Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

School busing a flawed solution to an enduring problem

January 12, 1992 


Newhouse News Service 

LITTLE ROCK, ARK. – Central High School is right out of central casting, the movie version of some grand and noble citadel of learning. On a bright and balmy afternoon, the grounds are a picnic area for students enjoying lunch and conversation.

But there is something wrong with the picture. All the students are white.

In the mind’s eye of history, there are some indelible images of Central High: Gov. Orval Faubus dispatching National Guardsmen in 1957 to keep nine black students from desegregating the all-white school. President Eisenhower dispatching federal troops to ensure those students safe entry.

Today, 60 percent of Central’s students are black. So where are they?

Inside, downstairs, in the cafeteria. That’s where the black students eat lunch.

“Everybody seems to get along fine, but all the black people eat together and all the white people eat together,” said Brooke Fitton, a white junior.

“It’s sort of a self-segregated thing,” said Wendy Walter, a black senior. “It’s not like the black kids don’t like the white kids. It’s just majorly who you hang around with every day.”

The fact is, at Central and most other U.S. schools, true integration remains elusive.

Black students and white students can go to school together without becoming close with one another. And while the gap between white and black achievement has narrowed, it has not closed.

The number of black students going on to college has dropped steadily during the past 15 years, blamed in part on declining financial aid.

According to Harvard University political scientist Gary Orfield, the average black family still has only one-11th the wealth of the average white family.

“Society in general expected school desegregation to solve too many things,” said Ernest Green, the first black graduate of Central High.

“You can’t look at desegregation without looking at the problems of housing patterns and employment discrimination,” said Green, a former undersecretary of labor in the Carter administration and now an investment banker in Washington. “Those issues are much harder to resolve.”

Former Gov. Faubus, now retired and living outside Little Rock, agrees that desegregation placed the burden of social change too heavily on the schools.

While he acknowledges the moral legitimacy of desegregation, he believes forced busing is akin to the Roman general who marched his prisoners into the water so they might be baptized. “I don’t think he made too many Christians.”

“I always said that association by compulsion will not achieve what they would like,” Faubus said.

*** Measures of success ***

Research in school districts nationwide indicates that integration contributed to black academic achievement, without compromising white success.

In 1950, less than 14 percent of black Americans had a high school education. Today, 66 percent have met that goal.

The gap between white and black schooling has shrunk from nearly three years to less than three months.

In the past 15 years, average combined SAT scores for black students have climbed 50 points to 736, but lag far behind the white average of 930.

Desegregation was especially beneficial to middle-class black students, who would have done well in all-black schools but were now in settings that raised their sights higher.

Yet the common wisdom in many cities that underwent desegregation is that schools are poor and busing is to blame for driving out the white middle class.

Busing’s friends and enemies alike say it was foolish to expect the integration of poor black students with poor white students in poorly financed schools to improve anyone’s education.

“You’re putting the poor and the minorities together and saying, ‘Let’s have a good school system, let’s be on a par with those affluent communities that do all they can to keep the minorities and poor out,’ ” said John Kerrigan, an anti-busing leader on Boston’s School Board in the late ’60s and ’70s.

“I never thought that desegregating by itself was going to make everybody read better or close the achievement gap,” said Thomas Atkins, former president of the NAACP in Boston. “Families that don’t have jobs, mothers that don’t have spouses, kids that don’t have other positive things in their lives – it’s not going to overcome all of that.”

But desegregation did discourage the common practice of giving less money and resources to schools where black students were concentrated.

Elizabeth Coles, a parent activist in Cleveland, recalls going to meetings at white schools on the West Side before desegregation. “We would visit these schools like they were a foreign land. We would go in the doorway and go ‘Ahh,’ because the walls were painted, the lockers were neat, there was carpeting on the floor and we’d say ‘Wow,’ because where we just came from on the other side of town there was chipped paint coming off the walls, old desks that still had the inkwells plugged up, and we’d say, ‘How come?’ “

Desegregation hasn’t spared Cleveland schools from the city’s hard times, Coles said, but it has been a powerful force for fairness.

“Now you may go east and west and find nobody with a book, but they are equally without a book,” she said.

*** The black child’s burden ***

But that greater equality has come at a cost.

In Las Vegas, Nev., black children are bused 11 of their school years and white children one. The imbalance is not that stark everywhere, but black students almost always bear the burden of busing.

While their separate schools may not have been equal, black students still gave up a lot in desegregation.

All-black schools – once rallying points for their communities – were the ones most often closed, their principals and coaches made underlings at integrated schools.

“We submerged a culture, a people and a tradition,” said Hazel Fournier, a black member of the School Board and former assistant superintendent in Mobile, Ala.

It has been estimated that by 1970 as many as 6,000 black teachers had lost their jobs and more than 1,000 black principals had been fired or demoted.

With desegregation, black children who had been taught by black teachers often entered the classrooms of white teachers who sometimes expected or demanded little of them.

Milton Ford, who grew up outside Little Rock, went to segregated black schools until his last two years of high school, when desegregation placed him in a school that was 90 percent white.

“We lost some and we gained some,” said Ford. The facilities were better at the integrated school, but at the black school all his teachers “were very firm and saw to it you were walking in a straight line.” At the integrated school, he said, such concern was rare.

Arthur Fletcher, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, recalls being hugged by his teacher his first day in a black school in Oklahoma City. But going to an integrated school in California, “I don’t recall a white teacher every hugging me or hugging a black child.” These days, Fletcher said, a well-meaning white teacher may shrink from disciplining a black student for fear of being called racist.

In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that segregating black children into separate schools “generates a feeling of inferiority . . . that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

One of the sad ironies of desegregation is how often it only serves to confirm those feelings.

In schools all across the country, special education classes are mostly black and advanced courses are overwhelmingly white.

Likewise, black students are more commonly subject to disciplinary action, suspended and expelled.

Even the pecking order of schools in most desegregated districts delivers clear images of white superiority. Districts pump money into magnet schools to lure white students into inner-city neighborhoods. As the schools improve they become whiter, and black students who attended before the schools got “good” are squeezed out.

In St. Louis, half the seats in magnet schools are reserved for white students even though they make up only one-quarter of the district’s enrollment.

*** Desegregation’s child ***

Kenneth Smith embodies and appreciates this mixed legacy of desegregation. Smith grew up in a black neighborhood in West Charlotte, N.C. He started school in 1971, the year the Supreme Court approved busing as a way of integrating the Charlotte school system.

“It was the first contact I had with whites,” said Smith, and he is glad for it. He said he is more comfortable, less deferential and more competitive with white people than his parents’ generation. He made and kept white friends.

Yet he deeply resents the desegregation mentality of many white people. “I don’t think being next to whites is going to improve my lot one bit.”

That said, Smith acknowledges the advantages of being bused to South Mecklenburg High School, a historically white school out in the county. The school had a stellar academic reputation, as well as a generous parents’ booster club.

But, he said, other black students didn’t fare as well. Some “didn’t know they were poor, didn’t feel inferior until they were integrated.”


Written by jonathantilove

July 27, 2022 at 9:03 pm

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