There are many reasons to believe that Joe Biden should not be the next president — but his 1970s-era opposition to busing as a means to school desegregation should not be one of them.
There’s little doubt that this could prove to be a litmus test for the current generation of race-conscious Democrats. Northwestern history professor Brett Gadsden has begun to make this case against Biden in Politico: “A sincere critique of Biden’s busing record would require a broader reckoning of the Democratic Party’s — and by extension the nation’s — abandonment of this central goal of the civil rights movement.” Of course, to agree one must accept the idea that busing was rightly a central civil-rights goal — and that those who opposed it were irredeemably racist.
That was, to be sure, my own view as school desegregation began in Boston, in the fall of 1974. I was a young reporter for a left-wing weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, and was convinced that I was seeing a northern version of the “segregation now, segregation forever” George Wallace had endorsed. (Indeed, Wallace actually carried the city of Boston in the 1976 Democratic presidential primary.) It was only over time, as I became exposed to the anti-busing movement, and to the neighborhoods where it was strong, that my views “evolved,” as is said these days. It became clear that there were not only competing values at stake but that the blue-collar Democrats in South Boston, Charlestown, and East Boston who took up the slogan “bus the liberals” had a good point.
That was not at all obvious to me at first. The Boston School Committee, after all, had been convicted in federal court not of de facto but of de jure segregation for the way it drew neighborhood school-district lines. Its goal was to ensure, for instance, that those assigned to South Boston and Charlestown high schools (both grand buildings set on hills in the middle of their “towns,” next to the Dorchester Heights and Bunker Hill Revolutionary War monuments, respectively) would come only from those overwhelmingly white, Irish-American neighborhoods. Black students from the Columbia Point public-housing project, adjacent to South Boston, were in fact bused to more-distant, predominantly black schools. Elected school-committee members made crude political appeals, including, most notably, Louise Day Hicks’s slogan “You know where I stand.”
It became easy to see racism run rampant as the buses began to roll.
White families launched a year-long school boycott. A group called ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) organized angry crowds to intimidate the black students being bused into South Boston from the Roxbury ghetto. Rocks and bottles hit the windows of school buses, including one on which a black city official I knew was riding. I covered the violence: A clueless Haitian immigrant beaten when he was stuck in traffic in South Boston. A pre-med student from Jamaica forced to move out of a South Boston public-housing project after a friend’s car was firebombed. These were tough places, not unlike Belfast in the throes of the Troubles. (“Twenty-Six Plus Six Equals One” Ireland unification bumper stickers were common.) I was warned to be wary of “guys with nicknames”: Knocko, Whacko, and, of course, Whitey. When I covered School Committee meetings, I would be singled out for criticism — or, more often, taunting — by one prominent anti-busing member, which was unnerving. Violence simmered in the city; shots fired at the school football field in Charlestown, post-busing, struck and paralyzed a black football player. (The shooter was of school age but not in school; he told me he was just shooting at targets on a rooftop.)
This all made it unlikely that my view of the situation would change — but eventually, it did. Much of that change was due to the relationship I developed with Ray Flynn, a South Boston state representative and later the Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Although an anti-busing leader, Flynn was no hater, it was clear to me at once. He’d been an all-American basketball player at Providence College and nearly made it with the Celtics but chose to move back to Southie. He’d run along the waterfront there and knew everyone. He’d been a star at South Boston High School, made good — and came home. Community mattered most to him. He understood that the high school — like the parish, youth hockey league, and the St. Patrick’s Day parade — was a community institution. In Charlestown, the imposing granite-faced high school across from Bunker Hill was the site of the annual community-organized World Halfball Tournament: a local street game formalized. (I’d later make a documentary film about the tournament.) But in time, that high school would close. Community was put at risk by busing, as key threads of the social fabric were pulled apart.
And for what? No one thought that either Charlestown or South Boston was a good school, academically. The brightest kids went to nearby Boston College High School (which drew black students as well), while aspiring hockey players attended St. John’s Prep, hoping for a college scholarship. (Flynn once told me he lost out on a college athletic scholarship after being told that everyone knew that Southie kids are dumb.) But the law, and courts, were blunt instruments. They had no way to distinguish between the gilded white schools of the Jim Crow South and shabby Southie High. The medicine — cross-district busing — would have to be the same.
It was not even clear, to those who knew the city well, that Boston’s black community wanted to integrate the schools. The federal-court action was the culmination of a long struggle by those known as Boston’s black Brahmins — an old black aristocracy dating back to the Abolitionist era, many of whom even had Boston accents. They wanted to do something to help their newly arrived black “homies” (recent arrivals from the South), who came to the city beginning in the early ’60s. They would not have objected to the campaign slogan coined by the preening white School Committee member John Kerrigan: “Quality Education. Neighborhood Schools.” Busing seemed to be the only tool at hand, though not necessarily the best. But in the calculus of the court, a community’s social ties mattered not at all. Indeed, for Boston’s liberal elites, its white working class seemed, well, deplorable. The elites were, of course, sheltered from the chaos, their children comfortably ensconced in private schools or the suburbs. (Suburban towns enrolled some black students through the Metco program, but that integration was a one-way street, and the suburbs were paid for their trouble by the state.)
The situation in Joe Biden’s Wilmington and New Castle County, Del., was a bit different. He was pushing back against a city–suburb cross-boundary busing plan. But, as in Boston, in Wilmington the black community itself mainly wanted better schools, and busing was the tool the law offered. Indeed, two of four black school-board members in Wilmington voted against pursuing legal action to force cross-district busing. “For the first time, blacks had their own school board and many blacks felt they should build up” the Wilmington schools, noted University of Delaware history professor Raymond Wolters, author of The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation. Instead, “what came to be known as ‘the busing order’ was unprecedented,” according to one historical account, “and changed the face of public education in northern Delaware with racial quotas, sweeping pupil reassignments, school closings and reconfigurations, and bus rides up to an hour each way.” Among the poignant details: Traditional community sports rivalries were swept away. Community fabric, after all, has no salience in a court of law. Biden, of course, understood well that it matters most of all in politics — and, most of the time, that it should.
In retrospect, for those who care about education, the entire busing era seems, at bottom, pointless. The Coleman report had made clear that, more than anything else, socioeconomic background predicted student achievement. Putting children on a more successful trajectory would not happen simply because they sat next to students of a different race, or even household income. If the charter-school movement has proved anything, it’s that it takes a disciplined school environment, a demanding curriculum, and committed teaching — not school buses — to improve education.
Of course, if Joe Biden today won’t recognize the value of charters and choice, whether for white South Boston, black Roxbury, or for Wilmington and New Castle County, then he will be wrong.