The 74 interview: Prof. Matt Delmont on how northern whites used busing to derail school integration
Matt Barnum | May 6, 2016
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Arizona State University history professor Matt Delmont’s recent book, “Why Busing Failed,” challenges the conventional narrative around why school integration fell so short — that segregated neighborhood schools were naturally occurring, that busing could never effectively change that — and examines the calculated backlash, including from a complicit media, that doomed desegregation before it began.
Delmont and I recently discussed the past, present and possible future of integration; whether he’s optimistic or pessimistic about the prospect of undoing decades of segregation; the problem with neighborhood schools; the role charter schools play in the whole debate; and what specific steps he would recommend to integrate America’s classrooms.
The interview is lightly edited for clarity and length. (Updated April 25)
Matt Barnum: Let me start by asking you to concisely explain the thesis of your book. Why did busing fail?
Matt Delmont: The thesis of the book is that busing failed because parents, politicians, judges, and the media privileged the perspective of white people over the constitutional rights of black students.
To expand on that, we have traditionally started the story by looking at Boston in the 1970s. That’s a problem for a couple reasons. The story really starts two decades earlier. It starts in New York. If we understand the kind of resistance to busing, before busing was even being discussed as a meaningful integration strategy, we can understand that the resistance preceded court-ordered busing by over a decade. That forces us to re-evaluate what we mean when we say that busing failed. In fact, busing really wasn’t tried as a major strategy, but it engendered a tremendous amount of resistance. That’s what I was trying to capture in the book — the fact that people in many cases made up their mind about busing before the data was in on how it actually worked as a policy.
You’re saying that busing failed as a political matter, but it didn’t fail as an educational matter?
Exactly. A lot of the scholarship that’s come out once they had a chance to study what was going on in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s — most of the case studies that came out of that showed busing and school integration actually had a positive impact on students of color and didn’t have a negative impact on the white students who were being integrated. But those studies received a fraction of the publicity that attacks on busing did. As an actual strategy it worked well in places that were willing to stick with it for a while or that were forced to stick with it for a while. But as a political matter, the issue lost the public relations campaign before it even got off the ground. Just a couple years after the Brown v. Board decision, white parents and politicians were already out in the streets lobbying against busing before there was even a pro-busing side of which to speak. As a political debate, it was almost doomed from the start, but as an educational matter the research that’s come out has shown that it actually succeeded in places that gave it a chance.
To my knowledge every empirical study has found that integration increases achievement among students of color. But you’re essentially saying that it was too late and the media didn’t care — they had moved on to something else to a large extent.
Exactly. I think it was very hard after Boston for the average American to look at busing with fresh eyes because they had already made up their mind about busing. By that point, there had already been almost two decades of protests that had received a lot of coverage in the media. Sometimes we like to think about these policy issues as being reasoned, rational debate. In this case, it just wasn’t the case. It was largely emotion-driven, it was largely driven by people who were against school desegregation, who had really powerful sound bytes, and really powerful ways of framing the debate. It’s that framing of the debate that ended up determining the issue more so than the empirical evidence.
You talk a little bit about busing being used as a code word or a euphemism. Can you explain that?
I think it’s partly how we talk about the history of race in the North and partly how people in the North resisted school desegregation. Whereas in the South the system of school segregation there was more explicit, in the North, it was always more subtle. They would talk about school zoning or they would talk about de facto segregation, that somehow was innocent, that just followed innocent housing policies or private choices. “Busing” flowed naturally out of that.
The first example I have in the book, of parents using that language of busing, is protests in 1957, where you have New York’s school board talking about sending a small number of black and Puerto Rican students from overcrowded schools in minority neighborhoods to predominantly white schools. It’s at that point that parents start marching with placards. I think one of them says, “Busing creates fussing.”
They start using that language of busing, but what they’re protesting is the idea of black and Puerto Rican students coming into formerly all-white schools. That’s what they’re upset about. They’re upset about students of color coming into their schools, but they don’t say that explicitly. They say ‘Busing is the problem’ even though, at that point, these are one- way busing programs. These white kids aren’t going to be bused anywhere.
