Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

As busing fades into history, largely unchampioned and unmourned, it has never been more accepted.

January 26, 1992 

By Jonathan Tilove

Newhouse News Service 

BOSTON — In 1974, school busing transformed Hyde Park High School into a racially balanced battlefield.

For years, a student body half-black and half-white waged war on one another, a bitter microcosm of a nation’s noblest ambitions run amok.

At times, 50 or more officers patrolled the halls. Mounted police stood guard outside. A good day was one that lasted until the final bell.

Today, Hyde Park High is quiet. Too quiet. It has a deserted, depleted air. Kids wear their coats in class, as if they’re not staying long. Their test scores are dwarfed by the national average.

The Hyde Park neighborhood remains mostly white, but Hyde Park High is 86 percent minority. Most whites and high-achieving blacks have fled to more selective public and private schools.

In the 18 years since busing began in a hail of rocks and bottles, Curtis D. Wells, a black man who is now Hyde Park’s headmaster, has reached his verdict.

“To go through such a traumatic process, to lose 40,000 students in the school system, to lose teaching staff, to lose the reputation of an education system that Boston has never regained, was it worth it?’ asks Mr. Wells, a lifelong veteran of the city’s public schools. “My judgment is no.’

Throughout much of urban America, white flight and growing minority populations have made a mockery of integration.

Over the past 25 years, many big-city public schools have lost most of their white students. In Atlanta, white enrollment fell from 41 percent to 7. In Detroit, it fell from 41 percent to 9. In New Orleans, 34 percent to 8. In Los Angeles, 55 percent to 16.

In the Dallas Independent School District, blacks make up about 46 percent of the student population. Hispanics make up 35 percent and whites about 17 percent.

Nationally, nearly two-thirds of black children still go to predominantly minority schools, according to data from the National School Boards Association.

That’s an improvement of only 13 percent since 1968. Almost all of that improvement came by 1972. Since then, the number of blacks attending predominantly minority schools has decreased only 0.4 percent.

As more and more courts free schools from desegregation orders, experts predict that the future will bring increasing segregation of the nation’s growing minority population.

Almost four decades since the Supreme Court declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,’ America’s enthusiasm for school desegregation is spent.

“As a movement, it’s over,’ says Gordon Foster, who was an expert witness for the NAACP and the Justice Department in many desegregation cases.

On the day Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954, Thurgood Marshall, who had argued the case for the NAACP, predicted that within five years the nation’s schools — and in nine years American society generally — would be integrated. This fall, Mr. Marshall retired after a quarter-century on the Supreme Court, having witnessed nothing of the sort.

Long gone are the days when Linda Brown, the Kansas schoolgirl who gave her name to history, had to walk across a railroad yard to catch a bus because the nearest school wasn’t open to blacks. But today Ms. Brown, a Head Start teacher in Topeka, laments that the schools in her hometown still too accurately mirror its segregated neighborhoods.

“There is a lot that remains to be done as far as desegregation is concerned, and it has been put on the back burner,’ she says. “I am afraid as a nation we are turning backward.’

In fact, the whole history of school desegregation in America has been one of two steps forward and one step back, of one step forward and two steps back, leaving a legacy that is anything but black and white.

Brown vs. Board of Education broke the back of American apartheid. With the advent of massive busing, there was significant desegregation in short order. Especially in the South, which went from being entirely segregated to the most integrated region of the country.

The Northeast has become the most segregated region, with nearly half of all blacks in “intensely segregated’ schools, those with at least 90 percent minority enrollment. The South, by contrast, has less than a fourth of blacks in such schools.

Increasingly, school systems are replacing mandatory busing with voluntary plans that combine neighborhood and magnet schools, or leave some schools mostly minority in exchange for providing those schools with extra resources.

Indeed, all signs point toward growing resegregation in the years to come.

“We’ll see the period from the early ’70s to the mid-’80s as the peak of integration in our lives,’ predicts Harvard University political scientist Gary Orfield, one of the nation’s leading desegregation experts.

The most notable failures were the many big cities that never had to attempt meaningful desegregation.

New York City, which has the largest school system of all, escaped any desegregation plan. No civil rights group had the resources to mount a challenge against a school district so huge.

In 1974, the Supreme Court scuttled the prospects for meaningful desegregation in most of the North’s big cities by rejecting a lower court’s plan for busing between the mostly black schools of Detroit and the mostly white schools of its suburbs.

In many of the nation’s largest school systems, black schoolchildren are exposed to fewer whites than they were 20 years ago.

That’s the case in Atlanta; Detroit; El Paso; Flint, Mich.; Gary, Ind.; Jersey City, N.J.; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; New Orleans; New York City; Newark, N.J.; Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; Rochester, N.Y.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Antonio; San Francisco; Seattle and Washington, D.C.

And of course Boston.

Boston was school desegregation’s worst-case scenario. The Athens of America unmasked as some bloody Selma of the North was busing’s most searing and damaging defeat.

Today, its public school enrollment is only 22 percent white even though the city is 62 percent white.

