White protestor attacks African-American passerby with American flag at a 1976 ‘anti-busing’ rally in Boston. (Photo credit: NPR)
I have only a few distinct childhood memories of hearing someone utter the racial slur “N*****.” To be honest, I do not doubt that there were more incidents than those I now remember, but some instances were so stark and hateful, so soul wrenching, that I could not forget them, even as the passage of time has come to be counted in decades.
One of my earliest recollections dates back to the fall of 1964, in my 6th grade class at St. Matthias Elementary School. The nun who taught the class had us research that year’s presidential election, and each of us had to decide which of the major party candidates – Johnson or Goldwater – we would support. During the ensuing class discussion, a fellow student announced that she supported Goldwater, as he would keep “the Niggers from being bused into our neighborhood schools.” Even as an eleven year old, I was stunned that this racial slur was used openly in a school dedicated to educating students in the values of the Catholic faith, and that the reaction of the nun teaching our class was to mollify, rather than admonish.
St. Matthias was located in Ridgewood, a neighborhood on New York City’s Brooklyn-Queens border. In those days, Ridgewood was far to the right, a home to many who had been Nazi sympathizers and American Firsters during the 1930s and to others who had fled Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.[i] It was the anchor of the only assembly district in all of New York City to vote for Goldwater in 1964, and I was one of just two students in my large 6th grade class to support Johnson.
Earlier in 1964, African-American and Puerto Rican parents had participated in a successful boycott of New York City public schools, demanding racial integration and the improvement of the teaching and learning conditions in what were then called “ghetto” schools. Fresh from his pivotal role in putting together the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin had organized this effort, which pulled nearly a half-million students out of school on a cold February day. Rustin himself described it as the “largest civil rights demonstration” for racial integration in American history.
In a backlash to this campaign, a white resistance organization calling itself Parents and Taxpayers emerged, with its strongest base in Ridgewood. The Ridgewood neighborhood of St. Matthias was a short distance from Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and bordered directly on Bushwick, a neighborhood with increasing numbers of Puerto Rican residents. If school integration were to take place in NYC, the white public school students of Ridgewood would be going to school with the African-American and Puerto Rican students of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick. That was unacceptable to the members of Parents and Taxpayers who, in short order, put together a white counter-boycott of NYC schools.
In a tragic development, the civil rights campaign to integrate NYC public schools lost momentum and withered away. While white resistance was certainly a major factor in its decline, divisions within the civil rights community also contributed. Milton Galamison, the chair of the Citywide Committee for School Integration which had asked Rustin to organize the February boycott, was an imperious character, given to unilateral declarations and decision making. Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and CORE soon declared that they were unwilling to abide by his style of leadership and left the group, and Rustin withdrew from the effort. Without the organizational heft of the NAACP and CORE and the organizing acumen of Rustin, the campaign fizzled out.
But in the fall of 1964, this intense battle to integrate New York City public schools was still being waged, and it loomed like a specter over the budding political consciousness of the St. Matthias 6th grade class. The all-white students of our Catholic elementary school would not have been included in any effort to integrate the public schools, since they attended a private religious school.[ii] And yet the student who spoke this racial slur had been persuaded by some combination of her family, her friends and her neighbors that the racial integration of public schools was an imminent danger to her community and a real threat to her way of life. It was never about the buses.
This memory of words spoken a half century ago has been in my thoughts since the first debates among the Democratic Party’s candidates for the U.S. presidency, with the powerful challenge Kamala Harris posed to Joe Biden over his opposition to school busing in the 1970s and 1980s. I have been particularly struck by the light it casts on Biden’s post-debate defense of his record, which includes many votes for a series of anti-busing bills and riders to federal appropriations legislation, as well as support for arch-segregationist Jesse Helms’ legislative amendment to prevent the federal government from collecting racial data, which Helms described as a way of stopping busing. In a 1975 interview Biden even proposed a constitutional amendment to ban busing, which he has characterized at different times as an “asinine policy,” a “liberal train wreck” and a “bankrupt policy“ that went against “the cardinal rule of common sense.” Today, Biden defense is still that he never opposed “voluntary” busing, only “forced” busing, only busing “mandated” by the federal government’s Department of Education.
