She used shared time with nine other 2020 presidential hopefuls Thursday to cement her place as the candidate who fights for racial equality.
She addressed Biden directly at one point in the debate because of his past work with segregationists to oppose federal school desegregation efforts, specifically, programs to bus Black students to predominantly white 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,” Harris said. “And that little girl was me.”
She then cited a requirement she instituted as attorney general of California requiring her special agents to wear body cameras and keep them on.
The crowd shouted its praise, which still buzzed in the background as Biden started to give his response.
He said Harris incorrectly characterized his position.
“I did not praise racists,” Biden said. “That is not true. No. 2, if you want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that,” Biden said. “I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor.”
The response won Biden a few seconds of applause, but he later fumbled in his explanation of past work with segregationist senators.
He explained that he wanted to let each state decide its approach to busing students to schools outside of their neighborhoods to desegregate schools.
“I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden said. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
That sparked a now viral exchange between Harris and Biden.
Harris said states failed to integrate public schools.
“I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley California public schools almost two decades after Board v. Board of Education,” Harris said.
“Because your city council made that decision,” he said. “It was a local decision.”
Harris returned fire.
“So that’s where the federal government must step in,” she said. “That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.”
She also said she wants to see other anti-discrimination efforts passed. Harris mentioned a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal legal rights regardless of sex and the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people,” Harris said.
If audience applause is the gauge, Harris won the busing round.
At one point, she shouted her comments over roaring applause.
Her name was even trending on social media hours after the debate, and public praise lasted well into morning as Harris did media rounds about the debate.
She again had an opportunity to highlight the importance of racial diversity in an MSNBC interview Friday.
“If those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, and I certainly would not be a serious candidate for president of the United States,” Harris said.