Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) enjoyed a standout moment in the second night of the 2020 Democratic presidential debate on Thursday when she attacked former Vice President Joe Biden on the issue of federal mandated busing to racially integrate schools. Harris repeated a powerful talking point about why the issue is personal for her, with the memorable tagline: “That little girl was me.”
The only problem? She has consistently exaggerated the story, at one point making the claim that if she hadn’t attended an integrated elementary school, she wouldn’t have become a U.S. senator. In that standout debate performance, she overstated the claim on busing.
Harris noted that Biden worked with segregationist senators to oppose federally mandated busing to achieve racial integration. “And 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,” she said.
Again Harris repeated the claim: “I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley California public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.”
Harris has widely been considered the winner of her exchange with Biden, and of the debate in general. Her campaign seized on the moment, tweeting the photo of Harris as a little girl and selling “That Little Girl Was Me” t-shirts for $30 on her campaign website.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 28, 2019
The problem is, Kamala Harris was (at best) exaggerating in those two statements about busing and integration.
As the Sacramento Bee‘s Ryan Anderson pointed out, Harris was indeed among the second class of students at Thousand Oaks Elementary School to participate in a fully integrated busing program, but she was far from the first black child to attend that school. Worse for her debate claims, other schools in the Berkeley Unified School District had been fully integrated long before she went to that school.
Harris can rightly say she was “part of the second class to integrate her elementary school,” but she cannot say she was “part of the second class to integrate her public schools.” This is an important distinction. She was not “part of the second class to integrate Berkeley California public schools.”
As the Bee reported, Berkeley Unified School District data shows that her elementary school “had 15 black students in 1963 — a year before Harris was born. They represented 3% of the total elementary school student body, while other schools in the district had a black population as high as 97%.”
Neil Sullivan, a fierce advocate of racial integration, took over as superintendent in 1964. In 1967, his team drafted a plan for all elementary schools to have black representation between 35 percent and 45 percent. By that time, the district had already desegregated its middle schools and high schools.
In 1967, the district considered its schools to be “partially segregated.” In 1967, ten percent of students at Thousand Oaks Elementary School were black. That year, Sullivan predicted that “these schools shall be totally desegregated in September, 1968, and we might make history on that day.”
During the first year of the program, 1968, black enrollment at Harris’s future elementary school jumped from 10 percent to 37 percent. In 1969, Harris’s first year at the school, black representation rose from 37 percent to 41 percent.
Harris did indeed benefit from busing, and she was among the second class at her elementary school to attend after the integration plan had gone into effect, but this does not mean she was in the second class of black students integrated in the “Berkeley California public schools.” Berkeley High School had always been integrated because it was the only high school in the district. Junior high schools were integrated in 1964.
Had Harris made the more limited claim of saying she was “part of the second class to fully integrate her public elementary schools,” she would have been correct. Yet claiming to have been in the second class to integrate the public schools gives a false impression on many counts: it suggests there were no black students at the schools and it suggests the integration at every level of schooling only happened right before Harris attended.
Furthermore, Harris also exaggerated the impact of school busing on her personal history. When she opposed Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination on the Supreme Court, Harris tweeted, “Two decades after Brown v. Board, I was only the second class to integrate at Berkeley public schools. Without that decision, I likely would not have become a lawyer and eventually be elected a Senator from California. That’s the power a Supreme Court Justice holds.”
Two decades after Brown v. Board, I was only the second class to integrate at Berkeley public schools. Without that decision, I likely would not have become a lawyer and eventually be elected a Senator from California.
That’s the power a Supreme Court Justice holds.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) July 10, 2018
Harris told a powerful story, but it just isn’t true. Harris’s mother, Shaymala Gopalan Harris, was a breast cancer scientist and a university professor. Her father, Donald Harris, is a Standford University economics professor. It was never likely Kamala Harris would drop out of school, because her parents taught her to value education at an early age.
Furthermore, while Harris benefited from the integrated busing during elementary school, her mother moved with the children to Montreal, Canada. It is extremely unlikely that the integrated busing is at all responsible for Harris’s intelligence, work ethic, or determination to graduate high school and attend higher education.
None of this should be construed as an attack on Harris’s history or her accomplishments. Yet her claims about integrated busing being central to her future career are exaggerated and misleading, if not outright false.
Since Harris is clearly aiming to capitalize on this standout debate moment, it’s important to note that she isn’t telling the whole truth.
It’s also important to note, as PJ Media’s Paula Bolyard reported, that forced busing to achieve racial integration was unpopular in the 1970s, didn’t work, and likely remains far less popular than school choice today — yet many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates support it.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.