Busing children to schools far from their neighborhoods, seeking racial balance, was a hot issue back in the 1970s. In the second Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., chided former Vice President Joe Biden for having opposed busing back then.
Biden, who has a strong civil rights record, replied that he hadn't opposed busing, but only the ordering of busing by federal courts and administrators.
Younger Americans may find recent discussions puzzling.
After all, it isn't controversial to bus children who live too far from school to walk or bicycle there. But the busing attempted in the 1970s hauled children who lived near neighborhood schools to schools that were further away, seeking an "ideal" mixture of races in each school.
A strong non-segregationist case can be made that busing was never a good idea.
As Biden pointed out decades ago, many liberals supported busing because it was opposed by racist segregationists. Since the segregationists were bad, liberals felt that busing must be good. But Biden correctly pointed out that even when there are bad reasons to oppose a policy there may also be good reasons to oppose it.
The strongest argument in favor of busing was an economic one.
Public schools depend on tax money, and white majorities more likely would support taxes needed for good, competently staffed, public schools if they all had a substantial number of white students.
All or mostly black schools might not get adequately financed.
But if encouraging public financial support for good schools was busing's goal, it backfired. Parents whose children don't attend public schools are less likely to support millage increases needed for education. One factor in undermining financial support for public schools was probably the fact that in many cities subjected to busing, many white families moved their children to private schools or to the suburbs.
Busing diverted funds that might have supported better school facilities and teachers to pay for buying, maintaining, and driving the buses. It undermined the useful concept of neighborhood schools as centers of family life. And it added tiring hours of travel to the days of students who were bused, perhaps undermining their ability to concentrate and learn.
There are statistical studies claiming to prove that both white and black children learn more in "integrated" (i.e. racially balanced) schools. But these studies are based on so many assumptions that we should probably take them about no more seriously than statistical studies claiming to prove that raising the minimum legal wage increases the demand for labor.
Busing also made race a more important factor in people's thinking and in political life, whereas to rise above racism we needed to make it a less important factor. And it seemed to imply that black children were so inferior that they could only learn well when surrounded by white children, an insulting and, in fact, racist assumption.
The Supreme Court had correctly ruled in 1954 that segregated public schools are unconstitutional. But the reasoning with which it supported that decision did not claim that black students couldn't learn in the absence of white students.
The Court only argued that assigning students to separate public schools on the basis of their race would cause inferiority feelings among black students who were singled out for this treatment and undermine their motivation to learn.
But racially-based assignment to schools was struck down in 1954 and no longer the case when the busing issue arose. The Supreme Court's reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483, did not suggest that black students couldn't learn well if attending neighborhood schools — even "racially identifiable ones — to which they had not been assigned because of their race. .
A better way to improve the education of black children might have been litigation or legislation forcing school districts to fund and staff all schools equally, whether the schools were racially-identifiable or not. This would not have undermined public support for schools, and it would not have bolstered insulting racial stereotypes.
And it would not have encouraged the subsequent mania for compiling racial statistics and for assuming that any organization whose racial composition did not resemble the racial composition of the surrounding community was a serious problem requiring rectification.
Busing was a major example of the damage done to American life by the rage for compiling racial statistics, a rage which began with the drive not merely to desegregate but to "integrate" the public schools.
Integration is not the opposite of segregation, but actually reflects the same way of thinking and treating people: on the basis of their race.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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