What is the connection between conservatism and school segregation? A new “retro report” in the New York Times about the desegregation project in Charlotte, North Carolina assumes that “conservatives” obviously opposed desegregation. Is that connection really as obvious as it seems?
The desegregation documentary describes Charlotte’s experience. In the 1970s, Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County became the focus of a newly aggressive court-ordered busing program. Schools and school districts, the Supreme Court ruled, must do more to ensure racial balance in public schools.
The initial reaction in Charlotte was furious, but the program eventually became the poster child for busing. So much so that a federal judge ruled in 1999 that the district had fulfilled its deseg obligations. At least partly as a result, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are now resegregated by race and income level.
For historians of race and education, the story is not news. But for those of us trying to understand the meanings of “conservatism” in American education, the way it is told is important. The New York Times piece includes comments by journalist B. Drummond Ayres Jr. In that “Reporter’s Notebook,” Ayres offers an explanation for the winning campaign to resegregate America’s schools. As Ayres explains,
White parental anger was the most obvious cause of this rollback. But an equally important factor was the election of two conservative Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They did not oppose the nation’s move toward racial equality, but as conservatives they favored a slower, more measured approach to desegregation and underscored that approach by appointing staunch conservatives to the Supreme Court and lower Federal courts. Concurrently, Congress took a more measured approach to desegregation, too, as voters began sending more and more anti-busing conservatives to Capitol Hill. [Emphasis added.]
In this telling, “conservatives” have been the brake on the progress of racial desegregation. Politicians who considered themselves conservative had a prescribed opinion toward school desegregation.
Is that a fair accusation? Did conservatives as a rule really push for slower desegregation? More interesting, how did conservatism come to be perceived as the side of white racial status-quo-ism?
In my current book, I explore two twentieth-century school controversies in which race and school deseg played leading parts. The first took place in Pasadena, California, in 1950, the second in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974.
In Pasadena, a “progressive” school superintendent added racial desegregation to his list of progressive reforms. Conservatives kicked him out. In Kanawha County, a new textbook series included provocative excerpts from black militants such as Eldridge Cleaver. Conservatives boycotted to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the books.
Each time, the conservative side became the side of anti-black racism. But in each case, conservatives insisted they were not racist.
In Pasadena, for example, one woman stood up at a heated school-board meeting and denied all charges of racism. She opposed the desegregation plan but said she could not be racist, since one of her closest friends was African American.
In Kanawha County, too, book protesters often insisted they were not racist. Teacher and activist Karl Priest, for example, has insisted for decades that the conservative protesters embodied the true anti-racist position.
But evidence contradicts these conservative anti-racist claims. In Pasadena, conservatives rallied political support based on opposition to race mixing in public schools. Conservatives accused the progressive superintendent of raising taxes and dumbing down white schools by including students of other races. If that’s not racism, what is it?
And in Kanawha County, as documentarian Trey Kay has shown, conservatives really did see the book protest as a race war. Steve Horan remembered in 2010 that a rumor spread among white conservatives in 1974: African Americans planned to invade. The men readied their guns. Women and children took shelter in church basements. If that’s not racism, what is it?
There seems to be at least some justification for journalists’ assumptions that “conservatism” stands staunchly opposed to racial integration in schools.
But it is also important to recognize the complexity of conservative attitudes toward race and schooling. It is not enough to simply say that “conservatives” block school desegregation because they dislike black people.
The case of Kanawha County helps make this more complicated point. Many of the conservative leaders of the protest, such as Karl Priest and Avis Hill, belonged to conservative churches with a thoroughly biracial membership. If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?
And conservative leader Alice Moore built her anti-textbook arguments on the work of African American activist Stephen Jenkins. Jenkins had argued that textbooks that included only violent writings by African Americans actually represented the true anti-black racism. Those who wanted to oppose the depiction of African Americans as violent anti-American criminals, Jenkins argued, needed to oppose the wrong-headed push for “multiculturalism.” If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?
Across the country, “conservative” anti-busing protesters made similar claims to be the true anti-racists. In Boston, for example, as Ron Formisano has shown, “conservative” anti-busers in the 1970s accused “liberal” federal judge Arthur Garrity of being the true racist. Garrity had ordered busing to achieve racial balance in Boston’s schools, yet he lived in the affluent lily-white enclave of Wellesley, where his children would attend all-white schools. Who was the racist in that scenario?
Did conservatives oppose busing and forcible school desegregation? In most cases, yes.
Will we understand conservatism in schooling if we explain that position as simple racism? In most cases, no.
White conservatives seem, in many cases, to have been motivated by anti-black racism. But in almost all cases, that racism was only one component of a complex conservatism that also included issues of school funding, textbook content, religious rights, classroom practice, and a host of other issues.
Calling it “racism” and walking away doesn’t do enough. Ayres deserves credit for noting that leading conservatives often supported anti-racist policies. Conservatives often insisted that they opposed forcible busing and forcible integration. They did so as part of a complicated conservative worldview, one that looked toward the status quo–including but not by any means limited to the racial status quo–for support.
So did white conservatives hate black people? Did conservatives oppose school desegregation out of disdain for non-whites?
In some cases, probably. But it is not very useful to assume that such racist attitudes are the end of our discussion. Rather, understanding the complex attitudes toward race among conservatives–as among Americans as a whole–requires a more careful understanding of a complex conservative ideology.