Race and Class: Busing and Integration, 1975-99

Malik Miah

IN THE MID-1970s Boston was a major battle ground for equal education in the public schools. Boston’s inner-city schools&#8212as in most urban areas&#8212were less-equipped and in worse condition than those in white neighborhoods.

Backed by city officials, racist whites attacked Black students being bused from their segregated neighborhoods to white schools. The antibusing organization ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) organized racist protesters carrying signs such as “Stop Busing, Niggers Go Home!” and “White Power, No Busing.”

Some twenty years after the famous 1954 Supreme Court ruling that had ended Jim Crow segregation laws and mandated school desegregation, the School Committee in Boston sought to turn back the clock. In response, the local branch of the NAACP led the fight to defend busing as the only way to provide Black students with a better education.

Between 1974 through 1976 I was directly involved in this busing battle in Boston. I was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party at the time and moved to Boston in 1975. I became the staff organizer for the National Student Coalition Against Racism (NSCAR). I also joined the NAACP which was spearheading the fightback against the opponents of busing nationally.

The opponents of school desegregation were going against the national mood. While organized racists sought to prevent affirmative action programs, keep Blacks and other minorities out of certain jobs and keep residential areas one hundred percent white, most whites had been influenced by the civil rights fights of the 1950s and `60s and now opposed legal segregation.

The national and local demonstrations in support of desegregation and the use of busing were endorsed by a wide coalition, and major newspapers ran editors against the racists. By the late 1970s, opponents of busing symbolized by the Boston School Committee were defeated.

Desegregation came to the Boston schools. Busing orders were enforced in other cities. So it was with a little surprise that I learned that Boston’s School Committee voted in early July to drop race as a basis for assigning children to schools. Moreover, both sides in the old battles applauded the decision.

No Turning Back

Had the opponents of busing finally won? Was the clock being turned back? No: While opponents of busing can cheer the end of a program that is now too limited to be effective (restricted to city boundaries, for instance), their original goal was to keep their schools all-white. That didn’t happen.

South Boston High was desegregated. Opponents also lost because as a result of busing, more whites had experienced a diverse school setting and came away with positive attitudes. Americans are less racist today in Boston and nationwide than they were some twenty-five years ago. (Racist hate groups do exist and do carry out violence. But overall, most whites accept diversity and integration.)

In the mid-1970s many socialists thought that the battle over busing could lead to a new civil rights movement and a battle against the ruling class. At the same time that busing was under attack, so were affirmative action programs for jobs and in higher education. Our assumption was that the de facto segregation that is generated by the profit system would prevent significant progress toward genuine equality for African Americans.

Most of us (in the SWP leadership and elsewhere in the left) misread the situation. The attacks by the right against busing and affirmative action did not represent the stand of the ruling class. A shift had already been made to incorporate a layer of the rising Black middle class into government, private industry and other sectors of society.

Many former rebels and leaders of the civil rights movement became mayors of major cities, government officials, and even took top jobs in formerly all-white management in private industry. Those who pushed for more fundamental change, however, continued to face persecution and repression.

Busing was simply a tool used to integrate schools. The NAACP understood that the road to better jobs and life was through a good education. It was no accident during slavery that the slave owners not only opposed education for their slaves but for free Blacks as well.

Housing segregation kept Blacks out of white areas. Banks and real estate companies were directly complicit in this segregation. Most whites knew the facts too&#8212Blacks moving into your area meant lower property values and worse schools. The structural racism in society drove even liberal whites to move to suburbs, not just open bigots.

The city schools became overwhelming minority (Black, Latin and Asian). Busing was never (except in rare cases) extended to the suburbs&#8212which would be the only way to solve the root cause of segregation in education, i.e. segregation in housing. So segregation was followed by desegregation, and then&#8212resegregation.

New Times

So we have the following reality in Boston: eighty-four percent of the school population is now minority. A recent study done by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project confirms that there has been a substantial resegregation of public schools since the early 1980s.

Orlando Patterson, a sociology professor at Harvard, noted in an Op-Ed article in the July 18 New York Times: “Perhaps the most striking finding of the Harvard study is that while people of color are increasingly enrolling in schools with a diversity of other nonwhite groups, white American students are going to schools that are nearly all homogeneously white, even in areas like Boston where there is a large minority population. America is fast becoming a multicultural society, but mainly for colored folks.”

Does this demographic shift mean whites are now supporting resegregation? No.

In fact, an overwhelming majority of whites support ethnic diversity. Whites who attended integrated schools in the 1970s and afterwards generally viewed their experience as positive. What explains the change in the Boston and other cities is less to do with growing racism than other factors, such as a better economy and a larger Black middle class who cannot only afford to live in white middle-class communities but do so.

Public education in general is getting less funds and support. More parents (Black and white) support charter schools and other alternatives to public education. In this context, the battle for integration gets second fiddle. Everyone is simply looking out for their family.

In other words, the class divisions within ethnic groups are determining education policy more than the need to desegregate schools. So it isn’t really surprising that Boston’s Black community leaders supported the end of busing.

The real lesson of the 1970s is how the ruling class adjusted to the new reality opened by the civil rights victory. Up until the victory of the civil rights movement, the better off African Americans had to live alongside working-class Blacks because of strict housing segregation.

A by-product of the victory was the emergence of a new middle-class layer in the Black community. This layer is less concerned about integrated education per se than for a good quality education for their children. And who do you think leads the established civil rights groups, the NAACP, and others?

While the NAACP leadership still supports desegregation and equal education, their eyes are more focused more on the needs of their fellow middle-class brothers and sisters. For the same reasons, Jesse Jackson and other leaders are setting up corporate projects directed at Silicon Valley and Wall Street to get more Black managers and directors.

The irony of the situation today is that most whites (and Blacks) are for diversity and yet, at the same time, oppose taking special steps to end institutional racism by affirmative action and other means. The false belief that the wealth of the better off will trickle down to the less fortunate is now the accepted view of many in the middle class in the African- American community.

Working-class Blacks lack independent organizations to fight for their ethnic and class interests. Busing may be dead&#8212 indeed it is difficult to imagine any section of the Black community being eager to fight that battle again&#8212but the larger struggle to end institutional racism in education and society as a whole is yet to be won.

That struggle will take new forms, and the new leaders and organizations have yet to be formed to lead it.

1 comment

  1. I believe that a radical change in the very structure of our society as a whole will be needed before racism can really be eradicated, which would include the dismantling of the ghettoes, particularly in the Northern cities, like Boston, which became extremely explosive (not that things were hunky-dory prior to mandatory school busing, btw.), when mandatory school busing took Boston and many other cities, particularly in the North/northeast…by storm.

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