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Biden on the Bus
This essay appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
A great question in contemporary American politics is whether the Democratic Party’s voting base has veered as far and rapidly to the left as most of its presidential candidates and the progressive media universe. Statements by President Obama as recently as five years ago about, for instance, border controls (and the need for them) would be derided as hopelessly nationalist and reactionary by the party’s current progressive opinion leaders. Joe Biden had a healthy lead in presidential opinion polls after he first announced his 2020 candidacy, but it is far from certain that lead will stand up to the progressive assault. He has been attacked for his style (old-fashioned, touchy-feely) and words—especially recollections of congeniality with segregationist Southern senators. His record, in particular his support for various 1990s tough-on-crime measures, is also subject to progressive derision.
Perhaps the greatest tell of where the party—its voters and its opinion leaders—now stands will emerge if Biden’s role in the decade-long school busing controversy continues to come under assault. For here was an issue of substance, debated in depth at dinner tables and political forums nationwide throughout much of the 1970s and beyond. On no other political question was Biden’s role so nationally important. Busing to enforce school integration emerged as a controversy when he arrived in Washington as a young liberal senator in 1973, and he was soon torn between his conventionally liberal civil rights convictions and a need to represent his white working-class voting constituents in a state where busing was the most hot-button of issues.
Though few politicians were outspoken advocates of busing (it was a peculiarity of the issue that the major decisions were court-driven and thus largely beyond democratic accountability), Biden played a critical role in legitimating opposition to it among centrists and liberals. He joined with North Carolina conservative Jesse Helms to shepherd an anti-busing amendment through the Senate in 1975. He maintained his anti-busing position in ensuing years—he is quoted more than any other single American politician in Jennifer Hochschild’s 1984 pro-busing work The New American Dilemma. She cites one Biden speech at length, describing it as “a rambling but extraordinary confession of liberal bafflement.” Yet one sentence from it—“We are asking the education system to solve a societal problem that the education system is not big enough to solve, even if it were constitutionally warranted, which it is not”—seems as precise as anyone could wish.
Biden’s making common cause with Helms has been attacked in Politico. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie amplified the charge, deriding Biden’s busing position as “an implicit affirmation of white racial privilege” and a form of “Trumpism without Trump” that should effectively foreclose his candidacy. Before we consider whether Bouie will be proved correct in his claim that Biden’s busing record renders him beyond the pale for Democrats, we might revisit the history of this extraordinary policy.
* * *
During its 1970s heyday, busing to accelerate school integration was sometimes described as liberalism’s domestic Vietnam. Like Vietnam, it was conceived by dedicated public servants for high-minded motives; like Vietnam, the children of the elites who planned it were largely exempt from the consequences. In essence, the policy was to place the greatest responsibility for ushering in a future integrated and racially equal America on the country’s school children.
One of the more prescient articles about school integration was published before busing to eliminate de facto segregation in the North had even begun. In 1963, Norman Podhoretz was the young editor of Commentary, then known as a leading liberal journal. There was probably no more deeply held belief among educated northern liberals at the time than that integration was the necessary solution to America’s racial dilemma, that the only serious resistance to it was in the racist South, and that this resistance was in the process of being overcome. Onto this consensus, Podhoretz’s “My Negro Problem and Ours” descended like a fly into the buttermilk. In some six thousand words, the young editor explained that he had attended integrated schools in Brooklyn in the ’30s and ’40s, and that the experience might be better described as embittering, even traumatizing, rather than enlightening. Owning up to the fear and, interestingly, envy that blacks aroused in him, Podhoretz described in detail the violence visited upon him and his friends by black classmates, acknowledging their toughness and superior strength. School integration was no panacea for inequality nor route to racial harmony, he argued, and as integration measures moved to the North, northern liberals would discover this. As subsequent years would reveal, Podhoretz’s conclusions might have been overstated, but not by much.
The busing enterprise was the outgrowth of the famous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954, which by a unanimous 9–0 vote found that the South’s segregated dual-education systems for whites and blacks were inherently unequal and violated the constitutional rights of blacks. There was as close to a national consensus behind the decision as there could be with anything concerning race in America, and within a decade “massive resistance” in the South had faltered. Critical to its demise was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, coming in the wake of years of national coverage of Southern efforts to deny civil rights to blacks. The Department of Justice began filing suit against recalcitrant southern school districts. Powerful federal bureaucracies were created to enforce the law. From 1964 to 1969 there was rapid advance of integration of southern schools; by 1970 nearly half of southern blacks attended majority-white schools, and the percentage of blacks attending all-black schools had dwindled to 14 percent.
