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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Why Religious Joe Biden Won’t Win the Religious Vote

Okay, so VP Biden is religious. Really religious. However, unlike what GOP consultant Rob Stutzman opined recently in the Washington Post, no matter how sincere Democrats are with their Christianity, it just doesn’t matter. Our culture-war history helps explain why.

biden religious

…I’m serious, you guys…

I’m not doubting any of Mr. Stutzman’s evidence for Biden’s profound dedication to his Catholic faith. As Stutzman writes,

Biden, a Roman Catholic, speaks genuinely about how his faith has been a sustaining aspect of his life through family tragedies, including the loss of his son, Beau, to brain cancer. He wears Beau’s rosary around his wrist, describing it as the connection he keeps daily with his late son. He quotes Soren Kierkegaard — “Faith sees best in the dark ” — to explain how he and his wife’s shared belief in God connects him with tens of millions of Americans who rely on a sustaining faith amid myriad challenges.

But Stutzman makes a Jimmy-Carter-sized mistake when he suggests that religious voters might be attracted more to the very religious Biden than to the clown-car Trump. Stutzman is off base, in other words, when he concludes,

What happens to Christian voters when they see a Democratic candidate living an authentic faith juxtaposed with a Republican president just renting some religion? My guess is that many will think twice.

They won’t. And before any of my progressive friends get high and mighty about the hypocrisy involved among conservative Christians, consider the fact that we do it too. As any historian of American conservatism will tell you, for the past fifty years many conservatives—especially the intellectual sorts—have taken pains to refute the charges that the GOP is the party of white racism. None of us “think twice” about believing them.

As I conducted the research for my book about educational conservatism, I was struck time and time again by the insistence of conservative thinkers and activists that they really weren’t racist. It didn’t matter. The charges of racism stuck, for good reason.

Why? As I found in my study of the explosive school controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in the mid-1970s, many white conservatives considered themselves truly anti-racist, for purely conservative reasons.

Conservative protest leader Reverend Avis Hill, for example, liked to tell reporters that his conservative congregation was evenly mixed between whites and blacks. Conservative teacher and activist Karl Priest told me that he intentionally coached an interracial basketball league, devoting untold hours of his free time to fight the scourge of racism.

Local African-American leaders even voiced their agreement with the conservative protesters. Local NAACP leader Ronald English, for example, told one school-board meeting that most African Americans in Kanawha County were “very conservative,” and they agreed with white conservatives that public schools should not include “anti-Christian . . . unpatriotic” material.

Nevertheless, just as Joe Biden won’t make any headway with conservative Christian voters, white conservatives in Kanawha County never managed to convince African Americans to join their protest. And white conservatives in general have never been able to convince anyone but themselves of the sincerity of their anti-racism. The political logic is too obvious to need spelling out, but I’ll do it anyway.

avis hill kanawha protest

Avis Hill: I’m no racist, but…

In Kanawha County in the 1970s, conservative African Americans didn’t buy the anti-racism claims of white conservative protesters. Their reason was clear. In addition to the anti-racist claims of some white conservatives, everyone also heard other white conservatives denouncing the new controversial textbooks as “those n***er books.” And among the conservatives who flocked to Charleston to take the side of the white conservatives, Ed Miller, leader of the West Virginia Ku Klux Klan, promised to bring in thousands of robed and hooded klansmen to join in.

In short, no matter how sincere the anti-racist beliefs of many GOP-voting conservatives–and I believe that many of them are truly sincere about it–American conservatism as a whole has never been able to shake its well-earned image as the party of white racism. As a result, the GOP—for the past fifty years the party of conservatism—has never had much appeal to non-whites.

Similarly, no matter how devout and sincere is the religiosity of Joe Biden, or Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, or Barack Obama, the Democratic party is the party of secularism. Even if conservative religious voters believe in the sincerity of individual Democrats, they will still shy away from the Democratic Party as the party of secularism.

