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JENEÉ OSTERHELDT | COMMENTARY

‘And that little girl was me’: A fighter’s mantra

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris speaks with Roxanna Gozzer, whose mother is originally from El Salvador and is in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status, as she visits the outside of a detention center for migrant children on June 28, 2019 in Homestead, Fla. Candidates visited the facility after participating in a nationally televised debate.
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris speaks with Roxanna Gozzer, whose mother is originally from El Salvador and is in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status, as she visits the outside of a detention center for migrant children on June 28, 2019 in Homestead, Fla. Candidates visited the facility after participating in a nationally televised debate.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“And that little girl was me,” said Senator Kamala Harris.

The words were more than a response to Joe Biden’s opposition to forced busing and camaraderie with known segregationists during last week’s Democratic debate. It was Harris sharing her story of being a little girl bused to school in Berkeley, Calif., but it was more than that, too.

“And that little girl was me” is a war cry among women. There’s solidarity in those words and the ways in which we women, especially black women and women of color, share a struggle against racism, sexism, and supremacy, period. Those are also fighting words.

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We are fighting to right a great many wrongs. When Harris brought up being bused as a little girl, the importance of disruption and a rewriting of government laws to push toward justice rolled right into the conversation.

Yes, busing was messy. But it was necessary. Very few cities are like Berkeley, where Harris hails from, where they voluntarily bused kids with no mandate. Even then, black children were called slurs and reminded of their struggles ahead. And the city eventually grew into a place far too expensive for most of those little black and brown girls to live now.

Yes, Biden was wrong to oppose busing. I know he worked hard on other civil rights laws like Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. But being Barack Obama’s vice president does not earn you an infinite invite to the cookout without question.

Harris herself is grappling with her problematic anti-truancy program that threatened to prosecute parents of kids who missed too much school.

So yes, Biden has done a lot in the way of making positive change. But doing the work also means admitting when you’re wrong.

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Instead, when called out for straddling the fence and celebrating the “civility” of racist, segregationist, and anti-miscegenation senators like James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia, Biden dug deeper.

He claimed Cory Booker owed him an apology for even thinking he was wrong. Biden claimed Booker should “know better.”

Biden should have known better. Back in 1975, he told The People Paper that busing crossed the line.

“The courts have gone overboard in their interpretation of what is required to remedy unlawful segregation,” Biden said. “It is one thing to say that you cannot keep a black man from using this bathroom, and something quite different to say that one out of every five people who use this bathroom must be black.”

So if a black person happens to be in a neighborhood they normally aren’t welcome in, they can use your restroom. But if we ensure black people have access to every neighborhood so they can use the bathroom, that’s a problem?

I guess this is how we find ways to wiggle out of calling racism, racism. This is how we re-frame white flight as failed integration instead of white folks’ fear of blackness.

This is how we end up saying things like South Boston residents weren’t opposed to integration, they just cheered on Alabama segregationist George Wallace when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 because they were forced to bus. OK.

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You can be nice and have black friends and think integration is cool and still be complicit in racist behavior and uphold racist systems. Biden fights for women’s rights but he still had to apologize to Anita Hill for the role he played scrutinizing her testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings.

He didn’t attempt to take such accountability when Harris questioned him. In the debate, he cloaked his anti-busing stance in the guise of state’s rights and later backtracked, but the damage had been done.

When it comes to matters of humanity, we cannot leave it up to a few individuals. Freedom can not be dismissed as a state-by-state, local issue.

The Department of Education needed to get involved. Federal legislation is vital in matters of equality. Integration was never going to come with ease. People had to protest and fight and die for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

States are passing abortion bans and women are losing control of their bodies. I don’t care how nice someone may be and what other laws they have voted for that have benefited women, a vote against a woman’s right to choose is a vote against women.

I won’t deny the important of nuance. But when we are talking about oppression, there is no middle to play.

Biden saw nothing to apologize for. He did not register the little boys and little girls counting on the country to do the right thing. And that is the problem. This country has been run by the kind of men who delight in their privilege and pat themselves on the back for fighting for the rights of others so long as the majority of others don’t gain too much power.

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“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,’ ” Biden said in 1975 according to The Washington Post. “I don’t buy that.”

How can there ever be a smooth ride to a country rid of supremacy when thinkers like this are driving?

Biden looked at Harris, a daughter of Brown v. Board of Education, and did not see his wrongs. He did not see how imperative integration was to that little black girl landing on the campaign trail. He did not see the little black girl America counted out coming for his campaign.

This country has been playing progressive and its daughters have been watching.

Those little girls have seen every injustice, the violence against their bodies, and the brutality against their brothers, too. They’ve been the only black girl, the only girl of color, or the only girl in the room too long and they are tired of being talked over.

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Those little girls were us. We’re women now. And we’re ready to rumble.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.