A contentious conversation over busing as a tool to desegregate schools began last week during the first debates of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary season and has continued onto the campaign trail this week. That debate has also reignited the most resilient and pernicious myths about busing and school desegregation, myths that continue to thwart this country’s efforts to fully achieve the goal of school desegregation. That busing has long been presented as an independent evil worthy of bipartisan resistance in both white and black communities represents the triumph of a false narrative packaged to excuse one of the ugliest and most destabilizing realities of American society: the extent to which raw racial prejudice and the protection of white supremacy have divided the nation since its founding through today.
It is critical that this renewed contemporary debate deal forthrightly with the hard truths about segregated schools in America. That means confronting the ubiquitous, government-driven residential segregation that forcibly divided communities on the basis of race in virtually every U.S. city and town through much of the 20th century, and which remains a defining characteristic of our nation today. The history of how we became a nation separated geographically by race has been conveniently forgotten. It is this history that made busing essential to the desegregation of our schools.
In the 1970s, when then-Sen. Joe Biden was working with segregationists to defeat busing measures, “forced busing” became a convenient narrative of government overreach. It was particularly exploited by Richard Nixon during the 1972 presidential campaign, gaining wide traction among white moderates and liberals. It allowed whites to excuse themselves and their neighbors for violent opposition to integration that, when caught on camera in cities like Boston, often appeared no different from the widely condemned actions of white parents and students attempting to block the entrance of black students to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.
Likewise, the contention that white parents resisted busing because they wanted their children to attend neighborhood schools close to home masked the unpleasant truth. In 1972, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has litigated hundreds of desegregation cases, published a groundbreaking report provocatively titled “It’s Not the Distance, ‘It’s the Niggers.’ ” The title quoted a white Richmond, Virginia, parent who, ironically, had been bused to school as a child herself, but opposed busing aimed to desegregate schools simply because of race.
The report provided a careful and painstaking study and refutation of many of the myths surrounding busing. The titular quote ultimately helped demonstrate a damning conclusion: Most white parents resisted busing because they did not want their children to go to school with black children.
The truth is that racial integration of our public schools failed because far too many white communities, in addition to every branch of government, resisted at every turn the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1956, more than 100 members of Congress signed the Southern Manifesto declaring their commitment to resist the court’s mandate by all legal means. “Massive resistance” became a rallying cry in communities throughout the South. White Southerners pulled their children from public schools and formed private white academies, funded with public dollars, until LDF successfully sued them, although many of these academies remain today. Indeed, Virginia’s Prince Edward County school district closed its schools for five years rather than integrate. By the time Biden entered the Senate, congressional resistance had shifted to combating the busing programs that were the principal means of attempting to desegregate the highly de facto segregated Northern schools.
The judiciary was also complicit. In the 1974 case of Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court signaled a strong retreat from Brown. Ignoring the record of governmentally driven residential segregation in Detroit, the Supreme Court decided that a court-ordered integration plan could not compel a metropolitan area–wide remedy that would include suburban schools. This ensured that white flight could effectively insulate white families who moved out of the cities to avoid the reach of integration. More recently, in its 2006 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle, the court struck down even voluntary efforts by school officials to promote integration in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky, public schools.
By the 1980s, meanwhile, the Department of Justice under the Reagan and Bush administrations aggressively litigated to end school desegregation orders. This furthered the retreat from the promise of Brown, with many school districts dismantling desegregation plans that often had been in effect for little more than a decade.
The success of white and governmental opponents to desegregation means that, today, schools are more racially segregated than in 1972 when LDF issued its report. The racial achievement gap also widened after the abandonment of desegregation and reductions in school funding beginning in the 1980s. We do not have to continue to live with the consequences of past opposition to desegregation; school districts and government policy both have a role to play. The trend line of increased school segregation can be reversed by school districts using all available means to combat segregation. This includes, but is not limited to, the use of magnet schools, busing, voluntary student transfers, and zoning. The nation must address the extensive residential segregation, created in large measure by governmental policies and practices, through aggressively enforcing fair housing laws, reducing exclusionary zoning, increasing inclusionary zoning, increasing subsidies for affordable housing in high opportunity areas, and providing financial support for efforts to improve the mix of persons by race and economics in communities that are currently segregated on the basis of race and income.
Ultimately, we must recognize that white resistance to school integration then and now is intertwined with the misbegotten belief of white parents that an integrated education provides no benefit for white children. This belief lies at the heart of resistance to affirmative action and other measures of education equity as well. According to this view, integration is a project to aid black and Hispanic children, with no real benefit for whites.
But the record in Brown belied this widely held belief. For example, more than 30 social scientists submitted an appendix to the briefs in Brown concluding that segregation produces a “distorted sense of social reality” in white children. Judge Julius Waties Waring, who dissented from the three-judge trial court ruling upholding segregation in the South Carolina Brown case, was convinced by the evidence that the harms inflicted by segregated education “applies to white as well as Negro children.”
If anything is evident since the 2016 presidential election and ensuing events, it is that racial division weakens our nation. As our country fractures before our eyes, it is past time that Americans stop embracing faux justifications for racial segregation and recognize that it has devastating consequences for our national security and cohesion—and our integrity as a democracy.