It’s partly tactical on the part of the parents. They never would have said that they were racist, and they took to the language of busing as a way to make claims about what they did or did not want to happen in the same way that the language of ‘neighborhood schools’ comes out. It’s a way to talk about how you want schools to be structured without having to say we want those schools to be just for white kids and we don’t want to have black and Puerto Rican students in our schools.
I mean it’s obvious that busing is a euphemism because it couldn’t be that the means of transportation is the issue — lots of kids take buses to school every day and there aren’t protests about that!
Yeah, exactly. It’s also partly why I chose to use busing in quotes throughout the book. Busing created the modern American school system. It made it possible to consolidate high schools, it made it possible for kids to travel from small towns to bigger schools with more resources. And busing in the South was a privilege that was given to white families. You have these stories of white kids being bused past black kids who were walking to school. It only becomes an issue when it’s linked to school desegregation. Before that, busing is a benefit, it’s something that allows you to get to newer, better-resourced schools. But when it becomes linked to school desegregation, then it becomes this really powerful and hated word.
Do you think there are any analogous terms to busing in today’s education debate, where a code word is used to hide what people really mean?
I think the closest comparison is ‘neighborhood schools.’ That came out in the past and it’s still with us today. No one talked about neighborhood schools as being something to fight for until school desegregation. That language comes directly out of the school segregation debates. I think it’s still with us today because it’s powerful — it’s such a compelling statement and it fuels so many of the choices that people make with regards to where they choose to buy a home.
It continues to function as a code word because it obscures the fact that school zoning lines have always been political decisions. When we continue to talk about neighborhood schools as a primary thing that can’t be violated, it mistakes the fact that the school district lines were drawn to reflect the prerogatives of certain communities. Those choices can be made in different directions. If we prized school integration, we would draw the lines differently. When we retreat to the language of neighborhood schools, it’s about convenience and it’s about privilege for some set of parents and a lack of resources for another set of parents and students.
It seems like there’s this idea that the neighborhood lines were handed down from above or just came about through pure happenstance. Can you address that point and address what I think you are saying is a bogus distinction between de facto and de jure segregation?
Scholarship has shown in the last couple decades that the sense that residential segregation is innocent is a myth. We have data from across the 20th century talking about mortgage redlining, talking about discriminatory real estate policies. Both sets of governmental public action but also private market decisions created segregated neighborhoods and school districts that worsen that segregation by drawing zoning lines in ways that exacerbated the school segregation. In a number of these northern cases, when the schools were brought into court the judges found that they were guilty of intentional segregation — so it wasn’t that it was de facto. In Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, it was de jure.
The sense that white parents just happened to end up in white neighborhoods or that black parents just happened to end up in black neighborhoods or that Latino parents just happened to end up in Latino neighborhoods, it makes it easier to think that the kind of educational inequality that we have is OK. That it’s innocent or that nothing can be done about it, when, in fact, residential segregation is in many cases the root problem that structures school segregation. But then the schools in many cases made decisions that made that even worse. Our inability to reckon with that as a nation, and the legacies of that, makes it almost impossible to have a meaningful conversation about what other directions might be possible in terms of educational equality.
Some people talk about the problems with neighborhood schools and they’ll point to charter schools, and say charters tear down the barriers and get rid of the neighborhood lines and are therefore more amenable to integration. How do you think charter schools fit into the debate for good or for ill?
What my sense is from the scholarship I’m familiar with is that charter schools can be a cause for good or ill in this debate. They can be a cause for good if they make part of their mission to have integrated classrooms on the basis of race and socioeconomic status. They have the ability to restructure the traditional relationship between housing location and educational opportunity in a way that’s very different for traditional public schools to accomplish. It functions somewhat like magnet schools did when those first came about in the ’70s and ’80s. They can do good in that sense, but I think they have to make explicit the fact that they’re not just trying to move students away from a residential location but also trying to produce more beneficial student composition with regards to race and socioeconomic status. That has to be explicit as opposed to thinking it’s going to happen accidentally or without planning.
(Related The 74: Are charter schools a cause of — or a solution to — segregation?)
