Harris: It Cannot Be An Intellectual Debate

Did anybody have “busing” on their Democratic Debate Bingo Card? I sure didn’t, and yet Kamala Harris, latching onto a race issue that didn’t involve her imprisoning black people or defending cops who killed them, nailed the landing as far as her supporters are concerned.

Some have complained that Harris has diverted attention away from things that matter today to rehash the 70s, a time when Biden is exposed if viewed through the lens of today’s social justice. Back then, Biden worked with, was civil with, segregationists to get things accomplished in Congress. Today, the nicest he would be allowed to be is to milkshake them on the Senate floor, and still be subject for criticism for not punching a Nazi or a small gay conservative man.

Others have complained that Harris was overly aggressive, using her mad prosecutorial skillz to reduce Biden to a doddering old man. But Jamelle Bouie calls such criticism out.

There was a backlash to Harris’s comments, most of it centered on decorum. By this line of reasoning, it was unfair of Harris to bring up her experiences, to make race part of the conversation, to put Biden on trial for past positions and make more ordinary Americans feel guilty about their views on this or any other race-inflected issue.

Upon first reading, I thought some wag NYT editor had pulled a prank on Jamelle, since the first sentence about decorum obviously had no rational connection to the second. Harris’ tone had nothing to do with her substance. But upon rereading, I realized that Jamelle meant it, that Harris’ tone and method of attack was inextricably tied to her experiences because she was trying to make Biden, and “ordinary Americans,” feel guilty about this “race-inflected issue.”

After all, her statement that she knew no black person who hadn’t suffered “profiling or discrimination” was a problem, given that it was likely at her hands. Harris had to get far away from this touchy subject as quickly as possible before anybody added up the numbers.

But was it “unfair” of Harris to use her personal experience to attack Biden for what he did so many years ago? Whether Biden’s actions “aged out” is one question, and while it’s certainly possible that Biden has changed his views or approach since the days when he neglected to punch Georgia’s Herman Talmadge, as would be expected of him by the woke today, he brought it up and there’s nothing unfair about being questioned about one’s prior actions.

Granted, Biden raised his ability to work with people he found reprehensible to make a different point, that without the capacity to not punch people you despise, nothing gets done, but whether that reflects moral depravity or pragmatic civility can be decided by each voter. To each his own.

Bouie, however, hits on the problem with Harris’ approach, though he appears not to have any grasp of his insight. Harris attacked Biden’s actions as a legislator with her “truth,” her claimed experience. She spoke of how busing affected her personally. She challenged Biden to either call her a liar or tell her that her “truth” was false, because there was no alternative to confront her assertion that busing was good because it was good for her.

Harris made this patent when she uttered, “it’s personal,” “it was hurtful” and “it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats.”

Is Harris vindicating her personal childhood issues? If she’s to be a senator, no less a president, it’s not to address her personal problems, but to make policy, make decisions, make choices for a nation. Kamala Harris’ personal experiences are not the bar by which the American experience is decided.

Government-compelled busing was hated in the 1970s. It was hated by white parents. It was hated by black parents. Not all, and not everywhere, but by most. It wasn’t because the disease of segregation wasn’t real or a problem, but that busing wasn’t the cure. It took children from their neighborhood, their friends, on long, unpleasant rides to unfamiliar places where they didn’t want to be.

And the reality was that it mostly failed to improve education for anyone. The same inner city schools that sucked for black kids sucked for the white kids who were bused in as well. And the  good suburban schools didn’t magically make black kids learn at grade level or behave differently than they did before, when attending schools where studying hard was cause to get beaten up. The shame here is that poor black students who attended crumbling schools where their fellow students made learning impossible got caught in the middle.

There were very real problems. Busing was not the solution to those problems. There is still segregation, still bad schools, still inner city students who are denied a decent education, as is their right. There is still a need for a solution to this problem, and the only way to find it is to have an “intellectual debate,” because all students didn’t share Kamala Harris’ “truth,” and just because it worked for her doesn’t mean her personal feelings make it sound policy for a nation.

