I find myself often turning back to that infamous first debate of the presidential election cycle (remember the summer of 2019?) where then-presidential candidate, now Vice President Harris invoked her experience with busing as a young student in Berkeley, hurling invectives at her then-opponent Joe Biden for his opposition to correcting the legacy of segregation.
However, it is a bit naive to talk about the “legacy” of something that still persists. Nationwide, the percentage of schools that are highly segregated — those where less than 10% of the student body is White — is increasing. The figure jumped from 6% to 18% just between 1988 and 2016. What’s important here is that the most segregated states are not those in the South. In fact, these are the states with the least segregated schools for Black students. School segregation is most prominent in liberal states such as New York, Illinois, and yes, California.
To understand how we got here, we have to look back to Brown v. Board of Education. Most Americans could probably tell you that the 1954 Supreme Court case ruled that “separate is not equal,” thus mandating integration. But how many people know what measures the nation actually took to achieve integration in its schools? After all, neighborhoods were segregated too, and Brown v. Board did not order housing to be integrated, at least not directly. In my experience, this gap in knowledge is common in the way we teach American history in schools; we emphasize victories like the abolition of slavery or the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but we rarely talk about how these broad political decisions were implemented, resisted and, often, undermined.
Many school districts implemented — either voluntarily or by court order — a busing system in which buses took students from one, often segregated, neighborhood to attend school in neighboring White, affluent communities. Berkeley pioneered two-way busing, which occurs in both directions. The effect was a redistribution of educational and financial resources because the money flowed to wherever the White kids went to school. As Nikole Hanna-Jones of The New York Times Magazine puts it, “(Nothing) magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids. … What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids, and therefore it gets them access to the same things that those kids get — quality teachers and quality instruction.”
The Berkeley of Kamala Harris’s childhood benefitted from a general willingness to opt in to desegregation. The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, which was never segregated by law as many districts in the Jim Crow South had been, was instead segregated by virtue of racist housing policies, such as redlining, and settlement patterns. This meant that under Brown v. Board, BUSD was not required by federal courts to pursue integration. However, advocates for voluntary desegregation policies, including African Americans who settled in Berkeley and Oakland during and after World War II and White professionals connected to UC Berkeley, found an ally in the new BUSD Superintendent Neil Sullivan. It should be noted that Black families were able to settle in large numbers in South Berkeley during WWII because this area, which had been redlined, was home to many families of Japanese ancestry who were at the time incarcerated in concentration camps.
As in many parts of the country, White people voiced support for integration in general, but opposition to what they claimed was the overly complicated busing system, not unlike then-Senator Joe Biden.
A 1963 report entitled “De Facto Segregation in Berkeley Public Schools” detailed the racial makeup of the BUSD student body. Malcolm X Elementary, which was known as Lincoln Elementary at the time, was 97% Black, while eight other schools served student bodies that were more than 90% White. Again, these schools were not segregated by virtue of explicit segregation laws, known as de jure segregation; rather, they were segregated by virtue of factors outside of school district policies — hence, the de facto segregation. Washington Elementary, for example, was largely integrated. Half of its students were Black or Asian due to its location in the racially heterogeneous northwest Berkeley.
Support for Berkeley’s integration efforts was not universal. As in many parts of the country, White people voiced support for integration in general, but opposition to what they claimed was the overly complicated busing system, not unlike then-Senator Joe Biden. This was an interesting argument given that school buses had provided the public service of transporting children to and from school since the 1920s, and desegregation by busing would, in many cases, help students of color attend schools that were actually closer to their homes. Brown v. Board petitioner Oliver Brown had sued for his daughter’s right to attend the neighborhood school. When political resistance failed, including an attempted recall of the Berkeley school board, White flight followed the implementation of the busing program in 1968, leading BUSD enrollment numbers to decline significantly in the years following.
The widespread resistance to busing by White and/or well-off families in Berkeley is a microcosm of the American inability to weigh minuscule individual advantage against devastating societal detriment; we always choose the former. Yet, even if one were unconcerned with the common good, there is no evidence to suggest that integration harms anyone, including White, affluent students, on any metric. The issue is not the fact — we know integration works. What is at issue here are the lies we tell about desegregation — that we have tried it and failed; that we have already achieved it; that it affects only Black students and that Indigenous, Latinx and AAPI students have never fallen victim to segregation; that is merely the product of aggregated individual failings and that the burden now lies on families of color to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
The widespread resistance to busing by White and/or well-off families in Berkeley is a microcosm of the American inability to weigh minuscule individual advantage against devastating societal detriment; we always choose the former.
Berkeley is luckier than most districts around the country. Nationwide, nearly 20 percent of students attend racially isolated schools. Supreme Court cases after Brown v. Board, such as Milliken v. Bradley (1974), which barred federal courts from intervening in de facto segregated school districts, have forced the parasite of systemic racism to evolve rather than die.
BUSD has maintained its dedication to educational equity despite decades of legal and judicial decisions that have weakened the power of Brown v. Board. While it no longer implements its busing plan, BUSD now uses a “diversity index” to rank clusters of neighborhood blocks based on the percentage of students of color living there, the median income level and the average adult education level. But, demographic changes in the population driven by skyrocketing housing prices threaten the future of integration in Berkeley schools.
“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.” Vice President Harris is one of the lucky students of color who got to attend an integrated school. With modern levels of segregation trending upward, what, if anything, will we do about it this time? Will we even try?