California Senator Kamala Harris’ exploitation of the history of school desegregation in the United States has led me to question her integrity. In the June 27 debate among Democratic candidates for U.S. president, Harris shared a personal story of how busing cleared a path to success for her. Yet, she glossed over the nuances and chose to not even imply the quandary that both school desegregation and busing created for many, if not most, Black Americans.
Harris and her team should learn to use powerful stories from the distant past without distorting them, and to ground their strategy in information that considers the experiences of a broader swath of American Blacks. During the debate, she charged that in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. Representative Joe Biden of Delaware, now Senator Biden, had opposed taking groups of Black and non-Black children out of their respective segregated schools and transporting them by bus to schools in each other’s neighborhoods. Blending Black and White school children could possibly help forge a better, more cohesive nation.
In opposing busing, Harris inferred, Biden opposed Black people’s interests in general. She knew this attack would have racial weight, so to speak, and she was right. She continued with the strategy, sharing with viewers her personal desegregation story, but here’s where she lost me. Showing us a late-1960s photo of an elementary-age Black child, Harris said: “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.”
With no sense of shame, Harris tried to crop her face into some of the most riveting, painful and sympathetic images in civil rights lore. Harris was not one of the tens of thousands of Black children who desegregated their schools in the face of threatening, attacking White mobs. That is not her story. She is not Linda Brown, the Black school girl whose name represented all five of the families in the NAACP's landmark Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit, which -- legally, but not actually -- killed “separate-but equal” in public education. She is not one of the Little Rock Nine. She is not Ruby Bridges in New Orleans.
More than desegregated classrooms, Black people wanted accessible, well funded, well-resourced public schools. They did not unanimously look forward to desegregation or busing.