The Right Historical Question about Busing

Ever since Senator Kamala Harris accused Vice President Joe Biden of cozying up to segregationists, the issue of busing has been back in the headlines. Instead of asking why busing failed or why it worked, the right question should be about where busing worked. The lesson from the twentieth century is clear: When reformers try to use schools to ram through social change, even with the purest of intentions, it won’t work.

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

Vice President Biden’s political problems about busing came about long before Senator Harris’s accusations. Months ago, the Washington Post ran an exposé about Biden’s leading role in the 1970s as an opponent of court-ordered desegregation. Biden 2020 has been forced to defend decisions made by Biden 1975, and it hasn’t been easy.

Since the debate, historians and commentators have skewered the notion that busing did not achieve its aims. As Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out, the issue was never about busing itself, but about stark racism. The problem was not that busing didn’t work to integrate students of different races and backgrounds, but precisely that it did.

Historically, the politics of school integration are part of a broader pattern of school reform. Whenever reformers have tried to use schools to change society for the better, they have discovered the difficult truth. Namely, whatever the issue—racial integration, socialism, or progressive education—when reformers fail to enroll community support, their efforts at social improvement have been crushed. When they do, however, the results can be surprisingly effective.

In the late 1930s, for example, textbook author Harold Rugg came under fire for his popular textbook series. The series had been adopted by schools nationwide and the books were used by millions of American schoolchildren. As World War II heated up, however, conservative groups such as the America Legion came to believe that the books had a subversive, anti-American intent. The books, conservative critics charged, hoped to transform American society into a socialist state.

Professor Rugg protested that he was no socialist; he claimed a “deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.” Yet he admitted that he really did hope to transform society. In Rugg’s vision, decisions about proper curriculum should not be left in the hands of the ignorant community, but rather decided only by “competent experts” like himself. He dismissed protesters as irrational ignoramuses and their impassioned rallies as mere “Wednesday-evening testimony meetings of Holy Rollers.”

A generation later, a similar textbook controversy roiled Kanawha County, West Virginia. Protesters in 1974 and 1975 worried that a new textbook series derided traditional American values. In part, the protesters were right. As one editor of the books later recalled, he really had hoped the books would inject the “progressive energy” of 1960s radicalism into classrooms nationwide. The books took a “strong stand for pluralism and multicultural expression” that the editors hoped would overthrow the “conventions” of traditional schools and classrooms.

A laudable goal, but like Harold Rugg’s vision of “expert”-centered educational reform, the top-down reformism of the 1970s textbooks failed. Protesters in Kanawha County boycotted their schools; they convinced their Parent-Teacher Association that the new progressive textbooks were “literally full of anti-Americanism, anti-religion, and discrimination.”

The same lessons apply to the history of 1970s school desegregation—“busing”—that Biden and Harris have brought back to the headlines. On one hand, the policy of busing students to mitigate segregation often worked to improve both racial integration and educational outcomes.

On the other, busing policies often met ferocious political backlash from outraged white parents and activists. Most famously, as historian Ron Formisano described so powerfully, in Boston anti-busers rejected the attempts of Judge W. Arthur Garrity to impose more racial equality in schools.

All cities were not Boston, however. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the simple black-and-white politics of busing looked different. When President Reagan trotted out his anti-busing rallying cry in 1984, it fell on deaf ears. Busing, Reagan charged,

takes innocent children out of the neighborhood school and makes them pawns in a social experiment that nobody wants, and we found out that it failed.

What Reagan didn’t realize, and many people in today’s revisit to the 1970s busing debates seem to have forgotten as well, was that some white people embraced busing. The crowd in Charlotte met Reagan’s dog-whistles with stony silence, and the next day the Charlotte Observer insisted that the city’s “proudest achievement is its fully integrated public school system.”

reagan in charlott

White voters hate busing, right? …right?

Certainly, North Carolina was no racial utopia. But the differences between Boston and Charlotte serve as an important reminder of the real question in school segregation and busing. They are reminders that go back long past the 1970s, to Harold Rugg and before.

Whatever the issue, when social reformers hope to use schools to effect wide-ranging improvements in society, they can only hope to succeed if they enlist the support of at least a portion of the local community. Harold Rugg did not realize that people outside his college would not simply cede control of their textbooks to his “expert” hands. Protesters in West Virginia were not willing to accept books thrust upon them by editors fueled by the “progressive energy” of the radical 1960s.

The successes of busing, too, were not limited to improvements in integration and educational success. When integrationists managed to line up local support, as with Charlotte’s Democratic Party, busing also achieved significant political support. When they didn’t, as with Boston’s aggrieved segregationists, busing failed.

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4 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  July 17, 2019

    It would be interesting to know why the supposedly racist southerners embraced busing while the supposedly enlightened urban northeasterners opposed it. Any idea?

    Reply
    • I don’t think there’s a simple explanation, but a couple of things jump out. First, white Northerners have always had their share of virulent, violent racism. See the New York draft riots of 1863 as just one example. And, of course, in the mid-20th century white southerners fought back hard against school integration. It’s not like white southerners as a whole embraced busing. So why the pro-integration feeling among some Charlotte whites in the 1980s? Here’s my first impression: By that time, segregationism had emerged as a partisan issue. The GOP had tacked hard to the racist right since Wallace, and the Democratic Party had moved toward the anti-racist side. So when Reagan made his anti-busing speech, he was talking to the wrong crowd of white southerners. In short, school segregation was forced upon the South, but once it was, it eventually attracted some political support among white voters, mostly in the Democratic Party.

      Reply
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