 1970s.


“There was a little girl in California that 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. So I will tell you that on this subject it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats,” she said.

It’s an issue that has dogged the 76-year-old Biden through much of the primary campaign. The Washington Post in March unearthed a 1975 interview in which Biden criticized the concept of busing, calling it a quota system that is “the most racist concept you could come up with.”

But Biden called Harris’ attack a “mischaracterization” of his stances “across the board.” Getting in his own dig at Harris, who worked as a prosecutor, he highlighted his experience as a public defender.

“I came out, and left a good law firm to become a public defender,” he said, and said he didn’t oppose busing in principle but said he was “opposed to busing ordered by the Department of Education.”

“Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” Harris said, “I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley Public Schools.”


“Because your city council made that decision,” Biden rebutted.

“So that’s where the federal government must step in,” Harris shot back.

Biden went on to discuss his record in the Senate on civil rights issues. “I have supported the [Equal Rights Amendment] from the very beginning. I am the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years, I’ve also argued very strongly that we in fact deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box.”

But he soon cut himself off. “My time’s up. I’m sorry.”

Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.