What’s the Deal with Busing?
As it turns out, there are a lot of Americans that have no idea what that was and why it was so explosive in last night’s debate. Here’s a short recap:
In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education and ordered that public schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” But it was more than just schools; what the Court said was “separate but equal is not equal,” the adverse being based on a majority decision that had been the law since the 1896 Plessy v Fergusen case. Denying open and equal access to all public spaces deprived blacks of equal protection under the law.
Equal protection, due process, and citizenship were all part of the 14th Amendment, ratified after the Civil War, and purposed to protect free blacks from their former masters. In short: the 14th Amendment said “Hey – you know all those rights that James Madison wrote in the late 18th century? Well – now they apply to the states.” You can imagine how well that went over in the occupied South.
Brown was more complex than our textbooks imply – most Supreme Court cases typically are nuanced and opaque. The law on ‘separate but equal’ had been litigated before, but the courts (until Brown) had always found something in the case that left American apartheid legal. Brown was unique in that the Topeka school was equal in every other tangible way. Buildings, teachers, curriculum were the same between black and white schools. The plaintiff in the Brown litigation argued that despite tangible equality, segregated classrooms resulted in unequal educational opportunities. Specifically, blacks in black-only classrooms felt inferior to other children their age and that esteem issues could have a profound effect on them into adulthood.
That was 1954. You might remember something about “Little Rock” and George Wallace’s very public refusal to allow a black student (James Meridith) to enroll at the University of Mississippi (yep – Ole Miss). Those are but two examples of southern animus toward the SCOTUS decision. They just refused to do it. All over the south. And in the north, some segregation was left up to the states and municipalities. That Topeka school was not required to be segregated; but it could be. States’ rights and all.
And so, decades after Brown, schools all over this country were still segregated as school boards throughout the country, especially in the south, had taken “with all deliberate speed” to mean, “sloth-like.”
It’s important to remember that integration of public schools was just one aspect of one of the more volatile and eruptive periods in our history. Martin Luther King Jr fought for voting rights (and getting arrested and beaten for his trouble), and equal access. There was no such thing as affirmative action back then. Minorities fought for every right due them; rights that cost hundreds their lives. Lynchings were common. Homes were set afire, and blacks woke up to burning crosses in their front yard.
Busing was a method used to integrate schools. Kids all over the country would bussed to schools, not around the corner – but across the city. For many kids, that meant hours of ride time. Parents were outraged. With good reason.
I’m not schooled in the details of all the busing proposals, but I do know that Nixon won the presidency, partly on the pledge to end the practice. Well, that, and his secret plan to get out of Vietnam. Joe Biden enters the picture in that he opposed forced busing – busing ordered by the Department of Education.
Kamala Harris’s soliloquy in last night’s debate was all about Biden’s opposition to that policy. And I think that we should all try to understand why she, and likely a lot of blacks, are so passionate about the issue. It’s personal to them. A lot of black kids – now Kamala Harris’s age – know that they would not have had the education, and thus – the opportunity – had they not be bused to white schools.
White Americans can by understanding and sympathetic, but we will never understand what impact racial disparity and discrimination has on black lives. We just can’t. We do not know what it is like to have to teach our sons how to respond when a white police officer pulls them over for driving while black (black kid in an upper middle class neighborhood). We do not know what it’s like (nor the impact that it might have) to feel inferior to the little white girl she met at the market. And finally, we do not know what it’s like to realize that we are, 154 years after Lee surrendered to Grant, still polarized on the subject of race.
I’m currently reading and learning about Reconstruction, the period immediately following the Civil War. For about 10 years, America toyed with integrated, pluralistic governance. In those years, blacks voted. They served on juries and in state legislatures. They learned in publicly funded schools. And then, federal troops left the region. Within just a few years, the American South mirrored Apartheid South Africa. Lynchings were prevalent and black voters intimidated. Republicans (the southern wing of the party included blacks and unionist whites), quickly lost control of state governments and with it, had no defense against Jim Crow legislation that in effect re-enslaved them and their descendants.
We do not learn the horror of those years. Sure – we know a few dates, a few Supreme Court cases, and the term “Jim Crow.” But we do not know the depth and depravity of what we did and allowed not just in those years but in the generations that followed. Remember, the Brown case originated in Topeka, Kansas! Kansas – the Republican utopia of the country – traces those republican roots to pre-Civil War days. Northern and western states may not have received the attention of Jim Crow, but they too were highly prejudiced.
And today – we have black men being killed by white police officers. Black men being killed by white police officers in their own communities and their own homes. Why? Because police departments across this country approach their citizens differently; and consistency the differentiating factor is skin color.
All of this history and our present are wrapped up in “busing.” That’s the deal.