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Busing Or Bust

Boston, 1974: Police arrest an anti-busing rioter (WBZ archive footage screenshot)


I see that this tweet ‘o mine has stirred up progressives on Twitter. Of course. Fine by me, but man, those people really and truly cannot grasp the damage they’re doing to themselves.

Are we really going to re-argue about school busing? Apparently so. Of all the things to get wound up about, and to make an issue in the 2020 presidential race, defending the virtues of one of the most unpopular public policy initiatives of the past 50 years is not one I expected from a party that wants to defeat Donald Trump. But this is how our progressives roll.

The other day, AOC more or less called Nancy Pelosi racist because the 79-year-old legislator dared to question whether or not AOC and her Democratic cohorts were following the wisest course for the party. But you know how these progressives are: if you don’t agree with them 100 percent, then you are Evil. It’s idiotic and self-defeating, but as someone who would rather not see these loonies in power, I guess I should be happy about it. Maureen Dowd actually had a pretty good column about it today. She writes:

Pelosi told me, after the A.O.C. Squad voted against the House’s version of the border bill and trashed the moderates — the very people who provided the Democrats the majority — that the Squad was four people with four votes. She was talking about a legislative reality. If it was a knock, it was for abandoning the party.

That did not merit A.O.C.’s outrageous accusation that Pelosi was targeting “newly elected women of color.” She slimed the speaker, who has spent her life fighting for the downtrodden and who was instrumental in getting the first African-American president elected and passing his agenda against all odds, as a sexist and a racist.

A.O.C. should consider the possibility that people who disagree with her do not disagree with her color.

The young lawmaker went further, implying that the speaker was putting the Squad in danger, asking why Pelosi would criticize them, “knowing the amount of death threats” and attention they get. Huh?

A.O.C. pulled back and said she wasn’t calling Pelosi a racist. But once you start that ball rolling, it’s hard to stop. (You know how topsy-turvy the fight is when the biggest defenders of Pelosi, who has endured being a caricature of extreme liberalism for decades, are Trump and the Wall Street Journal editorial board.)

If you haven’t read the excellent James Lindsay/Mike Nayna analysis of the religion of Social Justice, now’s a good time. Relevant excerpt:

Applied postmodernism begins in postmodernism, which as a social philosophy bears the following axioms, treated as articles of faith, as succinctly (and charitably) summarized by Connor Wood:

Knowledge and truth are largely socially constructed, not objectively discovered.

What we believe to be “true” is in large part a function of social power: who wields it, who’s oppressed by it, how it influences which messages we hear.

Power is generally oppressive and self-interested (and implicitly zero-sum).

Thus, most claims about supposedly objective truth are actually power plays, or strategies for legitimizing particular social arrangements.

So, among the SJW school of progressivism, to question the claims of a high-status person in the hierarchy of Oppression is to deny that those claims have any validity, which really means that you are denying the identity of the grievance-bearer.

The op-ed essay in question was written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is black. In it, she takes Sen. Kamala Harris’s side on the busing question, and slams Sen. Joe Biden as a fellow traveler of segregationists:

That we even use the word “busing” to describe what was in fact court-ordered school desegregation, and that Americans of all stripes believe that the brief period in which we actually tried to desegregate our schools was a failure, speaks to one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of the last half century. Further, it explains how we have come to be largely silent — and accepting — of the fact that 65 years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, black children are as segregated from white students as they were in the mid-1970s when Mr. Biden was working with Southern white supremacist legislators to curtail court-ordered busing.

The essay is actually well worth reading — seriously. Here’s what’s hard to understand, though, in that paragraph. If it’s true that “black children are as segregated from white students as they were in the mid-1970s,” then in what sense was busing not a failure? I guess Hannah-Jones means it was succeeding at its goal, until people (white people) decided they didn’t want their kids to go to school with black kids, and therefore declared that busing had “failed.”

She writes:

Like Kamala Harris, I was one of those kids bused to white schools. Busing was part of a dsegregation plan Waterloo, Iowa, adopted using federal desegregation funds after being sued by the NAACP. Starting in second grade and all the way through high school, I rode a bus two hours a day. It was not always easy, but I am perplexed by the audacity of people who argue that the hardship of a long bus ride somehow outweighs the hardship of being deprived of a good education.

