Taking stock of inequality then and now
June 21 marks the 40th anniversary of the Morgan v. Hennigan ruling. While this decision is remembered as the defining moment of what would become the Boston busing crisis, it is important to recall that busing was just one tactic meant to address the pervasive inequalities and de
jure segregation that Judge W. Arthur Garrity had found in Boston’s public schools. This anniversary, along with this year’s 60th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education, begs for a collective reflection on the ongoing struggle for social justice in our schools, communities, and social institutions.
Over the past four years, the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project has been listening to the stories of people across the city. This multiracial, cross-class community network has learned together that the Boston busing crisis was not only about busing — and not only about Boston. A larger, often invisible national history of grappling with racism and class-based inequality continues. It is everyone’s struggle — the ongoing story of all of us. Our stories and interviews have consistently raised three themes: race and class equity, democratic access, and the demand for excellence in our public institutions.
The stories of people then and now tell a history of systemic racial and class inequity. At the same time, they tell the story of a quest for equity begun long before 1974 that continues to the present day. (Ruth Batson’s chronology of black educational activism in Boston begins in 1638.) Participants talk about personal prejudice and active bigotry. Some tell stories about disparities in opportunities by race, class, or language. Many talk about the policies and practices that hold racism and economic disparities in place. People talk about a flawed school assignment process; excessive standardized testing and test prep, especially for students of color and poor students; inadequate support for English language learners; white flight. Almost all speak of a pervasive white privilege in our culture, then and now. It is clear that many decisions that affect all are made without the input from people of color or people with the least financial resources.
These stories reinforce how access to resources was a function of privilege 40 years ago and continues today. In the 1974 case, Garrity found that students of color had less access to quality education in the city. Poor white students also had less access to educational resources than their wealthier suburban counterparts. When the city was thrown into turmoil, many who had the resources to find alternatives did so. Today we see how those with more privilege (both by race and class) continue to have better access to quality education. At the same time, so many others yearn for equitable access.
Although Boston is known as a cosmopolitan, resource-rich city, its schools and other public institutions are under-resourced and often lack strong, inclusive leadership. A common theme in the stories we heard: If Boston has some of the best universities in the world, why aren’t our K-12 public schools also world-class? A crucial component of our work is to engage our diverse communities as partners in improving our schools. A critical need is teachers and teaching that reflect students’ diverse histories and cultures. Schools, and all public institutions, must serve the needs and interests of all of us.
We believe the stories and interviews we are collecting — these diverse, interconnected histories — can help move us as a city and a nation toward a new conversation, not just about busing, or even desegregation. At a moment when the gains of the past are being rolled back (the New Deal, the dismantling of Jim Crow, legal desegregation), we must find the courage to listen to diverse experiences and perspectives, to learn from our history, and to join together to demand race and class equity, democratic access, and excellence in our public institutions.
Donna Bivens is project director and Chris Gallagher is a member of the Steering Committee of The Boston Busing/Desegregation Project.