If you find yourself reading the 2,200-page spending bill that just got passed in Washington, you might stumble upon this hidden relic: “No funds appropriated in this Act may be used for the transportation of students or teachers (or the purchase of equipment for such transportation) in order to overcome racial imbalance in any school or school system, or . . . in order to carry out a plan of racial desegregation.”
Court-ordered busing to address “racial imbalance” in schools has pretty much gone the way of the dodo. Yet those words still appear in spending bills, as if busing might suddenly rise again, like a zombie from “The Walking Dead.”
Was busing really that awful? And how could a policy of educational and racial equality — one of the most idealistic projects our government ever attempted — have turned out like this?
I’ve spent much of this past year trying to answer those questions. I’ve listened to Bostonians recount their memories of 1974, the year a federal judge ordered that busing be used to desegregate Boston’s schools. I’ve looked into the lives of people who fought for it and against it. I’ve interviewed researchers from across the country about what school desegregation achieved, and where it failed. I’ve examined the racial makeup of Boston’s schools to see how they’re different today.
One thing that struck me, over and over again, is just how alive this history is, not only in this city, but across the country.
National politics today pits black against white against brown; those who have little against those who have even less. We’ve been here before. From the blue-collar disciples of Donald Trump to the revolutionary rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, we are in a tug of war over the nation’s soul. Divides over class and race have taken center stage, just as they did during the busing era 40 years ago. What, if anything, have we learned since then?
WHY SOUTHIE LOVES TRUMP
For a lot of white people who grew up in Boston, time seems to be divided into two spheres: Before Busing and After Busing. Before Busing, all the fathers drank Schlitz and listened to the baseball game together, while the mothers watched their kids play in the street. After Busing, everyone scattered to different schools or moved away. People stopped getting to know their neighbors. Before Busing, if you wanted a good job and you hadn’t gone to college, you called a politician or a priest. They’d give you something in the water department. Or the sewer department. If you were lucky, you’d get fire or police. After Busing, you couldn’t count on anything. Before Busing, you were Irish. Or you were Italian. After Busing, you were merely white — an identity that sounded more and more like an accusation with each passing day.
Don’t try to tell this crowd that the good old days weren’t so good for everybody, or that the old world they long for was already fading by the time busing came around. Their childhoods were golden. Whatever went wrong in life went wrong later, After Busing.
That’s the way they think of it. And why shouldn’t they?
As much as we’d like history to be an arc bending toward justice — each turn of the wheel making all of us a little freer — the truth is that history is more like a tug of war between demographic rivals over finite resources: Jobs. Money. Power.
In the 1970s, working-class whites in Boston lost their monopoly in this city. They watched their advantages ebb away.
They were forced to share their piece of the pie with blacks, at the very moment globalization and other forces were already making that pie smaller. Since then, working-class men with only a high school diploma have seen their median earnings fall by 41 percent. For whites without college degrees aged 45 to 54 — the generation that came of age in the 1970s — a sense of hopelessness seems to have set in: Suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction have sparked an alarming spike in their mortality rate, even as others are living longer.
It’s no mystery why white men without college degrees flock to Donald Trump, who promises to “Make America Great Again.”
Resentment over these losses — which few politicians dare to articulate out loud — help explain Trump’s stunning lead: Three-quarters (74 percent) of Trump supporters believe that discrimination against whites has become “as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Only 57 percent of those who support other Republican candidates think that way.
School desegregation — including busing — achieved things that are so integral to our lives today that we don’t even notice them.
“Trump is not my preference,” John Ciccone, publisher of the newspaper South Boston Today, tells me. “But, boy, his appeal is incredible. People I never expected to support Trump are supporting him: people who’ve been union members for years and years and are expected to support the Democratic candidate, no matter what.”
It’s partly the economy, Ciccone said: “Around here, there’s still so many people out of work. We see families moving in with relatives.”
But maybe it’s also that Trump reminds them of a world before political correctness, racial guilt, and economic anxiety. And, at least for whites here in Boston, a world before busing.
“I’m a conservative Christian NRA member, and I consider myself a traditional American,” Ciccone said. “So many people remember a time when that was the way to be. If you needed the government, it was there, but it was not so intrusive. There’s a resentment. A feeling of being tread upon.”
WHY BLM IS AMBIVALENT ABOUT BUSING
If working-class whites count busing as a loss — many blacks think of it as a partial victory, at best. Although studies show that school desegregation, on the whole, boosted graduation rates and the lifetime earnings of blacks nationwide, huge disparities remain.
And those disparities are what we’ve focused on. Chronicling gaps has become a cottage industry. We’ve seen countless articles about the wealth gap. The health gap. Even the so-called sleep gap, which refers to the difference between how much shut-eye whites and blacks get each night.
In the past, such disparities might have been wielded by racists as proof that something was the matter with black people. But today, they’re wielded by black activists as evidence that something is very broken in America itself, unfixed even by the greatest gains of the Civil Rights movement.
Indeed, some gaps are so enduring and so vast, that people wonder if any progress has been made at all: 41.5 percent of black children lived in poverty in 1970s, compared to 10.5 percent of whites. Today, 37 percent of black kids live in poverty, compared to 12 percent of whites.