Is there any reason to think that integration is more politically palatable now than it was in the ’60s or ’70s?
Let me try to answer that in two ways. My pessimistic side would say no. We often see questions along the lines of ‘Why are schools still segregated this many decades after Brown v. Board?’ But I don’t think people have sat down to reckon with why that’s the case, that generations of parents, communities, and political officials have made choices to thwart school desegregation. To the extent that we haven’t reckoned with why school desegregation failed, I don’t think that there’s any more political will to have school integration now then there was in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, or in the 1950s. I don’t think people’s attitudes have changed that much.
The other way I’d answer it, the more optimistic way: I feel like people are talking about school integration a lot more in the last couple years. The public work that comes most to mind is Nikole Hannah-Jones’ piece in This American Life. I just feel like people are taking school integration seriously as a policy issue now in a way that they haven’t 10, 15 years ago. On my optimistic side, I like to think that if people recognized that the school zoning lines and school assignment decisions and school financing decisions were choices, and that if they want to have different outcomes, they can dedicate themselves to making different choices going forward.
I’m pessimistic in the sense that I don’t think the political will is any greater than it was in the past, but I’m optimistic in the sense that if people actually do recognize that the failure of school integration wasn’t inevitable, that they can do something different in the future.
I sometimes hear it said that schools are resegregating or resegregated. Were our schools ever really desegregated?
Usually when people are talking about that they’re pointing to schools, particularly in the South, that are resegregating. One of the tragic things is that there was some movement once the courts finally forced schools to integrate, particularly in the South, in the early ’70s and ’80s. The discussion of resegregation is often talking about how those southern schools have backtracked because the court is no longer supervising and they’re not required to do mandatory integration or that just because of demographic changes they’ve backtracked.
Do you think history textbooks have done a good job educating people about busing and school desegregation efforts?
Not really, and I take responsibility for that too as a historian.
One problem with how we teach it is that the term busing comes up in the context of Boston in the 1970s, and usually there it bookends, that it’s sort of the end of the civil rights era. Either you start with Brown v. Board or Little Rock and then Boston is the downfall of that effort. That’s a problem because that story, even just in Boston, starts at least two decades earlier. It leads us to focus on the idea of crisis in Boston or the idea that the plan was flawed from the start — as opposed to understanding that Boston had intentionally segregated its school system for decades, and that’s why the busing order was even put in place.
Everyone’s familiar with the resistance in South Boston and parents throwing rocks and bricks at the buses, but it shifts the conversation towards the anger within these white communities, as opposed to the rights of the black students. It’s almost as like Boston just becomes a story of white anger, as opposed to being about black students trying to get a better education and their parents fighting for them to get a better education.
It seems like the media at the time, and maybe even now, has also been complicit in the miseducation of people on this.
Absolutely. One of the threads that I try to run through the book, and what actually drew me to the book in the first place, was thinking about how the media covered these busing battles, both in Boston and earlier in other cities. What I was surprised to find was that if you look at the television footage or read the newspaper articles and editorials, the people who are against busing get much more favorable coverage than the civil rights activists do.
The traditional story we tell of television, news media, and civil rights is that the news media played a really proactive, progressive role in forcing the nation to confront Jim Crow segregation in the South. And that’s largely a true story. The news media did bring stories from Little Rock, Selma, and Montgomery to a national audience and really forced people to deal with those.
What most people don’t realize is that when they were trying to cover stories in New York or Chicago, these newspapers and television stations were much more timid with regard to how they presented civil rights movements within their own city. They were much more favorable in their coverage of white parents who were protesting against school desegregation.
Part of that, if I was going to understand why that’s the case, is because the language that the anti-busing activists used resonated really powerfully with the news media. The anti-busing activists were able to structure their protests in ways that looked a lot like civil rights protests from just a few years earlier: lots of women and children in the marches, lots of people turned out for daytime marches, clearly marked placards that made their case for what they were lobbying for. Essentially, the news media just broadcast those images in a very similar way as they broadcast the civil rights movement in the South a few years earlier.
