Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How Whites Pretended to be Opposed to Busing

One of the things I really appreciate about Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty is that he deftly shows how the civil rights movement was defeated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after most whites had already transitioned to public rhetoric and belief claims that espoused equality and opportunity. The great problem was that what white people said in newspaper columns and told pollsters was quite different from what they actually did. In practice, they remained opposed to anything beyond token integration.

Nowhere was this more clear than in the battles over school desegregation that became nationalized in the early 1970s. The attempt to bus students to achieve more diversity in schools met implacable white opposition across the country. The important thing to realize is that whites won. From the height of desegregation efforts in the early 1970s there has been a slow retreat as federal courts have become increasingly reluctant to mandate changes that would force school districts to align with the clear reasoning of Brown v Board: segregated education is inherently unequal education. As such, by most measures our schools are now more segregated than they were forty years ago.

It is important to understand that racial conflict has declined not because we have done away with segregated and unequal schooling, but because as a society we have agreed to accept it. In the early 1970s whites fought to maintain superior schooling for themselves at the expense of minorities. They won. If the federal government actually made a frontal assault on segregated education now, you would rather suddenly see how little progress we've made, because white people would be up in arms once again.

Further, it is not commonly understood that the opposition to busing on the part of whites was opportunistic rather than principled. Sugrue does a good job of bringing this out. Opposition to busing was expressed in colorblind language and appeals to neighborhood schools and the nostalgic image of children walking a couple blocks to their nearby school. But as Julian Bond succinctly summarized what whites really had a problem with, "It's not the bus, it's us." Sugrue points out that by 1970 half of American school children rode the bus to school, over 96% for reasons having nothing to do with integration.

Some of my thesis research so far bears this out as well. The image the anti-busing folks then and now present is of a child forced to take an absurdly long bus ride to a completely different neighborhood on the other side of the city. It might be uncomfortable, dangerous, and it's all to satisfy the social engineering demands of some bureaucrats in a far off place. But as the New York Times reported on May 24, 1970, busing for racial purposes was extremely widespread before integration efforts, and it provoked no response.
In the South, busing children away from the home neighborhood to maintain segregation was customary before integration orders began to follow in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling against school segregation in 1954...
Southern educators felt busing was so essential that numerous counties in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia transported almost all their pupils, white buses taking white children to white schools and Negro buses meeting them on the streets while taking black pupils to Negro schools.
About 90 percent of 300 desegregation plans approved by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for southern school districts last year decreased total busing [emphasis added].
In the North it was more complex because residential segregation was worse, but nonetheless these sorts of inconvenient facts expose the lies white people tell themselves. I'm quite sure that even in those districts where kids had shorter bus rides as a result of integration orders many white parents managed to tell themselves they were longer. It is human nature that people will tell themselves whatever they have to in order to preserve their privileges with as little cognitive dissonance as possible.

This is emblematic of the unequal political playing field efforts for equality continue to face. A government policy, if it supports the status quo of white privilege, is seen as just the natural way things are. It's not even viewed as a government policy. But as soon as that same policy is turned to try to advance equal opportunity instead of white supremacy, whites suddenly notice it and pretend that a heavy handed government is engaging in social engineering.

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