What Kamala Harris did in confronting Joe Biden was take historic reality and turn it into a race challenge. Whatcha gonna do, Joe, call the black woman a liar, deny her lived experience, use your privileged white man “intellectual debate” skills to tell Kamala Harris that she didn’t experience her “truth”?

Harris is, as Bouie argues, entitled to her experiences. What she is not entitled to is to substitute her personal experiences for the experience of others so as to silence any “intellectual debate” about how to address the problems that confront a nation. If we don’t need any “intellectual debate,” then we’ve already got someone in the office that fits the bill.

But if Harris, or any Democratic presidential candidate, wants to run a nation, then gaming the debate by using their personal “truth” to shut down any intellectual debate isn’t going to cut it. Nor is revisiting archaic failures like busing, through the social justice lens of “disagree with me and you’re racist.” There’s nothing racist about not making the same mistake again by changing historic reality into Kamala Harris’ personal “truth.”

31 thoughts on “Harris: It Cannot Be An Intellectual Debate

  1. Raging Racist

    Trevor Noah commented about this stating that there is actually a race card but he used his to get a free Jamba Juice.

    1. SHG Post author

      Of the many aspects of institutional memory lost to the unduly passionate mob, the murder of a sense of humor among criminal defense lawyers in general, and public defenders in particular, holds a prominent place. This is what kept us sane in the craziness of the trenches. They have no appreciation of what they’ve lost, but humor is deeply appreciated here.

      1. AX

        Andy considers himself a centrist or classic liberal. He does get described as conservative by progressives who are not nuanced enough to know the difference.

        1. SHG Post author

          And by raising this irrelevant asshole argument, what do you accomplish other than conclusively proving you are an irrelevant asshole?

          1. AX

            Is it irrelevant that you are parroting progressive labels designed to leave no center? It makes it hard for Andy speak to the center if he is automatically the label progressives give him. But yes I am irrelevant as a centrist. But I wasn’t an asshole by asking if he really is conservative.

            1. SHG Post author

              You’re an asshole for fighting the wrong fight at the wrong time in the wrong place. And you just did it to yourself again and still don’t grasp the problem.

            2. Jeff

              Ugh. I’m going to be chastised for doing so, because it’s not relevant, as our host indicates. But Andy Ngo was there working for Quillette. Quillette is indicated by media bias fact check (no links here as per the rules) to be a right of center site. So Ngo was at the time working as a conservative reporter, regardless of personal politics. If you have any issues with that, these are your issues alone.
              I feel like I just blatantly overstated the obvious, but I just can’t ever resist.

            3. SHG Post author

              Personally, I find Quillette to be fairly balanced. The problem with AX’s comments is that Ngo’s politics are immaterial here, and asserting that he’s other than conservative is to create needless controversy, and invite others to shriek about how he’s a fascist. Assholes fight asshole battles over asshole points. Whether AX is right or wrong is a matter of personal perspective, but that it’s a idiotic battle here and now is beyond dispute.

            4. Jeff

              I too have found anything I’ve read to be balanced and reasonable, but I’m not beyond questioning my own personal bias and so am willing to accept that it could be a conservative leaning blog regardless of my perspective.

              And you’re absolutely right. It isn’t relevant, which is why I am kicking myself for correcting him. I’ve been trying to fix that with some success. Clearly I need to raise my standards further, as I’m still fighting for my asshole points.

  2. B. McLeod

    Well, that thing where the Democrats weren’t going to attack each other sure didn’t last.

    Interestingly, this anti-intellectualism that insists on supplanting reason with feelz is another historic hallmark of totalitarian movements. Don’t waste time on useless thoughts; join in the big parade.

      1. TomD

        I, too, have a truth. I have a lived experience[1], as well. Do I get to tell about them here?

        [1] All of my experiences are, in fact, lived – none of the other kind.

