Credit: AP Photo/RWK - Copyright 2019 Associated Press
In this historical photo from the Associated Press, youngsters head for a school bus in Berkeley, California on Feb. 24, 1970, where a busing program to mix black and white youngsters had been working for 18 months with apparent decline in opposition.

As everyone who wasn’t Rip-Van-Winkle-ing during last Thursday’s presidential debate knows, in 1969 California Senator Kamala Harris was part of the second class to be bused across Berkeley in order to attend an integrated school. The senator deployed this bit of autobiography in a well-choreographed takedown of Joe Biden, who stumbled in attempting to explain his opposition, at that time, to what opponents decried as “forced busing.”

Headshot of David Kirp

David Kirp

Biden’s inept response — that he had been opposed to mandatory busing ordered by the federal government, not voluntary plans like Berkeley’s — drew a civics-lesson response from Harris about the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the former vice president has been on the defensive ever since.

Scoring points against your opponent, as Harris did, is the essence of politics. But what went undiscussed during the debate is the power of desegregation to change the arc of children’s lives. Kamala Harris benefited from the fact that, as one of her classmates told a New York Times reporter, her new classroom was a veritable United Nations. “Busing gave us opportunities to leave our neighborhood and see affluence.” It was, the classmate added, a life-altering experience.

Berkeley Unified continues to bus elementary and middle school students in order to maintain a semblance of racial balance in its schools. But the school district is the decided exception — nationwide, desegregation has been almost entirely consigned to the junkyard of history. Decades later, with the advent of new research methods, we have learned that abandoning integration was a monumental mistake.

To its advocates, desegregation was a moral imperative, a way to secure racial justice in the schools and a pathway out of poverty for African-American youngsters. In his new book, Children of the Dream, Berkeley public policy professor Rucker Johnson draws on a massive data set to show that black children who attended integrated schools — with better teachers and smaller classes — fared better than youngsters just like them who missed out on this opportunity. They were significantly more likely to graduate from high school and college, to earn more, to stay out of prison and to stay healthy. What’s more, these life-changing effects proved to be intergenerational — their children are also better off.

The fact that Kamala Harris went to integrated schools does not begin to explain her achievements, of course, for life is rarely so simple. What’s more, integration is only part of the bigger policy picture: As Johnson demonstrates, well-funded schools and quality early education are also essential.

Still, for hundreds of thousands of black children, the opportunity during the 1970s and 1980s to attend racially mixed schools was a life-changer. We’re paying the price for having jettisoned that policy.

•••

David Kirp is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of The College Dropout Scandal, which will be published next month.

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  1. Paul Muench 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Kamala Harris’ alma mater Thousand Oaks elementary is close to matching the ethnicity of the district today. But the academic performance of students is still largely determined by race. Black students meet or exceed standards at the rate of about 20% whereas white students meet or exceed standards at the rate of 60%. I don’t have the time to check the last 30 years of data, but I would not be surprised … Read More

    Kamala Harris’ alma mater Thousand Oaks elementary is close to matching the ethnicity of the district today. But the academic performance of students is still largely determined by race. Black students meet or exceed standards at the rate of about 20% whereas white students meet or exceed standards at the rate of 60%. I don’t have the time to check the last 30 years of data, but I would not be surprised if not much has changed. So is Berkeley the classic case of desegregation vs. integration or is there much more to the problem than integration?

  2. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Tell this to San Diego Unified Board of Education and Superintendent Cindy Marten who are strangling avenues for kids of color from the inner city to "choice" out to better schools like those in La Jolla. La Jolla schools' "voluntary ethnic enrollment" has been declining dramatically – costing loss of curriculum and teaching staff as well as opportunity for a racially integrated student body – while Marten pushes the slogan, "every neighborhood school a … Read More

    Tell this to San Diego Unified Board of Education and Superintendent Cindy Marten who are strangling avenues for kids of color from the inner city to “choice” out to better schools like those in La Jolla. La Jolla schools’ “voluntary ethnic enrollment” has been declining dramatically – costing loss of curriculum and teaching staff as well as opportunity for a racially integrated student body – while Marten pushes the slogan, “every neighborhood school a good school.” It’s a loss for everyone.

  3. Liz 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I’ve found the rampant “re-segregation” of schools over the past decades, particularly in my home district of Oakland Unified, to be shocking and deeply disappointing. I am so happy to hear this topic being discussed again at the national level. Kudos to Rucker Johnson for his research and to David Kirp for keeping the conversation alive. We clearly need national policy to move forward on school integration – which benefits every kid.

  4. Paul 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    The school desegregation busing exchange during the Democratic presidential debate had more to do with public appeal than with how to actually achieve change through the political system. No change at all would be possible in the US if we had to wait for uniform national policy. Small, conservative states wield a disproportionate share of federal power (through the Senate, the Electoral College, and long-established expectations about net federal spending, i.e., the difference between what those … Read More

    The school desegregation busing exchange during the Democratic presidential debate had more to do with public appeal than with how to actually achieve change through the political system.

    No change at all would be possible in the US if we had to wait for uniform national policy. Small, conservative states wield a disproportionate share of federal power (through the Senate, the Electoral College, and long-established expectations about net federal spending, i.e., the difference between what those states pay into and take out of the federal treasury). Conservative voices have almost always dominated the Supreme Court, too (due, I think, to the lifetime terms).

    Local change becomes a lever for state-level change, which in turn becomes a lever for federal change.

    That variation is permitted between local government units (to some extent), and between states (to a great extent) redeems a political system that favors conservative interests.

    Whether we’re talking about housing non-discrimination, school desegregation, interracial marriage, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, or healthcare for poor people, local or state-level policy changes opened the door to policy changes on a wider geographic scale.

    Same-sex marriage would have been banned immediately and for all time, throughout the country, if not for the Defense of Marriage Act. By allowing conservative states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, even as forward-looking states began performing same-sex marriages, DOMA bought time until an equitable decision became possible at the federal level.

    Berkeley didn’t desegregate its schools under federal court order. It did so voluntarily, amid great local controversy. Federal politicians and judges weren’t willing to force complete, effective, nationwide school desegregation; indeed, they still aren’t. That the details have been left to states, and ultimately, to local school boards, has made some change possible. Absolute federal control would have meant zero change.

    I’m sure all Democratic presidential candidates oppose segregated schools. The savvy ones will support school boards and states in reducing school segregation, without being foolish enough to spark (regrettably) unwindable federal-judicial and federal-legislative battles over the issue.

  5. Dude 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Another writer avoiding the obvious. Busing drove white parents out of city school districts and into the suburbs with serious consequences for cities. Kirp lives in a world where he believes he can control people but reality is different.

  6. Linda Wing 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    The NY Times article did not quote one of Kamala Harris's classmates as saying their "new classroom was a veritable United Nation." Instead the classmate stated "we had a United Nations in our neighborhood." Needless to say but I will, given we are forced to live in a world of "fake news," it's important to get the facts right when discussing a controversial policy such as school busing. Read More

    The NY Times article did not quote one of Kamala Harris’s classmates as saying their “new classroom was a veritable United Nation.” Instead the classmate stated “we had a United Nations in our neighborhood.” Needless to say but I will, given we are forced to live in a world of “fake news,” it’s important to get the facts right when discussing a controversial policy such as school busing.