Fact check: Kamala Harris was correct on integration in Berkeley, school district confirms

Posted at 3:16 PM, Jun 28, 2019

In a dramatic moment of the Democratic primary debate on Thursday night, California Sen. Kamala Harris confronted former Vice President Joe Biden about his history of opposition to “busing,” the policy of transporting students to schools outside their neighborhoods to try to reduce racial segregation.

Harris said she was herself part of a busing program in California. She also said she was part of only the second integrated class at her school.

California-based radio host Larry Elder and others, citing a post on the conspiracy-minded conservative website Gateway Pundit, accused her of lying about her school’s integration history.

She was not lying. In fact, the school district confirmed her claim to CNN.

Facts First: Harris was indeed part of the second integrated class at Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks Elementary School: she entered school in 1969, and the plan to desegregate the school was implemented in 1968.

“Thousand Oaks Elementary, along with all Berkeley public elementary schools, were integrated through a two-way busing plan, beginning in 1968, so Senator Harris is correct in describing her experience in 1969 as the second year of the busing integration program,” Natasha Beery, director of community relations for the Berkeley Unified School District, said in an email on Friday.

Here’s what Harris said to Biden:

“But I also believe, and it’s personal — and I was actually very — 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. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, 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.”

Elder was touting a viral Gateway Pundit article, shared thousands of times on Facebook, that alleged that Berkeley’s school integration occurred before she was even born in 1964. The article included a photo from the 1963 yearbook from Berkeley’s high school, which showed many black students.

The key words here: high school. Berkeley High was, and is, the only public high school in the city, so it was integrated by necessity.

As the local news website Berkeleyside has repeatedly pointed out, the local elementary schools were different. The NAACP and others had complained for years that these schools were segregated. In 1962, the school board appointed a group to study the issue, calling it the Citizens’ Committee on De Facto Segregation.

The segregation in the city was indeed de facto segregation, not the officially mandated segregation imposed by law in the South, so there were some minority students at Harris’ school long before she arrived. In 1963, according to data published by the school district, there were 15 “Negro” students at Thousand Oaks Elementary — just 2.5 percent of the student body. By contrast, there were 561 “Caucasian” students, 95.1 percent.

Citing such data, the committee concluded that 14 of the 17 district elementary schools were effectively segregated. Seeking to rectify the situation, the school board voted unanimously in early 1968 in favor of a busing plan in which more than 3,000 students, both black and white, would be bused to different communities.

“In Berkeley, we only have one comprehensive high school, so it was integrated by default (de facto). Our elementary schools, however, reflected the racial composition of our neighborhoods, which like many neighborhoods across America reflected the history of segregation stemming from policies which restricted the opportunities of non-white residents,” Beery said.

Harris, born to a black father and a mother from India, lived at the time in an apartment on Bancroft Way in a part of town known as the flatlands, which had a large black population. Minority children in that area were bused to affluent white communities, such as the one where Thousand Oaks was located.

“Kamala and I took the bus to Thousand Oaks School in Berkeley together,” Carole Porter said in an email. “She lived around the corner from me on Bancroft, I grew up on Browning Street. We caught the bus to Thousand Oaks School in Berkeley on the corner of Bancroft and Browning St. every weekday morning.”

By 1969, Thousand Oaks was up to 40.2 percent “Negro” and down to 53.4 percent “Caucasian,” according to the school district.