As a U.S. senator, Biden represented Delaware, a state which had been part of the Jim Crow regime of de jure racial segregation of schools. (While it did not join the Confederacy, Delaware was a slave state and adopted Jim Crow laws in the late 1800s.) One of the five cases incorporated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court, Gebhart v. Belton, was a challenge to Delaware’s de jure racial segregation of its public schools. In Delaware, as in the rest of the South, it was the federal government that was the force behind efforts to dismantle the Jim Crow system of segregation. In Biden’s apologia that he only opposed busing “mandated” by the federal government, one hears echoes of the “states’ rights” argument of Southerners who fought desegregation tooth and nail – claiming that federal government efforts to enforce civil rights laws were illegitimate. Yet without these federal “mandates,” Jim Crow segregation would have continued to reign, unchanged and unchallenged for many more years.
Nor does Biden convince with the argument that he only opposed “forced” busing, but not “voluntary” busing. In 1964, Goldwater ran for president, not just as an opponent of busing who agitated the racial fears of my 6th grade classmates, but more generally as a foe of what he called “forced integration.” The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling was an “abuse of power,” according to Goldwater, reflecting the consensus of the libertarian hard-right.[iii] In the context of American race relations of the 1960s and 1970s, the “voluntary integration” that Goldwater and other hard-right conservatives counterpoised to “forced integration” was nothing more than a deflection. They argued that all races must agree to integration for it to be “non-coercive,” giving whites the power to decide which schools and hospitals, which jobs and employment, which housing and neighborhoods and which public accommodations they would open to the full participation of African-Americans and other people of color. As a practical matter, it meant that no meaningful racial integration could ever take place.
The term “forced busing,” which Biden employs today, was the linguistic offspring of “forced integration,” a little more refined than its plain spoken parent and better suited for the emerging post-Jim Crow political terrain (and a classic example of “dog whistle politics”). In Why Busing Failed, Matthew Delmont describes the rhetorical line of descent in this way:
I have probably talked before 500 or 600 groups over the last years about busing,” Los Angeles Assemblyman Floyd Wakefield said in 1970. “Almost every time, someone has gotten up and called me a ‘racist’ or a ‘bigot.’ But now, all of the sudden, I am no longer a ‘bigot.’ Now I am called ‘the leader of the anti-busing effort’.” White parents and politicians framed their resistance to school desegregation in terms like “busing” and “neighborhood schools,” and this rhetorical shift allowed them to support white schools and neighborhoods without using explicitly racist language.
In all the years that Biden was actively opposed to school busing, the rhetorical consanguinity between “forced segregation” and “forced busing” was lost on no one. “Voluntary busing” was just as empty a phrase as “voluntary integration.”
The fights over school busing were arguably the first wave of the “culture wars” that began in American politics during the 1960s, and elected officials who failed to navigate those battle lines well often ended up as front-line casualties. Ted Kennedy was steadfast in his support for school integration using busing, even in the face of violent opposition by some white Bostonians, and he still survived (and even thrived) politically, but there were many other busing supporters who lost their elections. In this light, Biden’s rather strident opposition to school busing in those years might be understandable (if not excusable), but he has yet to concede that it was a form of realpolitik, apologize for it or declare that he would not pursue similar policies today. Instead, he continues to pretend that it represents some sort of principled stance.
In the wake of the Harris-Biden exchange, there are those who tell us that there were valid reasons for opposing school busing, other than opposition to racial integration – it could take children away from their neighborhood and lengthen their daily commute to and from school; it could interfere with extracurricular activities; it could rely on private bus companies and drivers that are not what they should be; and it could fail to provide adequate adult supervision of student bus behavior. To assess these claims, it is worth noting that transportation by school bus is ubiquitous today, even though it is no longer used for racial integration. On a regular school day, over 480,000 school buses transport almost 26 million American school children – nearly 1 in every 2 students – to and from schools and school-related activities. In many parts of the country, students would be unable to attend any school without being transported by buses, and school buses are indispensable for students attending specialized programs and schools that are not neighborhood based. (Whatever their shortcomings, school buses are specifically designed to enhance student safety and are seventy times safer than other forms of transportation to and from school.) Yet none of the “non-racial” complaints, which supposedly fueled the backlash against busing in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s – all of which are still relevant today – have produced anything remotely like the antipathy of that era.
