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Published 09/25/2019 | Reading Time 2 min 28 sec
By Chris Stewart
Earlier this summer Kamala Harris and Joe Biden had a terse exchange about integration and public school busing. An article in The Atlantic described it this way:
“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,” Harris told the former vice president, her voice quaking. “That little girl was me.” It was the defining line of the debate, inspiring the creation of a T-shirt Harris’s campaign is now selling for $29.99. The point Harris was highlighting was clear: When busing would have mattered most as a method of desegregating schools, in the 1970s, Biden didn’t enthusiastically support it.”
We love a good come-up story, especially when it invokes the morally superior virtues that define a beloved community.
I can almost feel the warmth of Harris’ torch for the power of white acceptance, and the disdain for Biden’s blue dog resistance.
And, I could tell you a very different story (that won’t sell T-shirts) about a little black boy who was once bussed three hours a day, away from neighborhood friends and familiar surroundings, to a white school in the hills where moneyed white students and their teachers dislike school busses and students invading “their” school.
That little boy was me.
I turned out ok. Even grew up to have children, who are multiracial like Harris, proving I ardently support integration.
But, I am here to constantly challenge the incessant and dangerous romanticization of simple integration stories. While most people called the Harris/Biden tussle in favor of Harris, I still call her rehearsed passion play phony baloney.
Which is why I appreciate this Washington Post article that goes a long way to add context to the oversimplified “I was bussed therefore I am” claptrap that intoxicates the best of audiences.
Especially this part…
Kamala Harris wanted to go to a black school. That’s what black folks called Howard University in the early 1980s when Harris was a teenager considering her future.
Harris, she would say later, was seeking an experience wholly different from what she had long known. She’d attended majority-white schools her entire life — from elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., to high school in Montreal. Her parents’ professional lives and their personal story were bound up in majority-white institutions. Her father, an economist from Jamaica, was teaching at Stanford University. Her mother, a cancer researcher from India, had done her graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where the couple had met and fallen in love. And Harris’s younger sister would eventually enroll at Stanford.
Harris wanted to be surrounded by black students, black culture and black traditions at the crown jewel of historically black colleges and universities.
In this, we see something curious, but not uncommon, which is how sending children of color off to majority-white schools can cause dissonance in the face of microaggressions and culture stripping.
Maybe Harris wouldn’t admit that, but she wouldn’t be the first to see an HBCU as a cultural finishing school for proper black people.
Indeed, the stories of black integrationists who are celebrated by white media are often punctuated by the fact that they only discovered their blackness in college and now they overemphasize it as the false currency they use in minstrel fashion to Afrocentricize white progressive ideals.
I name no names. I just admit what I’ve seen.
No one should discount the possibility that a little black girl or boy might succeed in life without bathing in whiteness.
Maybe a bus saved Harris, the daughter of privileged middle-class professionals.
Or, maybe, it’s just a good story to gather votes from an electorate that loves simplicity.
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He was named CEO of Education Post in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education where he was radicalized by witnessing the many systemic inequities that hold our children back.