Most whites who can afford it move to the suburbs when their children come of school age or put them in private school. The public schools are now primarily places for the poor. Eighty percent of Boston’s grade-school students get a free or reduced-price lunch, a rough measure of poverty.

It’s a downward spiral, says Michael Fung, Boston’s high school superintendent. More children in parochial school. Less support for public education. Fewer dollars to improve failing schools. Massive budget cuts and teacher layoffs.

“What good is it to have desegregated schools if all the schools are bad?’ asks Mr. Fung.

School systems that are countywide, like many in the South, suffered less white flight. But that is no guarantee of thorough integration.

Despite an outcropping of white academies in the 1970s, Mobile, Ala., has maintained almost the same white enrollment as it had in the late 1960s. However, there remains considerable segregation within the district, with blacks concentrated in the inner city.

“People are going to associate with those they want to associate with,’ says U.S. Judge W. Brevard Hand. He presides over Mobile’s desegregation from an office decorated with pictures of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, one of his wife’s forebears. “They are going to move to where they want to live, unless you want to place them under a compulsory order until the millennium.’

School desegregation fared much better in communities that, despite misgivings, really tried to make it work.

In Springfield, Mass., the plaintiffs who pressed for desegregation included Barbara Resnick, a white woman and the president of the League of Women Voters, who wanted an integrated education for her children.

Mayor William Sullivan, who had opposed busing, appealed for calm and obedience to the law when the city began busing in 1974. He rode some buses the first day.

Clergy turned out to encourage students on their way to school. Parents at many of the schools had coffee and doughnuts waiting for wary mothers or fathers who rode the buses with their children that first morning. The day went off without incident. News crews from Boston went home without the story they came for.

In Minneapolis, former Superintendent John B. Davis Jr. says that instead of trying to avoid desegregation, the school system developed a plan that the court accepted with only slight modifications.

“I think we did a reasonably good job, possibly because the minority proportion was a little bit less,’ says Earl Larson, the federal judge in the Minneapolis case. “It was not tough like Boston, Kansas City or St. Louis. It worked out pretty darn well.’

The school system is now about half minority, but public support has remained strong. Most whites in national polls oppose busing, but in Minneapolis a narrow majority of whites support it. There is also evidence there that minority students are gaining on whites academically.

In the South, North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg County school district has long been considered the model of successful integration. After a shaky start, white business and civic leaders rallied behind the public schools at a crucial juncture.

Because it’s a countywide district, white flight was minimized. The school system remains majority white, and only 3 percent of blacks are in intensely segregated schools.

But Charlotte’s experience has a significance beyond its borders.

Charlotte began busing in 1970, not by choice but under order of the district court. A year later, the Supreme Court rejected Charlotte’s claim that the order went too far. Busing, the court said for the first time, was an appropriate remedy for segregation.

With that decision, the moral purity of desegregation was dragged into the political morass of busing.

It was the bitter backlash against busing that powered the presidential campaigns of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who had made his name trying to block the integration of the University of Alabama by standing in the schoolhouse door.

The ultimate beneficiaries of the enormous reaction to busing, though, were Republicans. From President Richard Nixon to President Bush, Republican candidates have opposed forced busing and most Democrats were left to dutifully defend it as unfortunate but necessary.

Thomas Edsall, the author of Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics, says it marked the Democrats indelibly as liberal elitists, only too happy to impose busing on working-class whites from the safe distance of their protected upper-middle-class enclaves.

Passions have cooled considerably since then. Busing has not been an important national issue for years. Most Americans still oppose busing, but not as overwhelmingly as before. In the 1970s and early ’80s, three-quarters of those polled opposed busing. A 1989 Harris survey put the opposition at 54 percent — 57 percent of whites and 28 percent of blacks.

The Harris poll also found that familiarity with busing breeds contentment. More than 90 percent of black and white parents whose children had been bused were satisfied with the experience. And the percentage of college freshmen who agree that “busing is OK if it helps to achieve racial balance in the schools’ has risen steadily from 37 percent in 1976 to 57 percent in 1990.

It is busing’s final irony that even as it quietly fades into history, largely unchampioned and unmourned, it has never been more accepted.

Joe Parsons spends an hour each way on the bus traveling from his home on Cleveland’s white west side to John Adams High School, which is nearly two-thirds black, on the east side.

“My parents hate it,’ says Joe, a senior. “My stepfather, he’s totally prejudiced and he’s trying to bring me up prejudiced. But I refuse to be that way. I have a lot of black friends. Some of them I like a lot better than a lot of my white friends. I’d say, keep the busing.’

A circle of friends, white and black, crowd around Joe in the high school’s auditorium. They agree. One after another they cast their votes: “Keep the busing.’ “Keep it.’ “Keep the busing.’

“Normally you wouldn’t know these people,’ says Jason Coles, a black senior. “I think the generation coming up is less prejudiced. Regardless of what Joe’s stepfather says, he’s not going to be prejudiced. I think you’re going to see more of that.’

Even amid the dispiritment at Hyde Park High in Boston, school integration still has its believers.

“I think it’s better to be integrated,” says Ronel Justinvil, a black senior. “You learn from each other.”

Written by jonathantilove

July 27, 2022 at 8:40 pm

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