No, black kids should not have to leave their neighborhoods to attend a quality school, or sit next to white students to get a quality education. But we cannot be naïve about how this country works. To this day, according to data collected from the Education Department, the whiter the school, the more resources it has. We cannot forget that so many school desegregation lawsuits started with attempts by black parents to simply get equal resources for black schools. Parents demanded integration only after they realized that in a country that does not value black children the same as white ones, black children will never get what white children get unless they sit where white children sit.

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.

Before I write anything else, let me point out a couple of things. I was born in 1967, in a rural Southern parish where the population was (slightly) majority black. My generation was the first to attend integrated schools from the beginning. There was only one elementary school and one high school for the entire parish. Because it was a rural place, with a widely dispersed population, many of us rode the school bus for an hour or more each day. I did, because my mom drove the bus. “Busing” in the sense we’re talking about here did not exist in the integrated public school system I attended.

Now, nobody can doubt that school segregation was unjust, and that black schools received far fewer resources than white schools. “Separate but equal” was not only immoral, it was a lie. Segregation had to end.

The question here, though, is whether the end of segregation should have meant the end of laws mandating segregated schools, or whether it should have mandated positive actions meant to de-segregate school systems. The answer federal judges in the 1970s gave was: desegregation. Hence busing. It seems to me that Hannah-Jones is correct to say that people who oppose busing don’t have anything to offer regarding strategies for desegregating schools.

What she’s ignoring, though, is whether achieving desegregation (as distinct from ending segregation) was worth the political and social cost. She assumes that it was, and that the only reason busing failed was because racist whites wanted to keep their kids from going to school with black kids. Let’s acknowledge that there were plenty of racist whites who flat-out didn’t want their white kids studying with black kids. Shame on them. It’s impossible to watch this 1974 footage from anti-busing protests in Boston and to think that they were only motivated by civic concern, not racism.

But it’s also hard to watch it and think that race hatred explains everything. There’s a white woman in those clips — clearly white working class — who says it’s not fair that her kid can’t go to school at the school across the street, and instead has to be bused across the city. Why is she wrong to be upset by that? Wouldn’t a black parent be similarly upset? The busing-and-desegregation story is more complicated than the simplistic black-white dichotomy.

For one, if Hannah-Jones’s narrative is true, then there could have been no legitimate moral reason for white parents to resist busing. Wanting your kids to go to school in their neighborhood — nope. Wanting your kid to go to school in their neighborhood because you, as a parent, can be more involved there — nope. These are all covers for racism, in the Hannah-Jones view. Or at best, these reasons do not outweigh the moral requirement to achieve desegregation. In other words, reaching racial balance in public schools was such an overwhelming moral imperative that nothing legitimately stands in its way.

The education scholar Stuart Buck — a white man who is the adoptive father of two black children — wrote a fascinating book a few years ago about the “acting white” phenomenon as an “ironic legacy of desegregation.” In it, he documents how black educational achievement at all-black schools was higher than at desegregated schools, even when black schoolchildren had to work in much reduced material conditions. The reason, he theorizes, has to do with a sense of strong community ownership of schools in black communities; it was usually black schools and black teachers who lost out in desegregation. And it has to do with black kids having to deal with the intense stress of competing with whites, particularly in the context of an overall culture marked by the ideology of white supremacy. His book certainly is not a defense of segregation, but it does show how socially and psychologically complicated this story is.

It can’t be denied that white flight from integrated schools made a big difference in the failure of desegregation. But here’s another complicating factor: when black families got into the middle class, many of them left those same schools and headed to the suburbs. They weren’t racist; they wanted to get their kids away from poor black kids from dysfunctional families. Under segregation, they had no choice but to go to those schools. Were they wrong to want out? You might make that argument, but what you can’t do is call their decision racist.

In some places, liberal whites congratulate themselves on still sending their kids to public schools, even though their kids are a minority there. But this can be deceiving. In one Dallas school I wrote about when I lived there, the children of whites actually attended a kind of school-within-the-school, taking advanced courses in which their classes were predominantly white. A Latino school administrator complained to me (as a journalist) that the white liberals were getting credit (among themselves) for their commitment to public education, but in truth their kids didn’t have to deal with the down side of integration: the fact that kids who came from poor and working-class families often had to deal with a lot of family dysfunction that kept them from achieving educationally.