I’d like to share Stutzman’s optimism, but no matter how devout they are, no Democrat is going to attract the support of conservative religious voters.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another doozy of a week here at ILYBYGTH International! Here are some of the top stories that caught our eye:

Florida teacher on why the state can’t find enough teachers, at WaPo.

“Ridiculous:” Trump’s angry plan to punish universities for banning free speech, at CHE:

In 2018 the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an effective champion of free speech on campuses, recorded just nine attempts at disinviting or shutting down speakers. In the same year, 20 — if you’re keeping score, that’s 11 more than nine — colleges and universities adopted versions of the University of Chicago’s model principles of free expression. . . . None of that would seem to warrant sending in the feds to manage speech at our colleges and universities. Granted, our standards for declaring a national emergency have grown lax, but this is ridiculous.

More people support “legacy” college admissions than support race-based admissions, at PRC.pew admissions factors

Sympathy for the anti-vaxxers, at NYT. HT: AP:

I know people whom I think of as otherwise intelligent and well intentioned who aren’t convinced that vaccines are safe.

Bad news for Biden 2020: WaPo uncovers some dirt from the 1970s.

The latest anti-AOC rhetoric from CPAC:

They want to take your pickup truck! They want to rebuild your home! They want to take away your hamburgers! This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved!

Forget AOC. America’s most influential conservative sets his sights on a different target: Earl Warren. At NR.

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

Are teachers’ strikes really about the students? Or more about protecting the teachers’ union itself? At TC.

Historian Beth Allison Barr on evangelical women.

Beth Moore said the problem isn’t with Hollis; the problem lies with how conservative Christianity has failed women.

Most Americans (90%) believe in some higher power, but only 56% think it is the God of the Bible, at PRC.

Evangelical colleges in the Civil Rights Era and the “colorblind campus,” at the OAH blog.north park college

God and Man still on the outs at Yale, says one conservative law student. At The Federalist.

Do you buy it? Conservative predicts Trump landslide, 2020, at TH.

Trump handwriting on the wall

A coming Trumpslide?

A Deal-Breaker for Biden?

I would not want to be Joe Biden right about now. In so many ways, he could be the 2020 front-runner for the Democratic Party if he decides to run. A recent expose in the Washington Post, however, might be enough to kibosh the whole thing.

biden 1975

Frosh Senator, 1972

First, some history for our younger readers: We all know SCOTUS’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision didn’t end racial segregation in schools. What some people might not know if they didn’t live through it was the bitter 1970s battle over busing that followed.

As Roy Formisano has described so brutally, cities such as Boston roiled over the topic. Anti-busing groups coopted 1960s-style protest tactics and language to oppose mandatory plans to shuttle children between schools. The goal was to achieve more racial equality; the effect was much different. The protests ripped the Democratic Party apart back then.

Could they do it again now?

Consider one episode that Joe Biden would like us all to forget: On September 9, 1974, a crowd of white working-class anti-bussers gathered to hear Senator Ted Kennedy speak in Boston. This demographic, usually a solid supporter of the Kennedys and the Democrats, showed their displeasure with Kennedy’s pro-busing stance by turning their backs on him as he spoke. Then, fired up, the crowd chased him from the podium, flinging eggs and expletives. The fury of the crowd was so intense they shattered the glass doors of the Federal building, chanting, “Pig, Pig Pig.”

ROAR button

Boston’s protesters also insisted they weren’t racist, but…

What does any of this have to do with Joe Biden and the 2020 elections? Everything.

The Washington Post uncovered a public statement Biden made against busing in 1975. Back then, the first-term senator from Delaware came out forcefully against busing, though he tried to maintain his support for equal racial rights. As Biden said back then,

I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race.’

How were such comments perceived at the time? Although Biden can point to his long record in favor of civil rights, he won’t be able to spin this as anything but political surrender to the overwhelming unpopularity of busing. At the time, the infamous segregationist Jesse Helms welcomed Biden “to the ranks of the enlightened.”

