Home > Uncategorized > “Busing”, a “Liberal Train Wreck” is NOT the Issue: Caste IS

“Busing”, a “Liberal Train Wreck” is NOT the Issue: Caste IS

July 15, 2019

I just finished reading two excellent NYTimes articles on the ultimate third rail issue: the use of busing to integrate public schools.

My use of quotation marks around the word busing is explained in the first article, “It Was Never About Busing“, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who wrote:

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 term “busing” is a race-neutral euphemism that allows people to pretend white opposition was not about integration but simply about a desire for their children to attend neighborhood schools. But the fact is that American children have ridden buses to schools since the 1920s. There is a reason the cheery yellow school bus is the most ubiquitous symbol of American education. Buses eased the burden of transportation on families and allowed larger comprehensive schools to replace one-room schoolhouses. Millions of kids still ride school buses every day, and rarely do so for integration.

Ms. Hannah-Jones offers this bitter insight into the real problem with busing:

The school bus, treasured when it was serving as a tool of segregation, became reviled only when it transformed into a tool of integration. As the federal judge who ordered busing for desegregation in the landmark case that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court said, according to the 1978 book “Nothing Could Be Finer,” “Heck, I was bused as a child in Robeson County. Everybody who attends school in North Carolina has been bused. Busing isn’t the question, whatever folks say. It’s desegregation.”

But later in her article, Ms. Hannah-Jones offers an even deeper insight: on three occasions she links the desegregation mandates to “the educational caste system“.  THAT phrase captures not only the racial inequities that persist in our public schools since Brown v. Board of Education, but also captures the fact that almost every state in the union operates schools based on a system of economic segregation. The caste system is both racial and economic and the results are catastrophic for children raised in poverty no matter what their race and doubly catastrophic for black and brown children raised in poverty.

Ms. Hannah-Jones offers a comprehensive history of court decisions and legislative action that initially led to the use of busing to provide racially balanced schools, concluding that overview with this reminder:

When people call busing ill conceived or the worst means of ensuring integration, they conveniently obscure that busing was almost always a tool of last resort, mandated by courts only after lengthy battles with school boards and state officials, by black parents and civil rights groups, failed to produce even modest integration for black children. Judges and attorneys and activists were trying to destruct a racist and segregated educational system in the face of enormous resistance, subterfuge and violence, even in the most ostensibly liberal places.

In doing so, of course mistakes were made. Particularly, desegregation too often shuttered black schools and dismissed black educators because they were not considered good enough to teach white children. Many black activists and communities grew weary of chasing white people across the city as they fled integration, and instead they decided to focus on gaining resources for schools that served their own neighborhoods.

Ms. Hannah-Jones, like presidential candidate Kamala Harris, was bused to a white school– for 10 of the 12 years she attended public schools in Waterloo, IA. The experience was beneficial for her as it was for most African American students who participated in busing programs. But she is resigned to the fact that busing is unlikely to be used again, not because it “failed”, but because even the most liberal and open-minded voters would not support it:

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.

It is unlikely that we will ever again see an effort to deconstruct our system of caste schools like what we saw between 1968 and 1988. But at the very least, we should tell the truth about what happened.

Busing did not fail. We did.

The second article, “How Joe Biden Became the Democrats’ Anti-Busing Crusader“, by Astead W. Herndon and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, describes Mr. Biden’s personal history in dealing with integration in his home state of Delaware who he represented in the Senate. The article provides a good overview of the history of school integration and offers context for the positions he took. The article doesn’t clearly depict the latent racism of Delaware, however. As a junior high student in the early 1960s, I vividly recall going on a field trip to the Dover Air Force Base where there were separate water fountains and bathrooms for “Negros”. It was the first time I came across such blatant discrimination, though I since learned that up until the Brown case my hometown in SE Pennsylvania operated a separate facility for black students.

Mr. Herndon and Ms. Stolberg thoroughly researched their article, and the reported that most of the civil rights leaders who knew Mr. Biden at the time he was becoming “the Democrats’ Anti-Busing Crusader” would not rule out voting for him and felt that he was walking a tightrope between his personal convictions and the anti-integration sentiment of the voters in his state. After an even handed and clear eyed examination of Mr. Biden, the article concludes with this:

The Biden spokesman, Mr. Bates, said that if elected, Mr. Biden would reinstate Obama-era policies “designed to increase the diversity of our schools.” Mr. Biden has long maintained that the white flight he had warned about came to pass, noting the many white families who fled to Pennsylvania for that state’s public schools, or — like Mr. Biden himself — enrolled their children in private schools. In his 2007 memoir, he described court-ordered busing as “a liberal train wreck.”

Aides say he has not changed his mind.

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