School desegregation improved black people’s lives, but not nearly as much as they had hoped.
These days, some older folks allow themselves to mourn the loss of precious things they sacrificed in the name of integration: Beloved schools closed, so kids could go to white ones. Beloved children sent to spend their day with strangers whose love could not be legislated by a court. Yet, most folks I talked to from that generation insist that the struggle to integrate was worth it.
But millennials are not so sure.
Their expectation for equality is so much higher than their parents’. In the face of so many enduring disparities, they question the tactics of the past. The whole idea that a child must be rescued from the black community — and sent to a white one — to get a good education is anathema to many activists. Isn’t there something wrong with telling young black and brown kids that their school is inferior simply because it’s full of too many kids who look like them?
This young generation — born two decades after busing — has become so accustomed to racial mixing that they seem to take it for granted. They question whether integration ought to be a goal at all.
“Integration turns into assimilation,” said Daunasia Yancey, the 23-year-old cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement in Boston. “It’s ‘How do we fit into white society?’ instead of ‘How do we change the playing field?’ ”
Even so, Yancey’s own short life has been shaped by the battle over busing. She lives in Jamaica Plain but went to school in Newton, though METCO — a voluntary busing program established in the 1960s to combat segregation. Earlier generations of civil rights activists in Boston fought for her to have that access. But growing up in a predominantly white school fueled her sense of injustice: “I had so much interaction with white people and so much racism facing me as a super-bright, loud, and opinionated black kid,” she told me.
Today, she says, being allowed in the door of a white school is not enough: “It’s not enough to say ‘Go to these white schools and access that.’ The schools in the city should be fully resourced.”
To Yancey, integration represents economic loss, the closure of black businesses that used to thrive off black customers. “When lunch counters and restaurants were integrated, you saw black people going to white establishments that used to ban them,” she said.
If middle-aged white people long for the days of their childhood, before busing, some millennials long for the black community they never knew — that almost mythically pure society that existed before integration.
FORTY YEARS OF LESSONS FROM BUSING
Today, the concept of court-ordered busing to desegregate schools has few champions. Conservatives look back on busing in Boston as an outrageous overreach of government powers. Liberals look back on it as a policy that didn’t go far enough. It didn’t last long enough. It didn’t reach deep enough into the wealthy suburbs.
It’s a shame that busing has gone out of style at the very moment we’ve gotten a better understanding of why it failed — and where it worked.
It’s important to remember that busing did achieve success in places other than Boston. Bigger school districts, which encompassed both city and suburb, saw lasting gains. For instance, in Louisville, Ky., where the school district is 400 square miles.
Older civil rights activists in Boston blame racism for the fact that so many whites left the city in the aftermath of busing, robbing them of the gains that would have been achieved by integration. But the size of the district — and the availability of so many high-performing school districts nearby — probably mattered just as much. That’s a big reason school desegregation was more successful in the South, where school districts are larger and there are few neighboring districts. There, the percentage of black students in intensely segregated schools has dropped from 80 percent in 1968 to a little more than 30 percent today, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
In the Northeast, which has so many alternative school districts where whites and middle-class families can flee, the results are far more discouraging: The percentage of black students who attend “intensely segregated” schools has actually risen, from 43 percent in 1968 to more than 50 percent today.
We know now that Boston “did not have the right conditions” for the kind of busing desegregation plan that Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered, said Sarah Reber, associate professor of public policy at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
The plans that saw the best long-term results were the ones that made the most gradual changes, had the smallest number of blacks, and imposed the least inconvenience on whites.
For instance, Volusia County — which covers Daytona Beach, Fla. — managed to achieve long-term success by scattering a small number of black students across a large number of white schools. Few whites were reassigned.
But here in Boston, Garrity ordered white students in Southie to go to black schools in Roxbury that he had just condemned. Half of all white students failed to show up for school, according to Christine Rossell, a Boston University professor who helped implement Garrity’s order in the 1970s and later became one of the nation’s most outspoken opponents of court-ordered busing.
Rossell changed her mind about busing when it became clear that white flight had offset any integration that had been achieved. “Boy, were we naive,” she said.
In 1974, 62 percent of black students in Boston attended schools that were more than 70 percent black, according to Garrity’s ruling. Today, about 80 percent of black students attend schools that are more than 70 percent black or Hispanic.
Statistics like these are one reason that court-ordered busing gave way to school choice programs and magnet schools across the country. Today, there’s a nationwide trend to return to neighborhood schools.
And yet, school desegregation — including busing — achieved things that are so integral to our lives today that we don’t even notice them. In the 1970s, plenty of whites still believed the races to be inherently unequal and social contact to be taboo. Today, almost no one would say such a thing out loud. The fact that we take this for granted can be counted as progress.
Perhaps the biggest mistake we made back in the 1970s was to frame school desegregation as a battle between racists and the righteous, rather than a public policy puzzle, full of trade-offs, that had to be solved. Today, in the era of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, we’re back to that same polarization. It’s as if we’ve learned nothing at all.
This piece is part of a series of columns about Boston — four decades after busing — supported by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.