Whether past or present, aggressively or passively, whites have always opposed meaningful integration of schools. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ piece for the Times on busing is a great example of how this worked in the North. She notes that busing did in fact work, despite how it is talked about today, including LGM comment threads. But white people didn’t like it. So it failed and we lie about its effectiveness.
And despite the constant assertion that “busing” failed, busing as a tool of desegregation, and court-ordered desegregation in general, was extraordinarily successful in the South.
In 1964, 10 years after the Brown decision, just 2 percent of black children in the South attended schools with white children. By 1972, nearly half were attending predominantly white schools. After a very short period of serious court intervention and federal enforcement, the South had gone from the most segregated region of the country for black children to the most integrated, which it remains some 40 years later. For the first time in the history of American public education, significant numbers of white children were being ordered to attend the schools that had been deemed good enough only for black children, and black children got access to the superior schools this country has always reserved for white children.
But white Northerners, who were watching as mandatory desegregation orders were breaking the back of Jim Crow education, quickly adapted a savvier resistance than their counterparts in the South. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund repeatedly persuaded courts to order desegregation upon showing that Northern officials had maintained official — if not public — policies to segregate black children, the resistance increasingly took on “busing.” This allowed white communities and politicians to deny the role of racism and therefore give respectable cover to their resistance.
It was the educational version of arguing that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery — one could uphold racist practices and systems while arguing that race had nothing to do with it.
The Republican strategist Lee Atwater, in an infamous 1981 interview, made the strategy plain: “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”
It was a hallmark of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” during his presidential campaigns, which relied on unifying white anger about fair housing and school integration to build a successful coalition of white Southerners and white ethnic Northerners.
After Mr. Nixon’s win in 1968, white Democrats were trying to hold on to their white voters. Mr. Biden favored busing for integration when he ran for election in 1972, but changed his mind seemingly because of a Delaware school desegregation case that was working its way through the courts. In his autobiography, Mr. Biden recalled his confrontation with a crowd of white constituents teetering on the brink of violence over the issue.
Mr. Biden flipped. Between 1975 and 1982, he teamed up with ardent segregationists in Congress, including Mr. Eastland, to support no fewer than five antibusing measures. Despite Mr. Biden’s recent claims that he only opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education, the bills tried to curtail the ability of federal courts to order busing and even to limit busing in places where courts had already ordered it.
Mr. Biden, echoing a sentiment repeated again and again by progressive and conservative commenters in the past few weeks, says he is not and was not opposed to desegregation, just the tool most likely to achieve it.
The response to integration in places like Boston, where riots broke out and black children who were being bused by federal court orders into white schools were pelted with rocks, beaten and called niggers, revealed the lie that the fight was for neighborhood schools and not against integration. These white children were in their neighborhood schools.
But it mattered not. White media specifically and white Americans generally were primed for the message. Support for desegregation dropped in the polls. Media and politicians like Mr. Biden, who called busing a “liberal train wreck,” began promoting the message that busing had failed.
A few studies conducted soon after desegregation began did not show a marked increase in black achievement, and detractors pointed to them as further evidence of the failure. Media and politicians blamed busing for the white flight from many cities, even though cities with large black populations suffered extensive white flight whether they instituted busing or not. They said busing stoked racial tensions, as if race relations had been just fine when black people stayed in their place.
And then in 1974 the Supreme Court, stacked with four Nixon appointees, dealt a lethal blow to Northern desegregation. In Milliken v. Bradley, it struck down a lower court’s order for a metropolitan desegregation plan that attempted to deal with white flight by forcing the all-white suburban school districts ringing Detroit to integrate with the nearly all-black city system. By ruling against a desegregation plan that jumped school district borders, the court sent a clear message to white Northerners that the easiest way to avoid integration was to move to a white town with white schools.
I have spent most of my career chronicling the devastating effects of school segregation on black children. I have spent days in all-black schools with no heat and no textbooks. Where mold runs dark beneath the walls and rodents leave droppings on desks for students to clear in the mornings before they sit down. Where children spend an entire school year without an algebra teacher and graduate never having been assigned a single essay. And then I have driven a few miles down the road to a predominately white school, sometimes within the same district, sometimes in an adjacent one, and witnessed the best of American education. This is not to say that no white children attend substandard schools. But if there is a black school nearby, it is almost always worse.
The black students I talk to in schools that are as segregated as the ones their grandparents attended know it is like this because we do not think they deserve the same education as white children.
This is a choice we make.
The same people who claim they are not against integration, just busing as the means, cannot tell you what tactic they would support that would actually lead to wide-scale desegregation. So, it is an incredible sleight of hand to argue that mandatory school desegregation failed, while ignoring that the past three decades of reforms promising to make separate schools equal have produced dismal results for black children, and I would argue, for our democracy.
It is unlikely that we will ever again see an effort to deconstruct our system of caste schools like what we saw between 1968 and 1988. But at the very least, we should tell the truth about what happened.
Busing did not fail. We did.
You either support what it will take for actual integrated public schools or you are saying you are OK with racism. Yes, that probably does include busing. Yet, it actual concrete action to undermine the idea that “my kid deserves the good school,” which almost always means the white school or the school with just the right amount of diversity so little Maddie can have a black and Asian friend from the right families. Yes, it includes cracking down on the private schools and charter schools that many white parents use to avoid their special snowflake being forced to have the education that those people have. There is no way around this. You either actively fight racism or you acquiesce to it. And if you don’t like it, well, at least you have a great ally on your side:
Wow, wow, wow. The Progressive-Industrial Complex is really going to do this thing. Trump could dump Pence and pick Jeffrey Epstein as his running mate, and still win because half of America + 1 is going to be terrified of the social engineers of the Loony Left. pic.twitter.com/dEMo9NnYcZ— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) July 12, 2019