California Sen. Kamala Harris got into a testy exchange with former Vice President Joe Biden at the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday over racial issues.
“You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day and that little girl was me,” Harris told Biden.
She repeated the line later in her exchange after accusing Biden of being opposed to busing in America.
“I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education,” she noted.
Harris’s campaign immediately posted an elementary school photo of the senator on Twitter and started selling $30 “That Little Girl Was Me” T-shirts on its website to commemorate the viral moment.
Harris received praise from some California lawmakers after the debate, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, who tweeted, “America saw tonight what I’ve seen for 25 years. Couldn’t be more proud of Kamala Harris.”
But Harris’s story of integration is more complex than she made it out to be.
While it’s true she was among the second class of students at Thousand Oaks Elementary School to participate in a fully integrated busing program, she was far from the first black child to attend the school.
Data from the Berkeley Unified School District shows the 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%.
A fierce advocate of integration, Neil Sullivan moved to California 1964 to take over as superintendent. In the subsequent years, a task force reported to him to address the de facto segregation in the community.
In 1967, Sullivan’s team drafted a plan for all elementary schools to have black representation between 35% and 45%. By that time, the district had already desegregated its secondary schools — grades 7 to 12.
Black representation had grown slightly in the early-1960s. By 1967, the district considered its schools to be “partially desegregated,” but still “making progress toward racial integration,” according to documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee. The records show one in ten students at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in 1967 were black.
“These schools shall be totally desegregated in September, 1968, and we might make history on that day,” Sullivan said in a May 1967 education board meeting.
After a pilot program and the launch of a formal busing program that fall, the schools had been more evenly divided. During the first year of the program — a year before Harris arrived in 1969 — black enrollment jumped from 10% to 37%. The district’s data shows an increase in black representation at Thousand Oaks from 37% to 41% by the end of Harris’s first year of school.
Harris’s campaign did not respond to specific questions about the senator’s comments but reaffirmed the fact that she entered Thousand Oaks Elementary School in the fall of 1969 — the second year of full integration for the district’s elementary schools.
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