The other thing is that for television particularly, it’s very complicated for them to try to make sense of these educational debates that were in some cases many decades in the making. They’d have reporters and camera crews fly in for a day at most, try to get up to speed on the issue, and then they were meant to put out a two- or three-minute news clip on it. What they ended up being drawn to were the protests. They weren’t on the ground long enough to understand the legal complexities or the zoning complexities — what they could understand was that there were some angry white parents who had signs that said they were against busing. That’s what ended up on the news. I think that’s why that side dominated so much of the media coverage of it — because it made for good television.
For a lot of the newspapers, there were amazing editorials in The New York Times and Chicago Tribune that are adamantly against school integration in their cities; there just wasn’t the same kind of sense of moral urgency with regards to educational inequality in the North as there was when these same newspaper reporters were traveling to the South and reporting on places like Little Rock.
Some argue, “What’s wrong with segregated schools as long as kids are learning?” I’m wondering what you make of that and whether you think integration is a means to an end or an end in and of itself or maybe both?
I’d say maybe both. The paramount issue has always been about resources. For the parents in the time period that I’m studying, they were never interested strictly in having black kids sit next to white kids in the classroom, but they were interested in making sure that their kids went to schools that had the same kind of resources that they saw in white schools. That continues to be a paramount issue.
The scholarship I’m familiar with on what it means to have students of different socioeconomic backgrounds in the same classrooms is that it’s beneficial to students from low-income backgrounds without being detrimental to students from middle-class or upper-class backgrounds. A lot of that tracks along the lines of race as well. Even if you had complete resource equality, it still has positive benefits to have racial and socioeconomic integration within the classroom. I also think it has civil benefits — there’s something about having a sense of people’s welfare, their educational lives and futures linked in a way that’s beneficial for us as a nation.
Should the focus be on racial or socioeconomic integration or both, as a policy matter?
I would advocate for both. I know that the Century Foundation has gotten some good publicity for its recent reports on socioeconomic integration and I’m not hostile to it being a lead issue, because I think it’s pragmatic given the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Parents Involved Supreme Court case. What struck me about that particular report was I think they found that about 90 or 100 school districts have tried different voluntary measures — out of something like 13,000 school districts in the country. I think they always have to be linked. If we understand the resistance these policies have faced in the past, I don’t think there’s anyway to do an end run around people’s resistance to sending their kids to school with either students of color or low-income students. To get past 100 school districts to 500 or 1,000 or 5,000 school districts requires you to confront the legacies of why these policies have been undermined in the past and try to make a more forceful case for why they still matter.
Do you have an opinion about what integration strategies should be used today? Do you think busing should make a comeback or does your research suggest that there needs to be a different approach to be successful politically?
In terms of pragmatic/realistic strategies, I think the sort of voluntary socioeconomic plans that the Century Foundation highlighted have merit. The upside of voluntary programs obviously is that there is much more community buy-in for making them work. The downside is that I don’t think there is a huge amount of political will across the country to adopt voluntary school integration plans. The less politically realistic options are similar today to what they were in the 1960-80s (redraw school zoning lines, merge school districts, increase funding for magnet schools, school pairing, etc.). I don’t know the contemporary ed policy/planning literature as well as the history, but I imagine there are a few dozen good strategies that could be used if communities have the will and are willing to commit to them long enough to see them work.
Overall, I hope the takeaway from my research is that people will reckon with the reasons why schools are still segregated this many decades after Brown. I hope that if people recognize that school segregation was not accidental they may make different choices today, which might include a return to busing.
Elsewhere in the news this month, segregation’s devastating effects and busing’s legacy: Two of the Pulitzer Prizes awarded last week dealt directly with issues Delmont raises in “Why Busing Failed.” Boston Globe columnist Farah Stockman won for a series of columns looking at the reverberations and effects on education of that city’s ugly busing battle. Tampa Bay Times reporters were recognized for their investigation into how resegregating five neighborhood elementary schools in a mostly black section of Pinellas County, Florida destroyed their academic quality and doomed their students to failure.
See previous 74 interviews: Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Newark superintendent Cami Anderson, former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson.
This story was published in partnership with The74Million.org