Millennials and others were left scratching their heads after Kamala Harris confronted Joe Biden during the first Democratic Presidential debate over his position on “busing.”
I’m fifty-one years old now and I remember as a child, whose family lived in Canada at the time, being asked by an older boy what I thought about busing. The question made no sense to me, and I responded that busing should be unnecessary if there is a school within walking distance. In my ignorance, little did I know I had just labeled myself a racist.
It’s hard to imagine now that a generation ago, busing was one of the most divisive issues ever to face our country. With Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court permanently outlawed “separate but equal” schools for people of different racial backgrounds.
You see, in the 1950s people went to their neighborhood schools. Due at least in part to our national housing policy, Black Americans settled in certain neighborhoods, White people settled in others. The result was continued segregation just because people went to the school near them.
Then, in 1971, the Supreme Court responded to this continuing problem in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. In that case, the Court held that the school district must achieve racial balance even if it meant redrawing school boundaries or busing students to distant schools. That decision started the era of busing.
Some school districts complied with this decision willingly. Ironically, given its subsequent history, Boston passed a law mandating desegregation as early as 1965 — six years before the Supreme Court handed down their decision in favor of busing. This, however, was the exception. In most places, including Boston, federal judges would have to require busing to desegregate schools, and in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, and other cities around the country, those federal judges controlled the school desegregation efforts for years to come.
Busing was extraordinarily unpopular across the country. In 1973, the Gallup polling organization found that only 9 percent of Black Americans favored the policy, even though ninety percent of them wanted schools desegregated. Congressmen of both parties — including Joe Biden — opposed the policy. But the Court had made its ruling.
Violent protests rocked Boston. For three years after busing commenced, Massachusetts state troopers were stationed at South Boston High. The vast majority of students refused to attend the schools they were ordered to, parents showed up every day to protest, and the football season was canceled. The Boston Herald-American newspaper published the shocking Pulitzer-prize winning photo the Soiling of Old Glory which shows a White person lunging at a Black American with the pointed end of a pole with an American flag attached in front of Boston City Hall. The photo drew national attention to ongoing racial injustice.
Certainly, busing was an imperfect solution to a terrible problem. But it worked. By 1988, almost 45 percent of Black students in the United States were attending majority-white schools, an all-time high. Ironically, the South, where Jim Crow had been the law of the land, at one time had the most highly-integrated schools in the nation.
Despite claims to the contrary, the Supreme Court follows public opinion rather closely. Starting as early as 1974, the Court issued rulings that not only weakened the effectiveness of busing but accelerated white flight from the cities into the suburbs.
In Milliken v. Bradley, the Court addressed a busing plan proposed for my current hometown, Detroit. In the South, school districts tended to match county lines, incorporating several communities together. In the North, however, as in Michigan, school districts tend to be smaller, often matching the borders of municipalities. The result is that while Southern school districts can bus students from a black community to a white community without crossing school district boundaries, that is not possible in the North.
So in Detroit, where white flight was already well underway by the mid-1970s, the federal judge ordered that students from the Detroit school district be bused to separate suburban school districts. The Supreme Court overruled that judge, however, holding that busing could not be ordered from one school district to another unless it could be proven that the school districts intentionally excluded students of another race.
Proving intent, of course, is always hard. As a result, busing was much less effective in the North with its smaller school districts than in the South. Furthermore, the remaining White people living in majority-Black communities fled to the suburbs with their lily-white school districts, secure in the knowledge that busing would not follow them there.
The Milliken decision marked the start of the Supreme Court’s eradication of busing. In 1991, the Court held in Board of Education v. Dowell that federal courts should stop supervising school district desegregation efforts “once legally enforced segregation had been eliminated to the extent practicable.” This decision quickly led to the end of busing. After all, practicality is in the eye of the beholder.
Most recently, the current Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has taken the position that racism is no longer a problem. Don’t believe me? Consider the decision in Shelby County v. Holder in which the Court ruled that voter suppression is no longer a problem and so Southern states need no longer run their new voting restrictions by the Department of Justice. If you believe that one, I want you to meet Georgia’s legitimate governor, Stacey Abrams.
Anyway, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District №1, a 2007 opinion, the Roberts Court held that racial classifications could no longer be used as a basis for assigning children to schools. How you can desegregate schools without considering the child’s racial background is beyond me. In other words, with this decision, the Court overruled its decision in the 1971 Swann case and put an end to busing, as well as other organized efforts to eliminate racial segregation.
The reaction has been as swift, as expected. According to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, schools have resegregated most rapidly in the South, where the most progress had been made. But, with due respect to self-righteous northerners like myself, segregation is not just a Southern problem. The same report found rapid increases in segregation in other states with substantial Black student enrollment, including Rhode Island (20%), Wisconsin (13%), Florida (12%), Oklahoma (12%), Maryland (9%), Delaware (9%), and Massachusetts (9%). But now, segregation is no longer a problem only for Black Americans. Now, the biggest victims of school segregation are Latinos.
Unfortunately, Justice Roberts’s view that if we don’t behave in racist ways, we aren’t racist is that of most conservatives, as well as many moderates and even liberals. Roberts’ and his supporters would have us believe racism was a problem settled by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
The problem is that racism is an established practice in America’s educational, judicial, law enforcement, and real estate institutions. If we do nothing more, Black Americans, as well as Latinos and other minority groups, will continue an imposed sequestration in inferior schools. In other words, achieving inclusiveness requires positive, aggressive, and — dare I say — affirmative action.
Everyone understood at the time, busing was an imperfect remedy. Ironically, at a time when the vast majority of Black Americans opposed busing, a substantial plurality of them argued that the real solution to segregation was more affordable housing in higher-income school districts. Indeed, that is still the solution.
The reason segregation continues is that we have segregated ourselves geographically by race. As long as White people live in neighborhoods with better quality schools, and Black people live in other neighborhoods with substandard schools, as under the current or in future administrations, segregation will continue.
In fact, in school districts in seven counties in Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee, parents frustrated by the fact that their districts’ large size encompasses students of all races, have engaged in school district gerrymandering. Rather than continue in a school district with a diverse student body, there is a growing movement for white neighborhoods to secede from their school district. I’m not making this up.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. On a policy level, we need to change the funding formulas for our schools so that they no longer rely mainly on local property taxes. Instead, all school districts should be guaranteed a uniform budget for each student by the federal government.
We can also take steps on a local level. The South Chicago neighborhood of Beverly decided that it would not allow white flight to occur the way it did in other neighborhoods. Local activists monitored real estate agents, stopping them from scaring White residents out of the area and from directing people to certain blocks based upon their ethnicity. A hotline was set up to quash rumors before they got out of control. White residents committed to their neighborhood signed agency agreements stopping real estate agents from aggressively soliciting them. The result is a diverse neighborhood, 62 percent white and 34 percent black.
White flight can be stopped by fighting the fear, but it takes real commitment. Younger generations are more diverse and more inclusive than older ones. Once they become the powers that be, perhaps they will be willing to put forth the resources necessary to end this scourge that is the original sin of our country.