How Kamala Harris’ experience in Berkeley’s busing program shaped her life — and changed the presidential race

When Kamala Harris got on a Berkeley school bus for the first time five decades ago, she was taking part in one of the nation’s first efforts to use busing to integrate public schools. The yellow bus took her up from her home in the flatlands to Thousand Oaks Elementary in the hills, linking neighborhoods that were cleaved by race and income.

Now, Harris has turned that experience into a breakout moment for her presidential campaign, with a show-stopping confrontation of frontrunner Joe Biden in Thursday night’s debate over his history of opposing busing programs as a senator.

Just a few years after Harris got on her first school bus, Biden was arguing against busing, calling the concept “asinine” and fighting efforts in the Senate to impose it around the country.

In a masterful debate moment, Harris highlighted that record in raw and personal terms, leaving the former vice president rattled and his sheen of frontrunner status damaged.

“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” the California senator said, turning to look straight at Biden. “It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school and she was bused to school every day,” Harris continued, with the debate hall pin-drop silent. “And that little girl was me.”

The five-minute exchange appeared to be the most significant of the 2020 campaign so far, with commentators across cable news and social media declaring Harris a runaway debate winner and calling into question Biden’s frontrunner status. Harris’ attack took aim at a key constituency she and Biden are both fighting for support among, older African-American voters, and seemed likely to snuff out the long-standing criticism of her as too cautious.

The moment resonated especially deeply with other Berkeley students who had also experienced busing and were watching Thursday night.

“She was spot-on,” said Doris Alkebulan, 58, who was among the first black Berkeley students bused to white schools during a 1977 pilot program. “It gave me such joy and pride that I still have confidence in our country.”

Alkebulan said getting to go to Cragmont Elementary was a transformative opportunity her, and she credits learning time tables there for her job today as an engineer at Caltrans. The Facebook group for Alkebulan’s Berkeley class was blowing up with students amazed at Harris’ moment last night, she said, and she sent Harris an online contribution right after the debate.

“I still remember it so clearly — I can still hear the sound of the bus,” she said.

Berkeley Unified School District started voluntarily busing its students on a widespread level in 1968, under the direction of a progressive superintendent, Neil Sullivan. Black students would be bused up to the white schools in the hills during kindergarten through third grade, and white students went down to schools in the flatlands for grades 4 through 6. The program was one of the first of its kind in the country, and was praised by Martin Luther King Jr. — who was assassinated that year — and other civil rights leaders.

A member of the second class to go into the program, Harris took the bus every day from her mother’s yellow duplex on Bancroft Way in the more diverse, less affluent flats of northwest Berkeley up to Thousand Oaks elementary in the wealthier and whiter hills.

Harris — whose parents, immigrants from India and Jamaica, were deeply involved in the civil rights movement — lived on Bancroft Way in a redlined area of Northwest Berkeley. The busing program took her to a school that had previously been more than 90 percent white, in a neighborhood where her family would likely have recently been blocked from buying a home.

“I only learned later that we were part of a national experiment in desegregation,” Harris wrote in her recent memoir. “At the time, all I knew was that the big yellow bus was the way I got to school.”

Her first grade class was a pioneering picture of diversity, from students who grew up in public housing to the children of UC Berkeley professors, she wrote. Going to Thousand Oaks had a profound impact on her life: Her first-grade teacher, Frances Wilson, showed up to Harris’ law school graduation two decades later, a story she often tells voters on the campaign trail. (Harris and her family later moved to Montreal when she was in middle and high school.)

Research has shown that busing and similar integration policies can have generations-long positive impacts on students, experts say, with African-American students benefiting from better educational and job attainment and students of all races — including white students — becoming less likely to form racial prejudices.

During the debate over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation last year, Harris argued that school integration was a big factor in the fact that she was able to become a prosecutor and eventually run for public office.

“I wouldn’t be part of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings had Chief Justice Warren not been on the Supreme Court to lead the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board,” Harris tweeted last year. “Had someone else been there, I may not have become a U.S. Senator.”

Berkeley’s plan was highly controversial at the time, and some white families left the district for private schools or elsewhere in the Bay Area.

“Oftentimes, the burden of how busing is used falls on African-Americans when integration happened,” said Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, who has studied integration efforts in Berkeley and other school districts. “What Berkeley recognized is that it was important to share that, that white students needed to go to black schools as well.”

Biden took office as a senator from Delaware in 1973, just four years after Harris’ first experience with busing, and he was a staunch opponent of using the practice for desegregating public schools. That put him in line with prevailing public opinion at the time: A 1973 Gallup poll found just 5 percent believed busing was the best means to desegregate public schools — and only 9 percent of African-Americans were in favor.

In 1975, Biden authored a successful anti-busing measure that blocked federal grants to public schools that would use the money “to assign students or teachers by race.” He flatly told a local newspaper in an interview that year that “I oppose busing,” calling it an “asinine concept.”

The following year, Biden introduced a proposal to block the Justice Department from using busing to desegregate schools, and in 1977 introduced a bill opposing court-ordered busing.

In the debate, Biden defended himself by saying Harris was mischaracterizing his position, declaring, “you would have been able to go school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council.”

Today, debates over school segregation and integration programs still roil cities around the country. Berkeley got rid of its busing program in the 1990s, and now has a different school system based on neighborhood.

Harris’ debate standout seems likely to focus new attention on the issue.

“This could be a really powerful moment in reshaping our national discussion of what desegregation is today,” Frankenberg said.

John Woolfolk contributed reporting.