Debate puts ‘busing’ back in the news

Three years ago, I read Matt Delmont’s “Why Busing Failed” and wrote a post about it. It never occurred to me that the book’s theme would emerge as a theme in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Yet here we are. Since last Thursday’s Democratic candidate debate, when Kamala Harris called out Joe Biden for working with segregationists to oppose busing, the reality of America’s segregated schools has become part of the national conversation.

Reporters are revisiting the history of school desegregation efforts – especially in Berkeley, California, where Harris rode a bus as a young student. And pundits are weighing in with various hot takes, often to the effect that busing is unpopular and would be a losing issue for Democrats.

But as Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth, has made clear, the busing story isn’t straightforward. Court-ordered busing made great progress at desegregating public schools. But resistance by white parents in Northern cities captured the media lens, and politicians jumped on board.

Today, the conventional wisdom is that we tried busing and it didn’t work. It’s not that simple.

“In public-policy debates and popular memory … the perspectives of students have been overshadowed by those of antibusing parents and politicians,” Delmont writes this week in the Atlantic. “As a result, the successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.”

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Book examines ‘why busing failed’

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.

'Why Busing Failed' book coverIn the process, African-American students, parents and communities were rendered largely invisible.

“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.

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