Harris's Berkeley Background is Relevant Now

Becky O'Malley
Sunday July 07, 2019 - 01:35:00 PM

All the recent hoo-ha about whether Kamala Harris actually participated in the Berkeley public schools’ integration experience, including some from people I know around here who should know better, is arrant nonsense. It wasn’t that long ago, for heaven’s sake, and some of us still alive can remember the busing experience, including some of the senator’s former schoolmates.

Many of the ignorant denizens of the commentariat, both local and national, thought they’d made a big discovery: that the schools had been integrated long before Kamala. They’d found old Berkeley High yearbooks with pictures of Black students from years earlier—but what they didn’t grasp is that the busing program which affected Harris was aimed at desegregating the elementary schools. BUSD started transporting little kids around town to do what fair housing laws had yet to accomplish.

High school in Berkeley has never been segregated because there’s only ever been one high school, which everyone attended. That’s not to say that within the high school academic tracking and social self-segregation have not been cause for concern, but the school as a whole was always integrated.

The situation in the elementary schools was different. As in most U.S. elementary schools in those days, the students in the first eight or so grades were expected to be able walk to schools close to their homes.

But housing in Berkeley in the 1960s, as in most other U.S. cities, was effectively segregated, both economically and by racist covenants and real estate practices. It was virtually impossible for non-White families, both Asian and African American, regardless of means, to buy or rent homes east of Grove Street (now Martin Luther King Junior Way).

The elementary school population at the time reflected this pattern, with some K-6 schools effectively all-White and others predominantly Black. The busing program which affected Kamala was designed to integrate these lower grades.  

The primary schools were reconfigured to serve either Kindergarten through 3rd grade or 4th through 6th grade. The K-3 schools were in predominantly White neighborhoods, and the older kids went to 4-6 schools in the mixed neighborhoods of South and West Berkeley. 

When we moved back to Berkeley in 1973 our older daughters, then in fourth and sixth grades, rode the school bus to Malcolm X (formerly Lincoln), which was west of Grove, while the little children who lived near Malcolm X were bused to John Muir, on Claremont. Young Kamala, who is exactly the same age as my middle daughter, lived west of Grove, so she took a school bus in the first three grades to formerly mostly-White Thousand Oaks School, just as she told Joe Biden in the Democratic debate.  

By the time she was in middle school, her family had moved to Canada. I haven’t been able to figure out where she went for Grades 4, 5 and 6. I have a dim memory of hearing that she went to one of the small alternative private schools which were popular in those days, but I can’t confirm that. 

The school configurations have been endlessly rearranged since then, but what’s most interesting about Berkeley’s experience with busing for school integration is that it did a thorough job of improving the city’s social fabric. Simply put, it got rid of the undesirables for a couple of decades. 

When I came to Cal in 1958, the mayor was a Republican. Berkeley was a very buttoned-up place, with no alcohol allowed to be sold within a mile of campus and students not allowed to have cars at school.  

A large percentage of the student body (which Clark Kerr promised to cap at 12,500) lived in all-White fraternities and sororities. The faculty, also mostly White, tended to live in substantial houses, many in walking distance of campus, north and south. Students like me who disdained both dorms and frats lived in slightly decaying older group houses and apartments a few blocks north, south and a bit west, though they seldom ventured west of Grove into the limited area open to people of color despite prevalent redlining. 

In my circle we’d heard of changes in the wider world. We picketed Woolworth’s in solidarity with southern student sit-ins. Several of my friends were red diaper babies, so when the House Un-American Activities Committee came to town in 1960 to hunt Communists, they organized a major picket line at the San Francisco City Hall which eventually resulted in what HUAC called a riot. I boycotted my graduation in 1961 because Governor Pat Brown, who had just allowed Caryl Chessman to be executed, was the speaker. 

The rest of the decade is history. I got married and moved to Ann Arbor, but Berkeley students made plenty of trouble here without me.  

By the time we moved back with three kids in 1973, things were pretty well all shook up, between the demonstrations and school integration. The Republican-inclined were moving to Lamorinda and environs in droves. The first African American mayor of Berkeley, a Democrat, had been elected in 1971. 

As a result of all this excitement, property values were plummeting. We bought a commodious house at a bargain price on a block of Ashby which had a variety of collective houses, at least one of them radical enough that it boasted its own FBI spying operation in the attic across the street. The seller moved to Rossmoor in Walnut Creek. 

Berkeley’s reputation as a quirky idiosyncratic place to live lasted through the seventies, eighties and into the nineties. In 1994 the then-current Democratic mayor, elected with support from leftish Berkeley Citizens Action, resigned to take a job in the Clinton administration. She arranged for her successor to be the pleasant, wealthy, vaguely liberal owner of a substantial percentage of downtown Berkeley, and thenceforth city administrations were centrist on most local issues, though ever ready to take a stand about far-away causes. 

Lately it seems that Berkeley is regaining its earlier 20th century status as a bedroom community for people with good jobs in The City. The difference is that many well-off people have gotten over their fear of demonstrations, integrated schools and dark-skinned neighbors, so they’re happy to displace current residents to move into formerly low-income neighborhoods.  

And they’re not all White. People of color who can afford it are welcome in any neighborhood. Mixed families like Kamala’s are the norm, not the exception. Among my grandmother peers, almost all of us have at least one mixed-race grandchild.  

What exactly does all this sociological detail about Berkeley matter to the 2020 presidential campaign? What it shows is that Senator Kamala Harris comes from an entirely different place than former Vice President Biden does. Biden’s historical opposition to busing for desegregation (like Bernie Sanders’) was rooted in the kind of limited world view which was common in the Berkeley of my undergraduate days. 

He’s an old White guy from a small provincial state, and she’s a younger woman of color who might be called a multinational, a global citizen like Barack Obama. Her indignant take-down of Biden was based on her small measure of participation in the common African American experience. She’s escaped many of the indignities others suffered because of her family background, but she’s able to appreciate what she gained from being part of the controversial busing experiment in Berkeley. 

However, the crucial upcoming election will not be a fight between Biden and Harris. A good number of my friends and relations have announced that they’re simply voting for “The Democrat” in the general election, and I tend to agree with them. The reason for joining one primary campaign or another would be to promote a sure winner, but I doubt that there is one.  

I do think that winning will depend on mobilizing women and people of color, and in the past few weeks Biden has demonstrated that he’s not fast enough on his feet anymore (if he ever was) to do that. Harris, on the other hand, has shown that she’d add spice to any ticket, which would be A Good Thing, though perhaps not enough by itself. It’s still early days.