When School Busing Worked

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris at the second 2020 Democratic presidential-campaign debate in Detroit, Mich., July 31, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Busing was a success in Kamala Harris’s hometown of Berkeley, but only because of special circumstances that were very hard to duplicate elsewhere

Senator Kamala Harris struck nerves and touched hearts some time ago with a photo of her six-year-old self minutes before boarding a bus for a short ride to her integrated new school in her hometown of Berkeley, something she looks at today as a magical experience, one whose expansion of her concept of what might be possible made her newly imagine her life. Most of her classmates loved the school also, socialize still, and remember it warmly, but not everyone who lived through the school-busing years of the ’60s and ’70s thinks of them fondly.

In New York, as the American Enterprise Institute scholar Sally Satel wrote in the New York Times many years later, she awaited her school bus with dread. Twelve years old, she was sent from her home in Queens to a school in a slum about 10 miles distant, a venue so dangerous that the parents of most of her friends took them out of the system, and where, as she described it, “As an imported minority, I was rewarded not with a new set of friends or an enriched curriculum, but with relentless hallway and locker-room threats.” She suffered “minor assaults” from some of her classmates, found the neighboring streets too unsafe to walk on, and said the whole business was “a disaster for me.”

Harris, one of many contenders in a hotly fought primary earlier this year, brought up the issue of busing partly in order to knock holes in Joe Biden, who as a senator in the 1970s spent much of his time fielding outraged complaints from constituents whose children in public schools were having a Satel-like experience. She depicted him as a civil-rights laggard and no friend to the hopes of non-white young people; but by the word “busing,” Biden and Harris were talking of two different things. Busing in Boston, New York, and many big cities was in most ways a nightmare, a fusion of bureaucratic ineptitude with liberal arrogance, that was justly detested by middle-class parents. Busing in Berkeley was a whole other matter, one that brought out the best in the city and people, but it was at the same time an isolated experience whose success was the exception to the rule that prevailed in most cities, a designer as opposed to a mass-market product, a luxury good handcrafted in Berkeley that took time, effort, and money to shape.

“In Charlotte, North Carolina, the program that will send white children from the suburbs to inner-city black schools . . . has created tension and bitterness,” the New York Times had reported on September 1970, a year or so after “forced busing” had started. “In Mobile, Alabama . . . white students stayed away from black schools.” Nationwide, the exception had been her hometown of Berkeley, where all functioned smoothly, the difference having been made by a superintendent of schools by the name of Neil Sullivan and the city of Berkeley itself. Sullivan was a political soul who refused to do anything that did not have the will of the public behind it, and Berkeley itself was a small, lovely town on the coastline of California, built on a hill that sloped down to the Pacific, where the white and more affluent lived on the heights of the hillside, and the less rich and much less Caucasian were found on the flats down below.

The one high school in town had required no planned integration, the three junior highs were integrated already, and what remained to be taken care of were the elementary schools and the children within them, running from grades one through six. Taking his cue from geography, Sullivan split his city in two, proposing to bus the children from the flats who were in grades one through three up to the schools on the heights of the mountain, and those in the heights who were in grades four through six to the schools on the flats down below. The breakdown of the city was 50 percent white, 40 percent black, and 10 percent Asian; and each of the schools would reflect these proportions. In 1966, the plan passed without protest, which was just the beginning. What came next was a public-relations extravaganza of epic proportions, aimed at destroying the last trace of resistance and making it clear that the plan was not merely accepted, but openly welcomed as well.

Stage one in the battle for public opinion was a media blitz designed by the city and aimed at the people themselves. The year before, fliers were sent out over the city, describing the project in all its complexity, and more ads went out on the air. Five hundred workers had gone door-to-door, describing the program, soliciting questions, and asking people about their concerns. Parents were introduced to their children’s new teachers, shown the new neighborhoods by those who lived in them, and taken inside the children’s new schools. There were trial bus rides for parents, who turned out in large numbers; parents hosted events for their black or white counterparts; teachers spent weeks in each other’s classrooms with some of their students in tow. Churches and synagogues opened their doors to an endless succession of speeches and meetings; black and white pastors exchanged congregations; community leaders chaired numerous panels; business leaders pitched in and added their influence; Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts planned many events that brought children together; 50 selected fourth and fifth graders were chosen to work with the schools’ staffs and teachers; the YWCA held day camps in summer for third and fourth graders: and 1,100 fifth graders went to an outdoor-education camp for two days in spring, By the time the school buses rolled in September of 1968, the staff, children, parents, and teachers had spent so much time together that they looked at each other as friends of long standing. As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights would write some time later, “Buses were on schedule, students met in homogeneous classes . . . parents socialized across racial lines, and teachers did not resign en masse.”

