port of harlem magazine
 
black memorabilia show
 
Kamala Harris’ History Mind Games

 
July 18 – July 31, 2019
 
i am that little girl



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.

The real images truly remind us of the crux of the desegregation issue. More than desegregated classrooms, Black people wanted accessible, well funded, well-resourced public schools. They did not unanimously look forward to desegregation or busing.

They knew desegregated schools could be dangerous for their children and destabilizing for their communities. Black cultural history was significantly grounded within all-Black schools.

With her providing no evidence to the contrary, Harris can be viewed as the fortunate Black child who did not experience mandated busing as something traumatic and disruptive, as many Black children did. She cannot declare on behalf of all Black children that busing was a universal good, and that no Black children were harmed by busing. This is what she wants us to believe so that she can win.
Harris was not one of the tens of thousands of Black children who desegregated their schools in the face of threatening, attacking White mobs.
Yet, she cannot rightly declare that Black children on the whole came out of the experience more self-realized, better educated, and wholly integrated within the still-dominant White society. That would not be true, and Harris knows it.

Her school district desegregated without a court order or National Guard escorts. A few days after the recent debate, the New York Times reported: “Unlike other sizable cities, Berkeley undertook its busing program voluntarily and required both White and Black families to travel into unfamiliar neighborhoods. Rapid demographic and political changes shielded the community from the most extreme pushback, including violence, that hobbled busing efforts nationwide.”

The strategy Harris and team chose did increase her campaign coffers, and we will see if she is willing to continue exchanging personal and professional credibility for that. If she is, then she truly exemplifies the American politician of her day.


Note: Avis D. Matthews’ master's thesis in History at University of Maryland/College Park (2017) looked at the ways African Americans in Prince George’s County, Maryland, her home, affirmed their racial and cultural identity in the era of school desegregation, from 1954 to 1974.

 
 
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