Southern schools were by then more integrated than those in the North. But what would happen when “school imbalance”—the term for schools considered too white or too black—arose not from racially discriminatory segregation laws but from residential patterns? By the late ’60s, this had become the issue. In North and South, more whites had moved away from central cities toward the suburbs. There were no more dual-track school systems, but there were majority-white and majority-black schools. In an important case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the Supreme Court ruled that even if no segregative intent could be found, there was still a requirement to produce racially balanced schools, even if it involved busing children from city to suburb and vice versa. The ruling opened the vista of busing for most American cities.
The issue had begun to percolate in Boston in the 1960s, when Louise Day Hicks was elected to head the Boston school committee with the mandate from Boston’s working-class whites to keep the city’s neighborhood schools as they were. But after Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, momentum against de facto segregation was growing, driven by a network of federal agencies, civil rights litigators, and a burgeoning new bureaucracy of school-integration experts. Just as Charlotte was required to work towards a 71/29 black-white ratio in all its schools, reflecting the demography of the huge Mecklenburg County school district, so too, shortly thereafter, was San Francisco, which shared little of Virginia’s segregationist history. By Richard Nixon’s second term, vigorous battles between local school boards and politicians on the one hand and judges and civil rights litigators on the other were erupting in one American city after another. Busing plans were drawn up and implemented, while local politicians were helpless to staunch them. The Constitution, it was said, required busing, and people do not vote on the Constitution.
By the early ’70s, though the details differed from city to city, broad patterns were unmistakable. Most important, most white parents who could avoid desegregation measures that required their children to be bused long distances to schools in black neighborhoods did so. They moved out of the district. They moved to suburbs beyond the range of the judicial mandate. They enrolled their children in private schools. So in the North, especially, the mandate for school integration fell on those whites least able to avoid it: the working class, the lower middle class, the poor. The major integration template was described by Nathan Glazer, in a seminal anti-busing essay published in 1972:
The leading advocates of transportation for integration send their children to private schools, which escape the consequences of these legal decisions. . . . If the judges who are imposing such decisions, the lawyers who argue for them (including brilliant young lawyers from the best law schools, employed by federal poverty funds to do the arguing), would not themselves send their children to the schools their decisions bring into being, how can they insist that others poorer and less mobile than they are do so? . . . Clearly those not subject to certain conditions are insisting that others submit themselves to it, which offends the basic rule of morality in both the Christian and Jewish traditions.
Glazer wondered if there might be a place for this rule in the Constitution.
But in 1972, there was not, according to judges. Thus, just a few years after many American inner cities had burned in horribly destructive riots, and as crime rates were soaring, judges and “special masters” and the whole paraphernalia of judicial compulsion set in motion in one city after another plans to bring about racial balance in the schools through busing. Years of bitterness ensued. Boston, as a historically resonant major city, was the site of the most-heated battles—which produced a Pulitzer Prize–winning book (Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas), a famous photograph of an anti-busing demonstrator trying to impale a black attorney with an American flag, and the chasing of Senator Edward Kennedy out of a public venue, among other things. Judge Arthur Garrity’s plan for Boston seemed almost designed to inflame, twinning as busing partners Irish working-class South Boston with Roxbury, which had all the characteristics of an American urban ghetto. South Boston High School had an iconic role in its neighborhood life—South Boston was the kind of place where adults closely followed the high school football and hockey teams and athletes wore their letter sweaters long past graduation. The high school as community symbol was essentially targeted for destruction. Judge Garrity, of course, lived beyond the city limits, and his children and those of his neighbors would not be bused to Roxbury, nor would any Roxbury kids enter their schools. The same was true for Governor Michael Dukakis, for Senator Kennedy, and for the Boston Globe’s reporters and editors who made South Boston’s racism a staple of their coverage for more than a decade. Of course, racism there was, and violence: Southie organized a school boycott and hoodlums pelted buses with rocks, and the community fell under the kind of tight political organization appropriate for wartime. One European reporter who had covered Belfast during the Troubles said the atmosphere felt remarkably similar.