Harris, then six and in the first grade, was in the second class of children to be bused up the mountain. She remembers it now as a magical experience, and most of her cohort did too. “The Facebook page for her Berkeley class was blowing up Thursday night,” one classmate said of the debate where she brought up her experience, calling it a “transformative opportunity,” in which the times tables she learned in her very first classes led to a lifelong engineering career. Recalling the Swedish, Jewish, and Latina friends she had made as a student, another classmate of Harris said that for black children “the socializing and networking” with many different kinds of white people was as important for them as the real classroom lessons, and formed the springboard for the Harris career. Harris was right in seeing her experience as special, and a good thing for children; what she had failed to realize was that it also was rare. Busing for most children was at its best inconvenient and at its worst a dreadful experience, about which their parents were right to complain. At the receiving end of these parents’ complaints, Biden was right to sympathize with them, and to bring their complaints before other branches of government. Neither Harris or Biden was right or wrong in their argument; both were describing what they had seen and experienced. Nobody realized in the heat of the moment that they were talking of two different things.

What were the things that made busing at Berkeley so different from busing elsewhere? In most places, children were bused away into strange ethnic enclaves, while Berkeley itself was a whole, contained unit, whose people were not far apart. Berkeley was a university town, and therefore more liberal. Forced busing in most places was exactly that—-forced—-a plan forced upon people by faraway bureaucrats, while people in Berkeley could vote on their plan, and public officials had asked for their input. People in most cities were bused into strange places with no preparation; people in Berkeley had over a year of intense interaction, where their opinions were sought, their questions were answered, and parents were taken to see the schools to which their children were going, and welcomed by people who lived in the neighborhood. By the time those schools opened, the children, parents, and teachers all had seen one another so often that they felt that they all were old friends.

Desegregation of schools was the ultimate liberal project, as it was founded on a theory of cosmic or ultimate “justice,” imposing a concept of received perfection with no thought given to the possible consequence of it, or to the conditions it found on the ground. Therefore, it was almost inevitable that in the one case in which it succeeded, it was by the way of conservative theories and means. Where the state failed to impose school busing by government-driven state diktat, it succeeded in Berkeley by the bottom-up concept of popular action, the noted “third way” between the individual person and the force of state action, the volunteer bodies that Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of civil society in the 1770s and Alexis de Tocqueville the “associations” that in 1829 he found everywhere in this country and defined as the heart of the state:

Americans, of all ages, all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations . . . but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, brave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small . . . if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the help of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will see an association in the United States.

Berkeley itself was a dense web of these groups, associations concocted of like-minded people, churches and Boy Scouts, men’s groups and others; all of them small associations themselves, who themselves formed a larger and event-focused body, created for the transient purpose of the successful implementation of school integration, and Sullivan’s plan. The fact that Berkeley had all these clubs in the first place, and that they stepped forward so quickly, was a positive omen for the success of this program. The fact that so few existed in the vast urban jungle was one of the reasons they failed.

The other reason that integration succeeded in Berkeley was that although there was a race and a wealth differential between the people of Berkeley, a cultural distance did not exist. Tensions exploded in most northern cities when sheltered children of the white middle classes were dumped into bad schools in rundown and dangerous neighborhoods where most of the students came from broken and quite often fatherless families, discipline often had been nonexistent, and the rule of the wild held sway. But most of the children in both parts of Berkeley had been raised in the context of middle-class morals: to work hard, to respect other people, and always to pay their own way.

There were no slums in the middle-class black part of Berkeley; just smaller houses that sold for somewhat less money. “The neighborhood is neat and clean, with two-story frame and stucco houses and trim lawns,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a 1970 story, while “the children were neatly dressed, plaits beribboned, shoes shined.” This is hardly the picture of haute bourgeoisie nightmares. A picture exists of Harris and her sister, standing close to their mother, an attractive and slender aspiring scientist, who was dressed in a stunning black-and-white tweed and plaid miniskirt suit of the era that might have come from the pages of Vogue. It was this common bond that allowed the two halves of Berkeley to understand one another, vindicating the conservative view that it is culture that matters, while liberals classify people by ancestry, gender, and race.

Who won the fight between Harris and Biden? Neither, and both. Biden was right, as in most cases school busing had been a disaster. Harris was right, as in her case if none other, it had been an emphatic success. It was the rare case of a program from which all parties benefited, and which should have been copied by others. What she didn’t mention (and perhaps never knew of) was the time and the effort it took.


The Latest