Parents are rightly concerned for the safety of their children: what role could apprehensions about their well-being have played in the school busing controversies of the 1960s and 1970s? Indeed, there was one group of parents in with good reason to fear when their children were bused for the purposes of desegregation: consider this account of what faced African-American students when, in 1974, they were bused into what had been the all-white South Boston High School:
Southie was ground zero for anti-busing rage. Hundreds of white demonstrators – children and their parents – pelted a caravan of 20 school buses carrying students from nearly all-black Roxbury to all-white South Boston. The police wore riot gear.
I remember riding the buses to protect the kids going up to South Boston High School,” Jean McGuire, who was a bus safety monitor, recalled recently. “And the bricks through the window. Signs hanging out those buildings, ‘Nigger Go Home.’ Pictures of monkeys. The words. The spit. People just felt it was all right to attack children.
When today’s commentators opine that even some African-American parents were opposed to school busing, they might well consider their motivations for that stance.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the progress toward school integration that had been made in the 1960s and 1970s slowed substantially, and busing for racial integration was eventually smothered. Conservative Supreme Court justices appointed by Reagan and the two Bushes contributed to this trajectory, using a series of decisions that have made it harder and harder for school districts to take any steps, let alone school busing, to promote racial integration. American public schools today are still deeply segregated, and positive movement toward integration in many parts of the country has been reversed. In fact, the share of intensely segregated schools for students of color has grown threefold over the last three decades.
The decades in which real advances in racial integration were made in America’s public schools brought dramatic benefits. As the powerful research in Rucker Johnson’s Children of the Dream and Amy Stuart Wells’ Both Sides Now demonstrated, all of the students who were educated in racially integrated schools benefitted significantly from their experiences, both educationally and socially, but none more so than those who were on the short end of the unequal American educational system – students of color, especially those living in poverty.
Busing never provided a royal road to school integration and equal educational opportunity. It was deployed as a tool because America’s extensive residential segregation by race and class – segregation what was in no small measure the product of government policies specifically crafted to produce it – meant that neighborhood schools would also be segregated. Today, a comprehensive policy to promote school integration would need to address residential integration as well. For example, housing policies that stabilize neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, ensuring diversity in both color and class, would also promote the integration of schools. As we experience the reemergence of a grassroots movement for school diversity, after decades of quiescence, new opportunities to bend the arc of history toward justice are once again before us.
It was never about the buses. It was always about racial integration – and racial justice.
[i] Ridgewood had been a German-American enclave in New York City since the latter half of the 19th century. During the 1930s, it was a stronghold of the German-American Bund, an organization that unreservedly supported the Nazi regime and embraced anti-Semitism. In 1934, open street fighting between Nazis and anti-fascist Jews and Communists broke out at a Nazi rally of nine thousand held in Ridgewood, and in 1935, the New York World Telegram and Sun reported that over 1000 self-avowed Nazis were living in Ridgewood. A number of the refugees who settled in the neighborhood after World War II were fleeing unsavory personal histories with the Nazi German Reich and its puppet regimes, as much as the authoritarianism of the new Stalinist states. Two illustrative vignettes from my own personal history: During World War II, the FBI had come to our home, given the Irish surname, to gather what information they could on the comings and goings on the street – and a Nazi spy who lived on the very next block was later arrested. A storefront around the corner from the block on which I grew up also featured John Birch Society and Holocaust denial literature in its window for a number of years during the 1960s.
[ii] The first African-American peer I ever knew was a young friend in a CYO summer camp; it was not until I attended a Catholic high school that I had African-American and Latino classmates.
[iii] In this stance, Goldwater followed closely a line of argument laid out for him by advisors such as Milton Friedman. In his widely read 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education,” Friedman had not only made the case for school vouchers, but insisted that the holder of the voucher must have unfettered choice to use it in whatever school he pleased, even in the racially segregated “white academies” established to resist the post-Brown v. Board of Education desegregation of Southern public schools. To do otherwise, Friedman argued, would be “forced nonsegregation.” Goldwater also embraced Friedman’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and to legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in employment and housing. My analysis of Friedman’s positions is here.