The Breakfast Table

The Mystery of Rosa Parks

Dear Steve:

I love getting mail from you. No one outside this household will believe that, yes, even over the breakfast table, you come up with numbers. You sometimes mumble in your sleep; I can’t make out what you are saying, but I am sure you’re mentally staring at a statistical table and thinking, hah, look at what those two numbers tell us that no one else has noticed!

I like your public opinion data–even though it doesn’t square with the purely anecdotal newspaper stories that suggest rising black discontent with busing. But of course busing could be like bilingual education and racial preferences. The voices of opposition are finally heard only when it seems safe to speak out. And why does it now seem safe? The mysteries of subtle shifts in the political climate.

It’s an aside, but such subtle shifts have always fascinated me. It’s the Rosa Parks phenomenon. December 1st, 1955, wasn’t the first time she refused to give up her seat on that bus, and others in Montgomery had tried to defy Jim Crow rules, as you know. But suddenly the system of social control that had hummed along so nicely collapsed. And on the issue of busing, the system of political control (with the NAACP in charge) may be crumbling. For all sorts of reasons. The result: the silent minority–no larger than it ever was–is speaking up. No?

And as for white opinion, yes, lots of Boston’s whites have left for the suburbs. But those who remain may also be shrugging their shoulders. Busing has become part of the lousy educational package that they’re handed. Their expectations are rock bottom and their sense of helplessness sky high. And that’s true for black parents as well as white. Only many of those who are black get very scared at the prospect of no more court-ordered protection. Busing feels like someone cares.

Makes life on the state Board of Ed, when we’re trying to introduce radical change, real interesting.