I’ll be talking about delicate issues in these posts, so let me be clear about what I’m saying – and what I’m not. Hundreds of years from now, when historians look back on our era – say, the period beginning just after World War II – the glory of our time won’t have anything to do with technology or arts or literature or politics. No, the great distinction of our century will be the remarkable efforts we’ve made to move virtually everyone into the cultural and economic mainstream of society: African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women, the LGBT community and so on. This is the first time in human history that such an effort has been made, and the democratic west is pretty much the only place in human history that it has happened. The effort is hardly complete, of course, but having made the effort at all will redound to the lasting acclaim of our time.
I support that effort wholeheartedly, as do most sensible people. We might differ on ways and means, but the end goal of inclusiveness is an urgent and important one. Here, though, is where I differ from the elite mainstream. Although the benefits of inclusiveness far outweigh the costs, there are, inevitably, costs. My contention is that those costs should have been, and should continue to be, borne by the society as a whole. In fact, as noted, those costs have been overwhelmingly borne by working families, and those costs have been entirely avoided by the elites who advocated the policies to which the costs were attached.
Let’s start by taking a quick look at how we tried to desegregate America’s schools.
In the fall of 1953, having just spent three years in kindergarten (okay, okay, I was a slow starter!), I finally trundled off to first grade in a tiny working class town in Ohio. While I was still trying to find the boys’ bathroom the United States Supreme Court was hearing (technically, rehearing) arguments in Brown v. Board of Education. The following May the Court would hand down its historic decision, overruling Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and deciding that operating “separate but equal” schools for black kids and white kids violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Brown expressly applied only to so-called de jure segregation, that is, laws in the former Confederate states (and some border states) that required or permitted “separate but equal” schools for black and white students. But the fact was that schools in the north were nearly as segregated as schools in the south. Segregation in the northern states resulted not from law but from housing patterns – so-called “de facto” segregation. In particular, mass migration and immigration had established a common pattern in which races and ethnic groups clustered together in neighborhoods, and this clustering was later made much worse by disreputable practices like “redlining” and “blockbusting.”
Indeed, by the mid-1970s, almost half of southern US schools were “integrated” (i.e., African-American students attended school with at least some white students) while well under one-third of northern schools were integrated. Pressure grew for the desegregation of northern schools, whether or not it had resulted from de jure or de facto conditions, and the weapon of choice adopted by elite opinion was busing.
Busing was adopted as a solution to segregation in part because many students were already being bused to school, especially in rural areas and in the south, where school districts were often countywide. But this was not the case in northern cities, where students had for generations attended local, neighborhood schools. As a result, opposition to busing was bitter and sometimes extremely disruptive.
One of the most famous – or infamous – examples was the Louise Day Hicks era in Boston. Hicks acrimoniously opposed court-ordered busing in Boston. She pointed out that while it was true that 13 Boston schools were 90% black, there were many schools that were 100% Chinese, 100% Italian (in the North End) and nearly 100% Irish (in Southie). White working class children, Hicks complained, were simply “pawns” of racial politics. She very nearly became mayor of Boston and was the second Massachusetts woman ever elected to the House of Representatives.
However, a vastly more common response to urban busing was the phenomenon of “white flight.” Americans were used to elites using Other People’s Money to implement their – usually laudable – goals, but the use of Other People’s Children proved to be a bridge too far. White parents fled the center cities in droves, eviscerating not just the school desegregation movement but the cities themselves. With these families went the urban tax base and the constituency that might have advocated for better schools.
Elite opinion was furious about white flight and the matter came to a head in 1974 in the US Supreme Court in the case of Milliken v. Bradley. Detroit had one of America’s most segregated school systems, going back to the mass black migration from the south and reinforced by racist practices of the Detroit school board. But so many white parents had fled the city that by the 1970s two thirds of the district’s students were black.
Detroit therefore attempted to desegregate its schools by obtaining a Federal court order requiring busing from nearby suburbs into the core city. This order was upheld by the Sixth Circuit but was overruled by the Supreme Court, which held that forced desegregation could only be mandated within school districts. But it was too late to save the Detroit schools, as even more white families had, in the meantime, fled to the suburbs. By 1987 Detroit’s schools were 97% black.
The failure of school busing meant the failure of school desegregation in its entirety, and it had its worst effect, naturally enough, on the kids it was supposed to help: since busing began, inner city schools in America have become ever more segregated and ever worse academically.
For example, a recent survey conducted by the US Government Accountability Office showed that the number of segregated schools has doubled just in the last 15 years. And academic parity has also been largely a non-starter. The first Coleman Report, mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, found that 87 percent of white students in grade 12 scored ahead of the average black 12th grader. The most recent Coleman Report, published fifty years after the first report, shows that 81% of white students score ahead of their median black counterparts. This is beyond appalling.
Everyone is horrified by statistics like this and billions of dollars and massive ingenuity have been expended on trying to close the education gap, but with the dismal results just cited. Meanwhile, no one cares about the white families whose lives were uprooted by forced busing. If elites think about those families at all, they dismiss them as racists. But were they? Overwhelmingly, America’s elites lived in lily-white suburbs, far beyond the reach of busing orders. And the few who lived in the cities could afford to send their kids to private and parochial schools, which they promptly did (including me).
Or consider that, while it’s been long forgotten, the name plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education – an African-American father named Oliver Brown – wasn’t complaining that his daughter was being forced to attend an inferior black school. The lower court in Brown had found, and Mr. Brown agreed, that the black school his daughter attended was as good as (or, maybe, as bad as) the white schools in Topeka. What Mr. Brown was complaining about was that his daughter was being bused way across town for racial reasons when there was a (white) school right there in his neighborhood. You don’t have to be a white racist to be outraged by forced busing for racial reasons.
But while the elites who forced busing on America’s towns and cities don’t spend any time thinking about the white families who moved away, those families have never forgotten. Many had lived in their urban neighborhoods for generations. Their parents and grandparents and cousins and friends all lived there. And they didn’t flee to the leafy, affluent, lily-white suburbs where the elites lived. They fled to faceless, characterless, close-in suburbs that had nothing to recommend them except that they lay outside the court-mandated busing rules.
Forced busing was, at least in my lifetime, the first time America’s elites decided that a laudable goal – school desegregation – would be built on the backs of working families. It would hardly be the last time, as we’ll see in my next few posts.
Next up: The (Inevitable) Donald, Part 4
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