This was (is) a matter of class, and this was (is) a matter of culture. Liberal white friends of mine who teach in heavily minority public schools do so out of idealism, but the stories they tell about the conditions in the schools — regarding the kids’ behavior — are horrifying. One of these friends decided that whatever it took, his children would not attend public school in his district. It wasn’t a matter of the school being public; it was about the kind of public that attended those schools. The violence, the sexualization within those kids’ cultures, the stigmatization of educational achievement — all of these were things that teacher had to deal with every day in the classroom. He didn’t want it for his children.

One white liberal friend of mine quit teaching in her inner-city high school in Baton Rouge when a teenage black male she was trying to discipline told her that if she didn’t leave him alone, he was going to be waiting for her in the parking lot, and was going to rape her. That was the last straw for her. She did not feel safe at the school, and did not trust the administration to protect her. She left teaching, and took up another line of work. More recently, I spoke with an older black woman who quit teaching in a different (mostly-black) public school system after decades, because she could no longer bear the disorder among the students, and the contempt that their parents showed for teachers, and for the educational process. Was she racist too?

I cannot imagine that a black, Latino, or any minority parent who could spare their children such an educational environment would not do so. But this does not show up in Hannah-Jones’s analysis. It’s all about racism.

To be clear: I don’t doubt for a second that pure racism motivated many white parents back then. But I also don’t doubt that for many more white parents, motives were much more mixed than Hannah-Jones indicates.

Simply as a political matter, though, it’s pretty incredible that progressives want to bring up busing again as a cause to fight about in the presidential race. They’re holding up an ideal — achieving de facto desegregation — as something pristine and unchallengeable, and blaming anyone who dissents from it as motivated by bigotry. Maybe 1970s-era Joe Biden was a hypocrite. But he represented the views of his constituents. As this recent story in the Washington Post pointed out, busing was hugely unpopular:

Polling from that time, and for many years to follow, shows that Biden was swimming in the mainstream. Surveys consistently showed majority support for the Brown decision against separate-but-equal education but widespread opposition to using busing to achieve racial integration.

A 1972 Harris Poll found that only 20 percent of Americans favored “busing schoolchildren to achieve racial balance,” with 73 percent against it. A 1978 Washington Post poll found that 25 percent agreed that “racial integration of the schools should be achieved even if it requires busing.”

African Americans were more supportive than whites but also had concerns. John C. Brittain, a civil rights attorney who litigated school segregation cases in that era, noted it was usually black schools that closed, black teachers who were fired and black children who were forced to travel.

“African Americans always had to bear the brunt of implementing school integration,” Brittain said.

In a 1973 Gallup poll, just 9 percent of black respondents chose busing as the best way to achieve school integration from a list of options. The most popular was creating more housing for low-income people in middle-income neighborhoods.

Still, when asked directly by Gallup in 1981 whether they favored busing to achieve racial balance in schools, 60 percent of black respondents said yes, compared with 17 percent of whites.

Still, 40 percent of blacks opposing busing less than a decade after its success in physically desegregating schools is pretty damning.

So, yes, I think it is loony of the left to want to pick a public fight over school busing, especially if it makes voters think that a Democratic president would favor policies that encourage it. For older generations of Americans, busing is a condensed symbolof an entire worldview that sees people who oppose this or that left-liberal policy proposal as deplorables in need of smashing for the sake of justice. It appears that for certain progressives, opposition to busing is a condensed symbol for white intransigence. Identity politics is all about condensed symbols.

It is important and justified to talk about the de facto segregation of American schooling, and how we might overcome that. Yet a core conservative insight is that not every problem is solvable, or at least the solutions to particular problems might impose too high a cost in other areas to be worth it. That’s one way to look at busing as a solution to the desegregation challenge. Telling the American people that achieving certain racial ratios in public schools is a goal so important that no other considerations can be weighed against it, and if they don’t want to accept that judgment, that just shows how racist they are — well, progressives, good luck with that. Your moral absolutism and quickness to embrace the validation that comes with indignation blinds you to your own self-interest. You are making it so much easier for Donald Trump. You don’t want to hear that, but there it is.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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