Busing mostly a bust


From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

Joe Biden was excoriated by Sen Kamala Harris in the recent debate of Democratic presidential candidates for his opposition in the 1970s to busing ordered by federal judges to “integrate’’ public schools, mostly in cities. Senator Harris perhaps believed or hoped that there aren’t all that many people around who clearly remember what happened with busing.

Well, Biden was generally right. Forced busing was often a disaster, most famously in Boston, for which U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity, a resident of rich, and lily white, Wellesley, ordered a massive busing plan that sent African American students all over the city, via long bus trips. It was a disaster, and not just because it took time from schooling and gave it to transportation and led to racial violence.

It also undermined neighborhood schools and the parent and student commitment they encourage, and intensified “white flight’’ to the suburbs and private schools, which further destabilized the school system.

If only Garrity and his ilk had spent considerable time in poor white (especially South Boston, large parts of Dorchester and Charlestown) and black sections (mostly Roxbury) of Boston, as I did as a reporter for the old Boston Herald Traveler, they would have realized that court-ordered busing would do more harm than good.

Joe Biden, representing Delaware, a state with a large African-American population, mostly in Wilmington, some affluent and middle-class white suburbs around that city and the area south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, which had more in common with the Deep South than with the New Jersey-like region to the north of the canal, understood the sociological complexities of busing more than most politicians. He never was a racist, though like other senators had to work with racist Southern senators to get important legislation through. (I worked for the News Journal, Delaware’s dominant newspaper, for part of 1975 and met Biden a few times.) The area “South of the Canal’’ was a trip! One local pol down there asked me when the News Journal “is going to start hiring Americans’’ – in a nasty reference to the paper’s superb political writer Ralph Moyed, who happened to be Jewish.

Jeff Jacoby, The Boston Globe’s conservative columnist, usefully reviewed Boston’s busing mess in a July 2 article. He noted in it:

“In 1982, a Globe poll found that only 14 percent of black Boston parents still favored busing. The overwhelming majority preferred a free-choice plan, allowing parents to send their children to any public school in the city. In practice, that would have meant schools their kids could walk to.’’

“Busing made everything worse. Public school enrollment plummeted. In Boston, 78 school buildings were closed. In 1970, 62,000 white children attended the city’s public schools — 64 percent of the total. By 1994, only 11,000 white students remained. Before busing began, the average black child in Boston attended a school that was 24 percent white. By the mid-1990s, the proportion was 17 percent. Far from reducing racial isolation, busing had intensified it.’’

The best way to encourage long-term integration is to try to ensure that all students, in whatever school they’re in, get as good an education as possible so they can succeed economically and otherwise and to eschew rigid, racially based formulas. This also requires public policies that encourage family stability, including as politically incorrect as it sounds, two-parent households in which the parents are married. Family stability is a key factor in most kids’ success in school.