Suggest desegregation as a strategy for making K-12 education more equitable and you’re sure to encounter this response: “Busing? We tried that and it didn’t work.”
As Arizona State University historian Matt Delmont explains in his recent book “Why Busing Failed,” the truth is a good deal more complicated. But white anti-busing activists managed to hijack the media narrative about desegregation and make it about their demands for neighborhood schools.
“Framing school desegregation as being about ‘busing’ rather than unconstitutional racial discrimination privileged white parents’ fears over legal evidence,” Delmont writes. “Ultimately, ‘busing’ failed to more fully desegregate public schools because school officials, politicians, courts and the news media valued the desires of white parents more than the rights of black students.”
The book’s subtitle is “Race, Media and the National Resistance to School Segregation.” And a lot of Delmont’s research delves into how the news media, especially television, shaped the debate over desegregation around the visual and emotional story of white parents’ opposition.
Anti-busing activists like Louise Day Hicks in Boston, Rosemary Gunning in New York and Irene McCabe in Pontiac, Mich., learned well the lessons of the civil rights movements. They used marches, boycotts and the rhetoric of rights and freedom to dominate news coverage of the issue.
TV news isn’t very good at doing nuance. But the desegregation story was especially hard to get right, because there weren’t two equal and opposite sides. Black parents and community leaders had mixed views. Most wanted the promise of Brown v. Board of Education to be fulfilled. But it was often black children who ended up being bused, sometimes to schools where they weren’t welcome. Desegregation could mean closing cherished black schools and laying off black teachers.
Civil rights activists sought not only integration but an inclusive curriculum and community control of local schools. In the news world, that didn’t tell a story like white resistance to busing.
Black parents also pointed out that “busing” was a bogus concern. No white parents protested their children riding buses to all-white schools. And whites didn’t complain when black children were bused away from their neighborhoods to attend segregated black schools.
Today, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, around half of all K-12 students ride buses to and from school. It has nothing to do with race. Yet “busing” remains a scary word.
Politicians, meanwhile, played it safe. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley pulled strings to get the federal government to drop a plan to withhold funding because of the city’s segregated schools. Richard Nixon made opposition to busing a key element of his Southern Strategy. The Reagan administration ordered government civil rights lawyers to stand down.
Northern liberals ensured that school desegregation applied only de jure segregation like the South’s, not de facto segregation in many Northern cities. Segregated schools reflected segregated neighborhoods, they said, and there was nothing government could do about it.
You can hear echoes of that thinking today when an Indianapolis school board member, defending a mostly white and affluent school, says, “We can’t change how society organizes itself.”
Federal judges pushed for school integration into the 1970s, but the courts retreated as conservative Nixon and Reagan appointees came to dominate legal thinking. An early setback came with Milliken v. Bradley, a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 1974 that found Detroit’s mostly black schools shouldn’t be desegregated by busing students between the city and the mostly white suburbs.
According to Delmont, Indianapolis was one of only three cities where a court-ordered desegregation plan included suburban schools.
In 2007, the Supreme Court turned Brown v. Board of Education on its head when it ruled in Parents Involved v. Seattle that it was unconstitutional for a school district to desegregate by race. The decision struck down voluntary school integration plans in Louisville and Seattle.
Louisville, to its credit, went back to the drawing board and created a school diversity plan that focused on balancing schools by students’ socioeconomic status.
As Gary Orfield and others have pointed out, busing wasn’t a complete bust. U.S. schools grew much more integrated by race for 25 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. But they subsequently have become much more racially segregated again.
Back to Matt Delmont and “Why Busing Failed”: You can hear an interview with the author in an episode of the “Have You Heard” podcast produced by Jennifer Berkshire, aka EduShyster. Better yet, read the book. It’s only 200 pages and provides great background for understanding the arguments about school segregation and diversity that are as important today as in the ‘60s and ‘70s.