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

While some white Democrats were supporting busing and taking their lumps, Senator Biden was working the political middle, a middle that—at the time—lined up with Jesse Helms and Boston’s fervent racial protesters.

Morals aside, it might have been a savvy political calculation in 1975. However, will be be enough to undo Biden’s calculations for 2020?

What Joe Biden Didn’t Mean to Say

Unlike the GOP, the Democratic presidential hopefuls seem united about education policy, to the point of boringness.  In his promise not to join the race, however, VP Joe Biden made some odd historical claims about schooling.  Surely he didn’t mean to imply what my nerdy ears heard.

Say, it ain't so, Joe...

Say, it ain’t so, Joe…

The Democratic leaders seem to have rallied around the promise of free or reduced college tuition for all.  That was the point Vice President Biden made.  “We need to commit,” Biden intoned,

To 16 years of free public education for all our children.  We know that 12 years of public education is not enough.  As a nation, let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education 100 years ago.

With apologies to the SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let me clarify at the outset: I am no Biden-basher.  I will be voting Democrat in the upcoming presidential election.  Guaranteed.

But that doesn’t mean that Democrats get a free pass to Stupid.  Let’s politely ignore for the moment Biden’s implication that students in the USA now receive 12 years of public education.  For most kids, the real number is thirteen years, including kindergarten.  In many states, it is fourteen years or more, including pre-k and preschool.  But let’s not focus on such details.

The real stumper in VP Biden’s claim is that the United States committed to free high school for all in or around 1915.  That just doesn’t fit, for two reasons.  First, the history of high school attendance and tuition is much more depressing and complicated than Biden implies.  Second, there is a much more obvious parallel that he and other leading Democrats could draw.  Why don’t they?

To take them one at a time: Every nerd knows that a majority of 14-17-year-olds did not begin attending high school until the 1930s, not the 1910s.  Moreover, most so-called “public” high schools—the line between “public” and “private” schools as we know them was vague—stopped charging tuition by the 1870s, not the 1910s.  As historian extraordinaire William J. Reese has demonstrated in his book The Origins of the American High School, the high school has had a long and jagged path from elite finishing school to mass institution.  There was no obvious transformation 100 years ago.

Here’s the worst part for Biden: The reason more kids began attending high school in the 1930s was depressingly obvious.  The Great Depression crushed the economy and squeezed the most vulnerable workers out of scarce jobs.  For young people, there was often no viable option outside of school.  I know Biden didn’t mean it, but his promise to revisit America’s commitment to high-schooling for all implies a desire to return America’s economy to the dumpster.

Nerds have another question for Democrats: Why don’t they make the more obvious parallel?  This great nation has a long history of free college tuition.  Some of the best of our public institutions began with free (ish) tuition for locals.  If we want to go back that far, The University of Pennsylvania was opened as a radical new vision of higher education, one that would be attainable to all.  Cornell University, too, promised that students could work their way through without worrying about tuition costs.

In more recent and relevant history, the University of California system—still home to our country’s most prestigious public universities—long promised a tuition-free education for residents.  The City College of New York, too, was built on the idea of free elite college educations.

Of course, students still paid in one way or another.  School was not absolutely free but rather a mish-mash of fees and living costs.

When they talk about free college, why don’t Democratic leaders talk about this history?  Maybe they do and I just haven’t paid close enough attention.  But in recent debates and speeches, Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders, Governor O’Malley and now VP Biden all repeated this dream of free college as a new thing, an innovation, a shiny promise.

Why don’t they sell it instead for what it is: One of America’s most cherished traditions of higher education?

I have a hunch.  Democratic leaders don’t want to be seen as old-school leftists, rewarming the failed policies of the 1780s, 1860s, 1930s, or 1960s.  Instead, they want to appear to offer the public something new, something bold, something untried and remarkable.

I’m all for it.  My beloved university is not tuition-free for all, but it fulfills the promise of affordable public higher education for many of our students.  I believe in the American tradition of affordable and attainable higher education for those who want it.

But I also believe in learning from the past.