Against all odds, busing for school integration is a live issue in a 2019 Democratic Primary. In this week’s debate Kamala Harris hit Biden hard on his opposition to court-ordered busing in the 1970s. How should we think about this?
School desegregation policy is a labyrinth of court cases that I still can’t keep straight in my head. I’m not an expert on this. But there are a few things that I’m fairly certain about. So I’ll share those thoughts below.
It’s true that busing students to integrate schools was extraordinarily unpopular. It divided opinion among African Americans while uniting whites in opposition in a way few issues ever have.
But when we just limit ourselves to this narrow frame we fundamentally misdiagnose the problem. Busing is not an example of liberal big-government overreach. It wasn’t politically unsustainable because it was poorly conceived or unworkable or ineffective. It was unpopular because equal rights and opportunities for black people were unpopular.
This is still the case. Busing has all but disappeared. Nothing replaced it. The white American public did not say, “we disagree with busing as the means of implementing Brown v. Board. Instead, let’s redraw school district lines or aggressively enforce housing integration. Or let’s do a comprehensive program of reparations.” The white American public said “we disagree with the fundamental logic of racial integration put forth in Brown and we’re not willing to do anything to bring it about.”
Brown v Board held that segregated schools were unconstitutional and socially harmful not because of their quality, but because they were segregated. But in the decades after Brown, white-ruled local governments nationwide did everything to avoid integration. Busing was a response to a white American public militantly hostile to equal rights for African Americans.
Though the Supreme Court had held that segregation was inherently harmful, both the public and the courts came to accept de facto vs de jure distinctions as deeply meaningful. “We’re not really segregated because our laws are facially neutral.” Historians have exploded this mythology and shown how deliberately segregation has been constructed nationwide. But even if you do accept the spurious de facto vs de jure distinction for legal purposes, it ought to be clear that for black children attending segregated schools today, why they are segregated is the least consequential thing about their experience. If you don’t think that we should launch new efforts to integrate schools, now in 2019, you must suppose that Brown v Board was wrong.
An interlocutor on twitter told me, “busing was unsustainable politically.” True enough, I suppose. But that’s just another way of saying the United States is a grotesquely racist society. Decades of inferior and segregated schools for black children–right up to the present moment–has done little to trouble the American conscience. Harming black children has turned out to be very sustainable politics, even in the twenty-first century. If Democrats truly make a push for school integration, the resistance to it will show us how much or how little has changed in the past 50 years.
For further reading:
Nikole Hannah Jones, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.”
Joseph Crespino, “The Best Defense Is a Good Offense: The Stennis Amendment and the Fracturing of Liberal School Desegregation Policy, 1964–1972.”
Matthew Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation.