It seems like a good time to update my previous post about media coverage of the exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden about school integration/“busing” at the Democratic Primary debate earlier this month. The incredible pace of activity on this has slowed just in time for us to take stock before the next set of debates on July 30th & 31st, which includes Harris and Biden on stage directly next to each other on the second night.
I’ve read/listened to as much as I could since the first post- Part 2 covers key arguments from what I’ve read since then, organized under the themes from that initial post. I also added a new section for work from Nikole Hannah-Jones that cuts across all the themes from the rest of the coverage.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: article, video and podcast
Based on content and importance to the field, this series from Nikole Hannah-Jones deserves the most space in this update. But, I can’t summarize it in a way that fully does it justice. Besides, I think/hope that the roundups are more valuable in highlighting stuff that readers may have missed. If you haven’t read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ history of “busing” (and critique of related myths about “busing”) and related twitter thread, I highly recommend doing that now and then coming back here. She also did two related pieces:
- A conversation with Michael Barbaro of The Daily, which covers a lot of important overlooked history, including the moral clarity of the Swann decision (which approved “busing” as a remedy for school segregation) and the enormous effectiveness of “busing” in the South.
- A video on twitter, where she responds to many of the most common questions about school integration, including the role of charter schools (also in the news lately), the mass firing of Black teachers & the “sitting next to White students” critique.
“Busing” was (and remains) an effective strategy for integration. And, research has likewise proven the effectiveness of school integration.
Erica Frankenberg, of the Center for Education and Civil Rights, has a short piece in the Conversation that looks at contemporary school segregation in 4 charts. One of those charts clearly indicates the success of desegregation in the South, which relied heavily on “busing.” Check out the huge drop in the red line below. Notably:
- “Despite a recent rise in segregation in the South, it remains one of the least segregated regions in the U.S., leading the rest of the country in school desegregation for African American students.”
Richard Rothstein wrote a blog post for the Economic Policy Institute where he closely summarizes research from Susan Eaton and Amy Stuart Wells (and team) on the benefits of school integration. Consistent with the research in general, he points to benefits for Black students (the most studied group):
- “ As one [interview participant] reflected, having attended a desegregated high school “makes me feel comfortable that I can go anywhere and not feel intimidated, I just feel like I belong and it didn’t matter who was in the majority or minority, that I knew how to deal with all of them.” Eaton summarized the impact of busing as “feelings of comfort, diminishing self-consciousness, and growing self-confidence in white settings.”
And, benefits for White students:
- “The whites also mostly reported gratitude for the opportunity, often resisted by their parents. As adults, the whites felt more comfortable in diverse workplaces than their white colleagues who lacked integrated experiences in their youth.” (From Wells’ research).
- This point was echoed in a Philly Inquirer Op-Ed, where the writer, who experienced desegregation as a white student near Philadelphia, reflects that “I see things through a different lens because of where we went to school. I see people who are different and I think “well, I can learn from them.””
Lastly, in the earlier post, I included a tweet from Will Stancil where he argues that the politics of “busing” would be much different now. Since then, he’s expanded on this argument in the Atlantic. I definitely recommend a full read, though here are a few key excerpts:
- “There is reason to believe that the increased diversity of America’s neighborhoods and schools will substantially mute such backlash today, making long-term success much more likely.”
- “The beating heart of busing resistance was invariably all-white suburbs that received the bused children, where it was opposed by 50-point margins or greater.”
- “By every available demographic metric, those white suburbs are losing ground in 21st-century America.”
“Busing” as a political framing was used effectively by integration opponents to disguise their opposition behind race-neutral terms.
In the first post, this section drew heavily on work from Matt Delmont. Since then, Delmont talked about these issues on an episode of the Integrated Schools podcast. There’s a lot of great stuff there, but I just want to highlight one piece. Delmont talks about some of the first protests against “busing,” noting that, as early as the 1950’s, the term was used as a cover for opposition to school desegregation (regardless of the means). Referring to a 1957 protest in NYC, he reports:
- “The parents who are protesting, their students aren’t being ‘bused’ anywhere.”
- “What they’re opposing are plans that would transport about 400 Black and Latino students from an overcrowded school in the Bronx to a school in Queens that is overwhelmingly white and has empty seats.”
If you want to read more about protests for and against school desegregation, this article from the Shanker Institute has lots of details about NYC protests in the early 1960s. And, Delmont tweeted a thread with incredible archival footage of protests and counter protests of that era.
Last point to note – On the podcast, he argues for the importance of media coverage the includes the voices of those who are doing the “on the ground” advocacy for school integration. He references Teens Take Charge; others doing this work include IntegrateNYC, Learn Together, Live Together (in DC), Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education (Denver), and Integrated Schools itself.
“Busing” is not the only strategy for school integration.
Because “busing” became used as a race-neutral cover for opposition to school integration in general, the two terms have come to be viewed as synonymous (just as opponents of desegregation would have hoped!). As Nikole Hannah-Jones argues in the piece linked above, busing is undoubtedly important and effective. In addition, a number of articles in the last few weeks have highlighted other potential methods for school integration:
- During her appearance on NPR’s 1A (summary here and full listen recommended), Erica Frankenberg discussed the untapped potential in taking a regional approach to educational equity, as detailed here by Jennifer Jellison Holme & Kara Finnigan.
- In this LA Time article, Erica Frankenberg and Phil Tegeler remind us of the important role that the federal government could play in driving towards greater school integration. In particular, “the most important thing the federal government can do is provide funding incentives for school integration at the state and local level.”
