fb-pixel
Kevin Cullen

Opposing forced busing doesn’t mean you oppose integration

Students arrived on buses at the Blackstone School in the South End in September 1976.
Students arrived on buses at the Blackstone School in the South End in September 1976. (Globe Staff/File 1976)

Last week’s Democratic debate stage looked like the line on opening day at Sullivan’s on Castle Island.

Even then, not everybody got to take part.

How they can leave Seth Moulton on the sidelines while including the immortal Jay Inslee is beyond me.

But then, a lot of what the Democrats do is beyond me. You would think that, after a few years of the vulgar chaos that is the Trump administration, the Democrats would have a clear path to reclaiming the White House.

I’m not so sure. The Democrats seem intent on swinging as far to the left as the Republicans have to the right.

Advertisement



A few months ago, I read all these pieces about how Senator Kamala Harris isn’t really a progressive because as a prosecutor she, gasp, locked people up.

But Harris became a progressive darling last week when she dope-slapped Joe Biden over his justifying being back-slapping nice to some cracker senators from the South.

In what turned out to be the only memorable moment from two largely forgettable nights, Harris lambasted Biden over his respect for segregationists and stance on forced busing to achieve racial balance in public schools, then turned to Biden and added this qualification: “I do not believe you are a racist.”

Really? You could have fooled me.

I like Harris and may well vote for her in the primary. But there was something troubling about where she was going with that line of attack on old Joe.

Like many others when this subject is raised, Harris seemed to be using support for busing and support for integration interchangably, as if they mean the same thing.

In Boston, we know better.

School busing in Boston is a case study on how not to conduct grand experiments in social engineering.

Advertisement



The intent was absolutely noble. Boston’s schools were not only segregated, they were unequal. Schools with mostly black kids had fewer resources. Black parents sued, believing that if black kids and white kids went to the same schools, the resources would be distributed more equally.

But the chosen remedy, forcing kids out of their walk-to schools onto a bus across town to different neighborhoods, was a prescription for massive disorder.

According to those who know far more about these things, busing was not an ideal solution. As is said about capitalism, it’s the worst system, except for all the others. But in their genius, organizers decided to begin not with little kids who are less likely to harbor prejudices or weapons, but with teenagers with raging hormones and raging parents.

The results were predictable, and a generation lost.

Let’s be clear: The people in South Boston who threw rocks and epithets at black kids on school buses were reprehensible racists.

But the majority of people who opposed busing, not just in Southie but in other neighborhoods, were furious not at black kids, but at politicians and government officials who cavalierly foisted busing on them while life in their lily-white suburbs went on undisturbed.

A lot of Bostonians resented not black kids so much as hypocritical whites sitting in their segregated suburbs and in smug judgment of them while avoiding the tumult of busing.

If politicians today don’t grasp that reality, they will alienate a lot of potential voters.

Advertisement



In 1972, George McGovern, the senator from South Dakota who tried to save the nation from Richard Nixon, lost every state except Massachusetts. One of the most liberal nominees in his party’s history, McGovern carried South Boston.

Four years later, after busing upended the city and people’s lives, many people in Southie cheered another, far different George: George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist.

If Democrats want to dismiss anyone who thinks busing in Boston was a bad idea as racist, that is certainly their right. But in doing so, they will do more to guarantee four more years of Donald Trump than to advance the cause of racial justice and equality.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.