A History Of School Busing

Jun 30, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At the Democratic presidential debate this past week, Senator Kamala Harris of California criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for his opposition to court-ordered busing to desegregate schools in the 1970s. Harris, as she pointed out, was herself bused to a mostly white school as a child. Joining us now to talk about busing is Matt Delmont, professor of history at Dartmouth College. He's also the author of "Why Busing Failed: Race, Media And The National Resistance To School Desegregation."

Welcome to the program.

MATTHEW DELMONT: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So remind us - what was the busing program?

DELMONT: Busing programs were efforts to try to desegregate America's schools. These programs started initially voluntarily, primarily in northern cities - so as early as the late 1950s. The one that Harris was involved in was in Berkeley, Calif., in the late 1960s. There were one tool among many that school districts used to try to integrate their schools.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so that was basically taking African American kids from certain neighborhoods, putting them on buses and putting them into schools that were predominantly white.

DELMONT: Exactly. And I should clarify that school buses have long been used in America's schools. It's what made the modern school districts possible. That kind of busing was never controversial. It wasn't controversial until it got linked to school desegregation. So the kind of program that showed up in the 1950s, '60s and '70s were either one-way programs, where they would bus minority students - black, Latino students - from predominately minority schools to white schools, or two-way programs, where they would have across-town busing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there was a lot of pushback to it from both the left and the right.

DELMONT: That's true. Among white politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, there was a lot of anti-busing sentiment. And what they were picking up on was a lot of concerns among white parents. They were concerned that they were going to lose the kind of privileges they had to better-resourced schools and more - better-resourced neighborhoods.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what happened? What went out?

DELMONT: Well, there are still a number of schools who are trying to use busing for school desegregation - just isn't as controversial or isn't as much in the news as it was historically. I think what went out was Joe Biden's kind of opposition to it, to that general sense that busing was not a positive thing. It was too onerous and too much of a federal overreach. That sentiment should really carry the day in terms of how politicians, in terms of how a lot of parents - white parents view the issue. But what I think was interesting about Harris bringing it up in the Democratic debate was that for herself as a student and for a lot of students of color who went through these programs, they were very beneficial. If you look 10, 15 years down the road, it opened up a lot of different educational opportunities for students who went through desegregation programs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the state of school integration today. If that is the stated goal that kids from minority backgrounds should have equal opportunity to good schools, where does that stand? Did losing a formal busing program have ramifications in your view?

DELMONT: It did. So there's a lot of, I say, lip service given to the ideal of integration, but there's an extreme lack of political will and urgency and leadership to try to make any real integration happen in America's schools. Over the last decade and a half, both courts and politicians and local school officials have really kind of backtracked on trying to live up to the mandate of the Brown v. Board decision and trying to make good on the constitutional promises of equal education opportunities for all students. The reason I think it's sold out is because it's - it is a controversial issue. And it requires people to make a set of choices that are going to benefit not just their own students, not just their own children but all the children within a city or within a region.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain.

DELMONT: These things can be accomplished in most large cities without extensive busing. They just have to redraw school district lines. That's controversial because a lot of parents with means, primarily white parents and upper-middle-class parents, purposely buy homes in areas where they know they're going to be sending their children to schools that are largely segregated. They're going to end up in schools with very, very few students of color. Anything that's going to upset that tends to be controversial. This is controversial in cities like New York, among people who would identify as liberal. And it's controversial in cities with more conservative populations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Busing hasn't really been in the news very much, even though it was so controversial back when it started and into the '70s and '80s. Were you surprised that it became a sudden campaign issue?

DELMONT: I was very surprised. As someone who studies these issues, it has not been a national topic in the presidential debates for the last few cycles. But I think what was important about Harris bringing it up was the fact that she was speaking from her own experience but then the way in which she was able to link it to the importance of federal intervention. Biden's response that this idea that local communities can only do this themselves, it can only be voluntary, that the - so the federal government has no role to play in trying to advance school desegregation - really runs counter to everything we know about how schools became integrated. So I was very surprised to hear Harris mention it, but I think it does speak to, hopefully, a new moment to talk again about these issues.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Matt Delmont is a professor of history at Dartmouth College.

Thank you so much.

DELMONT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.