- This is exactly what is proposed under the Strength in Diversity Act. Chalkbeat recently published a very detailed breakdown of the law and its potential impact. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren signed on early as co-sponsors and Kamala Harris joined them recently.
- My previous post noted that the National Coalition on School Diversity is calling for the removal of 1970’s era rules that ban the use of federal funds for “busing.” A recent article in Politico has more details about two such provisions that were removed earlier this year and about the one – Section 426 of the GEPA – that remains.
- Lastly, a useful list from this New York Times article, which largely focuses on housing:
- Requiring developers to build affordable housing in wealthier neighborhoods.
- Federal rules that would withhold money from communities that intentionally block economic and racial integration.
- Measures to “equalize school funding” across wealthy and low-income districts.
- Re-drawing attendance zones to include neighborhoods with different demographics.
- One of my favorites – “School ratings systems that include diversity and not just test scores.” Kris Nordstrom has an interesting twitter thread and related report on what this might look like in North Carolina.
Berkeley’s integration story is unique and instructive.
Although it’s not about Berkeley, I wanted to include this thoughtful article about school integration in Jefferson County, Kentucky, which includes Louisville. It is difficult to talk about school desegregation writ large, because the specific policies and political/social climate of each particular community matter so much. Some of my favorite pieces dig into the complexity of state and district efforts to illustrate integration’s challenges and benefits. This article is a great example- it was written by a white student who participated in Jefferson County’s long-time integration program. He notes that despite intense early resistance:
- “By the time I enrolled in kindergarten, in the fall of 1993, a program that had once been controversial enough to inspire a visit from the KKK had become as fundamental an aspect of Louisville education as textbooks and whiteboards.”
- “Instead of dramatic overhauls, JCPS constantly tweaked its approach to desegregation… all while maintaining desegregation as an overarching goal of how it assigned students to various schools.” Tweaks included attempts to reduce the inequitable burden of “busing” and developing new magnet programs, for example.
Pieces like this are extremely important – as noted by Alexander Russo in his analysis of the Harris-Biden coverage, positive experiences with school integration have largely been absent from news stories about school integration.
Local control often leads to discrimination. And, Biden’s history on school integration both troubling and confusing.
On the local control issue, Sarah Reber, a UCLA professor, has a useful thread on the role that the federal government played in pushing local communities towards integration. Her conclusion: attempts to dismantle school segregation “were big and important and not something locals were going to do without Federal pressure.”
Matthew Lassiter – who wrote “The Silent Majority: Suburban politics in the sunbelt South” – has a very detailed history of the fight for school desegregation in Delaware. It is another example of a great context-specific discussion of school integration. And, it includes the infamous community meeting that shaped Joe Biden’s opposition to school integration. Rare for its area of the country, schools were ruled de jure segregated in Delaware. As a result, the Milliken decision banning inter-district school integration methods did not apply. In Evans v. Buchanan, a federal district court required district consolidation in New Castle County, which includes Wilmington. Lassiter points out, though, that:
- “Biden effectively sought to force the federal courts to apply the Milliken standard to Delaware by redefining its racial history as northern de facto-style segregation, which would have prevented the implementation of the inter-district busing plan in metropolitan Wilmington.”
And, through the magic of the internet, I found this gem of history– the transcript of a conversation between Joe Biden and Gary Orfield at a 1981 Senate Judiciary committee hearing on the 14th Amendment and school “busing.” I have only scanned it, but seems like there’s a lot of great stuff in there, including a unique window into what we knew (and did not know) based on the school desegregation research available at the time.
The debate about school diversity and integration extends beyond the Harris/Biden exchange.
A few days after the initial post, the internet surfaced a law review article written by Elizabeth Warren (full text here) where she critiques the Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which incidentally has its 45th anniversary today. It’s an extremely thorough article, and I have a short summary of it here. Notably, Warren accurately predicts Milliken’s future impact and draws on extensive legal precedence to illustrate major shortcomings in the majority opinion. Here are a few key quotes:
- “The ultimate result of the decision could thus be the ‘separate and unequal’ schools condemned by both Brown and Plessy v. Ferguson.”
- The majority opinion “imported a limitation of political boundaries into the concept of the Brown right, which…had never been explicitly required” – i.e., the majority invented the notion of political boundaries as being more important than integration, when previous cases had said the opposite.
- “The Court has effectively ruled that a line drawn in the past can be maintained even if the same line could not be lawfully drawn today.”
Beto O’Rourke also recently unveiled an education platform, which includes:
- “[increasing] funding for programs designed to increase diversity in our communities and schools, including housing programs, enact the Strength in Diversity Act and repeal the prohibition on the use of federal funds for transportation connected to efforts designed to promote diversity in our schools.
So, a conversation about “busing” that was initially about 5 minutes long generated a frankly stunning amount of attention and analysis. As Matt Delmont says on the Integrated Schools podcast, it seems like people are compelled to have a broad/national conversation about this, yet tend to avoid it unless prodded by something like the debate exchange. In terms of where this goes next, I like to think that depends on us- specifically in the way that we ask questions of elected officials and candidates. This includes the Democratic Primary contenders, but of course also extends to office holders at all levels of government, from the presidency on down. The coverage above offers lots of useful guidelines for how to ask questions in ways that are informed by accurate readings of history, that avoid the pitfalls of common terminology, and that move the debate closer to solutions for contemporary school segregation.
One article lists questions that leading researchers would pose to the Democratic hopefuls in the upcoming debates, including:
- “We know that schools and communities are segregated today because of past actions, in part those taken intentionally by the government. What’s the obligation of the president today…to address that?”
- “If we actually care about education for students of color and low-income students, what kinds of school and housing policies will make things better a decade from now?”
What would you ask them?