FOR A GENERATION of Americans, ugly images from the streets of Boston have come to symbolize the ordeal of school busing: bloody episodes of racial violence, milling white mobs, students whisked to foreign neighborhoods. By the end of the 1970s, many Americans saw mandatory busing programs as a failure.
If these experiments in integration were so widely despised, why do they still matter? And if busing failed, why is it important that former vice president Joe Biden so vehemently opposed it?
Busing came to be seen as a failure in part because the media focused on the violence in Boston, rather than the dozens of cities that integrated peacefully. Busing was also judged a failure because antibusing leaders like Biden worked to create that perception.
Biden, while a young senator from Delaware, claimed that he supported school integration in general but opposed busing as a means to achieve it. This was disingenuous. By the middle of the 1970s, many school boards — Boston’s among them — had rejected every other method of desegregation. The range of practical options had been narrowed to two: mandatory busing or continued segregation.
By distinguishing between integration and busing, Biden fashioned an expedient position. He could pose as a supporter of integration, yet reassure his angry white constituents that they would never have to send their children on buses to attend school with African-Americans.
The explanations Biden offers now for his past positions are similarly disingenuous. At the recent Democratic presidential debate in Miami, Biden proclaimed that he only opposed busing that was ordered by the federal government’s education department. Yet the record shows that he opposed busing in all its forms. On Sept. 17, 1975, Biden declared that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare “is using nothing but statistics, and the court also, to go forward and come out with an asinine policy, busing.”
The day after the debate, having proved himself unable to either defend his antibusing record or rethink it, Biden made a speech in which he claimed that he “never, never, never ever opposed voluntary busing.” This was another way of dodging the issue. Mandatory busing was controversial because it was mandatory; federal judges turned to busing only because local school boards had rebuffed every “voluntary” measure.
This history matters because America’s schools remain so thoroughly segregated by race. The busing experiments of the 1970s represent the last moment judges and policy makers enacted sweeping measures to try to integrate our public schools. In some cities, busing finally broke the back of Jim Crow education systems.
In places such as Charlotte, N.C., and Berkeley, Calif., busing worked to integrate the public schools and to increase educational equity. Numerous studies have shown that black students benefit from desegregated schools and that white students either experience gains or endure no ill effects.
But in the decades since, few leaders have supported strong desegregation plans. That timidity has combined with white flight to produce resegregation. Most of America’s urban schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1970s.
Some presidential candidates are taking another stab at desegregation. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren signed on as co-sponsors of a bill called the Strength in Diversity Act. The bill provides $120 million in grants to address socioeconomic diversity and racial isolation. It offers federal funds for “expanding busing service,” which applies to “voluntary community-driven strategies” to desegregate schools. This is much different than the kind of mandatory busing plan that riled Boston in the 1970s. Still, the very mention of the word “busing” in the proposal is significant, as the term has seemed so toxic for so long.
Sanders has also released his own “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education,” which calls for billions of dollars in funding to support local integration efforts, including magnet schools and busing. Sanders promises to more aggressively enforce desegregation orders. His plan would “fund school transportation to help integration, ending the absurd prohibitions in place.” The senator told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos: “Busing is certainly an option that is necessary in some cases, but it is not optimal.” Kamala Harris was even more positive about busing. In response to a reporter’s question, she said: “We need to put every effort, including busing, into play to desegregate the schools.”
Both the Strength in Diversity Act and the Sanders plan make a lot of sense. Both proposals would provide significant monetary incentives for those cities that devise voluntary integration programs. They seem like viable first steps.
Beyond the Strength in Diversity Act and the Sanders plan, one hears many paeans to “quality education” from the candidates, but little mention of the racial segregation that shapes our schools.
Perhaps the candidates recognize that school desegregation is rarely a winning political issue. Many white parents, Democrats as well as Republicans, believe they have a sacrosanct right to send their children to “neighborhood schools.” They view integration plans as an intrusion, not as a way of achieving equal opportunity for racial minorities.
Busing’s legacy remains complex. In some cities, it finally ended segregation in schools; in cities like Boston, it deepened racial hatred and accelerated white flight; in many places, it did all of these things at once. The defenders of school busing plans knew they supported programs that were imperfect and unpopular, but they at least tried to ensure equal educational opportunity for all students.
The renewed focus on busing can benefit the nation if it illuminates the current crisis of school segregation, and if it moves our leaders to offer bold new ways to desegregate our schools.
Correction: An earlier version of this column suggested busing in Berkeley was court-ordered. It was not.
Jason Sokol, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, is the author of three books on the civil rights era. Follow him on Twitter @jasokol.