The Breakfast Table

Thernstrom and Thernstrom

Dear Steve:

I really do think an era is ending. I’ve just read a clipping from the Austin, Texas, American Statesman (12/7). The school board is about to decide whether to continue busing kids in order to get integrated classrooms. Whichever way the vote goes, you know it’s only a matter of time before black and Latino parents say, stop already. Forget it. We want neighborhood schools. It’s mostly our kids, not affluent Anglos, who sit on a bus for thirty minutes each way, and find it hard to stay for after school activities. And for what? Already in Austin, they’ve given up on busing elementary school students. Can you think of another public policy that has been such a clear and total failure?

Of course the NAACP hasn’t abandoned the idea, but it will. Whom does it speak for? I wonder what its local membership is. “Some parents recognize the issue has caused a rift between minority communities and some of the groups who usually represent them,” the article says. It’s interesting. This may be the issue that breaks the power of the old civil rights organizations. Surely, if the NAACP finds that it’s talking to itself when it comes to busing–and perhaps school choice–it could be the beginning of its end. Already the NAACP seems like a glorious period piece to me. Will its leaders end up like my stepmother and her aging band of Communists and assorted fellow travelers who huddled together in New York so bewildered that the scene had passed them by?

And yet–confession time–I am troubled by some of what troubles the Austin civil rights leadership. I mean, I don’t like racially isolated schools either–especially the racial isolation of low-income black kids. I just don’t what to do about it. Did you see theinterview with Judge Arthur W. Garrity in the Boston Globe this morning? Steve, twenty-four years later and he hasn’t a clue. “Damn,” he says, The busing “was working quite well, really.” Really? Funny man. That’s why an “integrated” school in Boston today is 92 percent minority, when the system used to be half-white, with lots of middle class kids. And that’s why the Boston scores on standardized tests are totally, heartbreakingly dismal. But, says Garrity, “this was…a race case,” although we did try to “make it an education case as well.” That was a point the parents and city never got; they kept thinking it was about education, he goes on.

So busing the kids all over town wasn’t actually about better schooling. Education was the afterthought.

And some people still wonder where Garrity and company went so wrong.