  3. Rick Horowitz

    It’s not that she was trying to divert from what she did to black people as a prosecutor in California.

    It’s just that that isn’t part of her truth.

  4. Jake

    Bussing wasn’t a total failure in Boston. The black kids from Dorchester and Roxbury who were already engaged in petty crimes and bussed into white schools in Charlestown and South Boston became much more sophisticated criminals.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    This raises the question of whether Kamala Harris’s “truth” is actually true. Is there any proof she was bused to a school in a different neighborhood? As the child of a professor and a medical researcher living in Berkeley I doubt she was so disadvantaged that she had to be bused to another school district.

    1. SHG Post author

      Fair question. Not having seen anyone dispute her claim, I wouldn’t presume she’s lying, but that’s a rebuttable presumption.

      1. Bear

        The question is fair insofar as it can be determined whether she was bused or not and was telling the truth. However the assumption that she may not have been economically disadvantaged is immaterial. The concept of busing, as deeply flawed as it was, was to try to move toward racial parity in public schools and by extension equality of instruction and equality of opportunity. So it may seem strange today, but in some cases economically “advantaged” children of color may have been bused to poor schools. However, Berkeley and especially Oakland (they border each other) were quite segregated in the 1970’s and there’s a good chance those students were going to poorer schools (where most students were poor, where facilities were lacking compared to wealthier neighborhoods) already.

        1. SHG Post author

          Are you suggesting that if she was bused, it was from the rich school to the poor school? Interesting.

          1. Bear

            I have no idea about her particular case. I’m suggesting that was possible. It was part of how poorly thought out busing was in general. But, again in general, many economically advantaged people of color tended to live in poorer neighborhoods because segregation affected neighborhoods, even in Berkeley and Oakland.

  6. CLS

    I’ve bit my tongue all day about this, but if no one else is going to say it I will.

    Harris and Biden both harbor racial hatred.

    It’s just that Harris thinks the Daytona 500 is stupid, while Biden’s never had any love for Bristol.

  7. Federico Wibmer

    Of course she doesn’t want an intellectual debate when she can’t have any intellectual consistency. I’m just wondering how long it will take for another candidate to go after her record as AG.

  8. Reef

    There are a few problems with your post.

    1. Middle class black parents overwhelmingly supported busing. Even without busing they would scheme to get their children into better schools if they had the means. School districts were drawn up not by geography but by race. Think gerrymandering.

    2. At least where I lived no white kids were bused to black schools. It was always the other way around.

    3. The idea that black students who studied hard were subject to violence by other blacks is false. We black nerds were occasionally teased like our white counterparts.

    Crenshaw HS ’71

    1. SHG Post author

      One of the constant problems in dealing with issues like this is that there will always be a subgroup, a place, a person, whose experience varied with the whole. So do we discuss national policy or individual experiences? I appreciate that one size does not fit all, so the options are talk about nothing, discuss 350 million individual experiences or discuss this on a national policy basis even though it will neglect some people’s experience?

      Which works better, do nothing, leave some experiences out of the discussion or deal with the majority experience?

      By the way, one of my best friends in high school was a gay black nerd. I teased him constantly. He teased me too, and he usually won. He was much better looking and more popular than I was, which really pissed me off, but he was willing to hang with me anyway. Experiences differ.

  9. Reef

    Thanks for thoughtful reply and thanks for the opportunity to comment. I think shared stories of individual experiences help enlighten universal truths.

    1. SHG Post author

      I thought your comment, even though it was bit defensive, raised two good points. First, even though we’re constrained to talk in generalities when arguing policy, there remain large swathes of people who don’t fit the mold. It brings some humility to the certainty of debate, that solutions aren’t nearly as simple as people want them to be.

      The second point is that many white people don’t have much experience with black people, and have an image of them as gangbangers in the ghetto rather than pretty much the same as us “normal” white folks, warts and all, but with more melanin.

      Now, if you’re going to comment here, and you should, then use the friggin’ reply button. You’re not that special.

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