Anti-busing was not simply an Irish thing, to be sure. In mostly Italian-American East Boston, resistance was fierce as well. So too in Canarsie, on the furthest edge of Brooklyn, where opposition to busing forged a tight political coalition between a working-class Italian community and middle-class Jews who had a decade earlier fled neighborhoods falling into crime and disorder.
From the perspective of social history, it is noteworthy how prominent and critical a role women played in these movements—natural enough in communities where the role of nurturing children fell primarily to women. Curiously, given the oft-proclaimed mission of today’s scholars to tell the stories of important and neglected female leaders, scant attention has been paid to Eastie’s Pixie Palladino or Pontiac, Michigan’s Irene McCabe, children of the sixties who absorbed the techniques of rude and mouthy protest and used them to protect, as they saw it, their own communities. Or, on a less populist plane, to Louise Day Hicks, the daughter of a Boston judge who went to law school in the 1950s after raising her own children and who emerged as the first nationally known tribune of South Boston’s resistance, eventually serving in Congress.
* * *
While there was no clearly demarcated end to busing, by the 1990s the steam had gone out of the enterprise. Some judges had retired, and their successors, often appointed by Republicans who felt some sympathy with “Reagan Democrats,” pulled back from their efforts to manage the schools. The Supreme Court retreated piecemeal from school supervision. Public opinion remained opposed. Of great importance to the national discussion, black support for busing fell steadily during the ’70s, and support for it among Hispanics, an increasingly visible ethnic group in the 1980s, was always tepid. In fact, support for community control of black schools was always an influential stream of thought in African American politics. It could take a contentious form, as it did in the 1968 New York school battles, or it could be a normal part of the fabric of the black community. As early as 1972, the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana, passed an anti-busing resolution, asserting that the policy was based on “the false notion that black children are unable to learn unless they are in the same setting as white children.” Derrick Bell, who became the first tenured black law professor at Harvard, began his litigation career working on cases to eliminate school segregation. By 1980 he was advocating black schools as a viable and sometimes preferable option, if they received funding commensurate with the best white schools. These were hardly marginal sentiments.
By the 1990s, what Thomas Sowell had provocatively called “the white child’s burden” could be lifted. Most mandatory busing programs expired and were not renewed. New school resources were devoted to “magnet” schools, often in the inner city, lavished with resources and curriculum innovations to attract white parents. “The Carrot or the Stick” was the title of one influential work touting magnet schools over compulsory busing. While one might chuckle at the author’s implicit likening of white parents to donkeys, it was clear by then that compulsory mass transportation of children to bring about a fully integrated society had failed.
Today there is little forced busing, but the dilemmas that inspired the policy remain. Recent newspaper stories show white parents from New York’s Upper West Side (in precincts where Hillary Clinton ran up vote totals exceeding 90 percent) no more enthusiastic about rezoning measures that would more fully integrate their children’s elementary schools than the residents of South Boston were about busing in the 1970s. These Upper West Side parents may be better spoken and are certainly more affluent, but the sentiments are the same. To read these contemporary accounts is to get the sense that the political price to be paid by Joe Biden for representing the anti-busing sentiments of Delaware voters in the 1970s is likely to be small.
But then that conclusion assumes the current vogue among Democratic candidates to be as zealously left-wing as possible will not survive sustained contact with actual voters. We don’t yet know that. Elizabeth Warren leads the field in trying to forge fresh new appeals to the progressive media base. (Bernie Sanders, by contrast, was always an unapologetic socialist of the old school.) But Warren, too, has moderation in her past. A book of hers that she touted in the first Democratic presidential debate—The Two-Income Trap, about middle-class bankruptcy—actually makes arguments that the current woke-on-everything progressives are likely to find offensive. Among other things, Warren argues that middle-class parents often fled bad urban schools and inner-city crime (the classic tropes of white flight, though she doesn’t use the term) and got caught in bidding wars for suburban homes in good school districts that were often a stretch to afford even with families earning two paychecks. She is sympathetic to parents who made such choices. Would that now be considered acceptable by today’s progressive gatekeepers? Or can we look forward to forced Warren apologies on this score too? It may be that the perfect Democratic candidate for these times is someone with no real record at all, who can signal his or her progressive attitudes on every identity-politics issue without fear of contradiction. Or it may be that Democratic voters will have more tolerance for those who engaged in political battles on difficult issues whose core concerns have not gone away. ♦
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of the American Conservative.
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