Busing in Indy: A brief history from an outsider

You have to wonder what the late federal judge S. Hugh Dillin would have thought about last week’s Indianapolis Star/Chalkbeat Indiana story that concluded Indianapolis Public Schools elementary schools are more racially segregated now than 35 years ago.

Chances are he wouldn’t have been surprised. Dillin lived until 2006, long enough to watch white, middle-class families fly the coop after he issued a series of school busing orders. In fact, he noted that white flight was already happening in the early 1970s, apparently spurred by the mere threat of desegregation.

S. Hugh Dillin (Maurer School of Law)

S. Hugh Dillin (Maurer School of Law)

But busing took some unusual twists in Indianapolis – or so it appears to an outsider like me. For one thing, it was one of just three U.S. cities where a busing order encompassed suburban as well as city schools. Also, busing was one-way: black students were bused from IPS to surrounding schools, but white students weren’t bused to IPS.

The Indiana legislature outlawed racial segregation of public schools in 1949, but Indianapolis Public Schools apparently didn’t get the memo. IPS’ Crispus Attucks High School remained all black until 1967. Elementary schools remained racially divided by neighborhood.

The feds sued in 1968 as a result; and three years later, Dillin ruled that IPS had practiced racial discrimination in assigning students and teachers to schools. Busing began, within the district.

All this was happening while Indianapolis was implementing Unigov, the merger of city and county governments. But schools were left out of the merger; Marion County kept its 11 school districts. One could argue this was the city’s original sin, from which its educational climate never recovered.

At any rate, the desegregation case was expanded, and Dillin ruled in 1978 that the exclusion of schools from Unigov was done “with the racially discriminatory intent and purpose of confining black students in the IPS school system.” He also found that the city housing authority had discriminated by locating public housing within the IPS boundaries.

But what to do about it? Dillin wrote that the easy solution would be “a massive ‘fruit basket’ scrambling of students,” essentially merging the 11 districts and ordering them to desegregate. But “it won’t work,” he wrote. White families would leave and schools would re-segregate.

The judge’s remedy was to order the busing of over 6,000 IPS students from selected neighborhoods to eight surrounding school districts. One-way busing was appropriate, he rationalized, because the non-IPS schools, which had few minority students, hadn’t actually practiced discrimination.

Busing continued for 20 years, then it was phased out from 2004 to 2016 under an agreement initiated by the Justice Department. Whether because of or regardless of busing, neither IPS nor the other 10 Indianapolis districts look anything, demographically, like they did when busing began.

IPS has become arguably more segregated in that nearly all its elementary schools are mostly nonwhite and mostly poor. But the departure of middle-class white families for the distant suburbs and the arrival of Hispanic and Asian immigrants have transformed all the Indianapolis schools.

Today, just over a third of the 130,000 students in the 11 Indianapolis public school districts are white. Two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

I was inspired to learn more about school desegregation in Indianapolis by Shaina Cavazos’ excellent Chalkbeat/Indy Star article last week on the end of busing in the city. One surprise: Dillin’s written decisions are entertaining as well as informational.

The judge wrote with a flourish, and you get a clear sense of his impatience with the parties and their sometimes forced arguments, his disdain for “sociological” evidence about the effects of busing and his skepticism about human nature and the law’s ability to influence behavior. But he was dedicated to the case and to the precedent of Brown v. Board of Education that he was trying to enforce.

He wrote in 1979 that “school segregation is forbidden simply because its perpetuation is a living insult to the black children and immeasurably taints the education they receive.” Those are words that deserve to be framed and kept in mind when we talk about schools.

Note on sources: Most information in this post is from Dillin’s decisions and court records that are available online. Additional details are from the books “Why Busing Failed” by Matthew Delmont and “The Time and Place that Gave Me Life” by Janet  Cheatham Bell.

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3 thoughts on “Busing in Indy: A brief history from an outsider

  1. An Indianapolis attorney, the late Lewis C. Bose worked with the Judge through the writing of the busing order. I was privileged to work with Mr. Bose during that time and know some of its history. However, I do not choose to add it in this comment. Contact me should you have further interest.

  2. Pingback: Book examines ‘why busing failed’ | School Matters

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