Since their recent prime-time showdown over busing, Kamala Harris has surged in the polls, while Joe Biden’s support has weakened.
Biden may indeed be too out of touch, too right of center to ignite his party’s base in 2020. But his opposition to mandatory school busing 40 years ago is not the right litmus test.
There is nothing “progressive” about latching on to busing in this campaign as if it were some enduring social triumph.
Joe Biden has landed on the wrong side of history on this issue; Harris made that clear. He sided with conservatives on busing and suggested a constitutional amendment might be the way to eliminate it.
But Biden got one thing right back then. As he told CNN in 1981, when it comes to school segregation, “the least effective remedy to be imposed is the busing remedy."
History attests to the truth of that remark.
Urban schools in America today are at least as segregated as they were 50 years ago, when little Kamala began taking that 3-mile bus ride to help integrate a predominantly white school in the Berkeley hills.
Successful school integration required students to travel both ways. In Berkeley, they did. Both white and nonwhite children were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods. The district voluntarily launched the program and communities supported it.
But in Biden’s Delaware district — and in virtually every big city that tried it, including Los Angeles — many white parents refused to allow their children to be bused to predominantly minority schools.
When cross-town busing was mandated by courts, the exodus began. White families fled to the suburbs or sought refuge in private schools. They voted out liberal politicians and created their own school districts.
They weren’t against integration, they said. They just didn’t want to let their children go to inferior schools in what they considered “dangerous” neighborhoods.
Over time, there were fewer white kids around to integrate with, but the black kids still volunteered to spend hours every week on buses, because traveling to schools that offered more opportunities and better facilities was worth the sacrifice.
I didn’t ride a bus, but I was also a little black girl in a classroom full of white faces. After I tested gifted, my mother was determined that I should have access to the special programs the district offered, and they weren’t in black schools, so I had to attend elementary school in a white neighborhood several miles away.
I remember the angst of my struggle to fit in. But I also remember my sense of wonder at the bounty the campus offered: I learned to speak French, fired pottery creations in the art class kiln, planted vegetable gardens on a plot that spanned a city block. I developed the confidence that comes from being acknowledged as valuable and smart.
Students like Harris and me reaped the academic and social benefits of an integrated environment. Study after study has shown that attending integrated schools raises achievement, especially for black and Latino kids, and increases the likelihood of attending and graduating from college. So busing delivered something for those willing to take the ride.
Yet despite its symbolic embrace today, black Americans generally were not big on busing then. In a 1973 national Gallup poll, more than 90% of blacks said they favored school integration, but only 9% said busing was the best way to accomplish that.
One-third of blacks polled thought the best route was building low-income housing in middle-class neighborhoods. And both blacks and whites agreed that changing school boundaries to create diversity would be more effective than busing.
But those alternatives faced an even bigger wall of opposition in a country where two-thirds of the white Americans polled said they would object to sending their children to schools where more than half the students were black.
That left most black children on the outside looking in. Their inner-city schools never got any less segregated, and many of the best students at those schools were being bused out.
By 1988 school integration had reached an all-time high; almost 45% of black students in the United States were attending majority-white schools.
But over the next decade, a series of Supreme Court decisions allowed districts to back away from busing as an integration tool, and school segregation began to rise. By the turn of the century, schools were more segregated than they’d been in 1970 when busing for desegregation began.
Looking back, it’s clear that despite the high hopes of parents and the good intentions of its supporters, busing did little or nothing to improve schools in minority neighborhoods, which remain segregated and under-resourced today.
Busing wasn’t a triumph over bigotry. It was the result of bigotry. And it was doomed by bigotry. So why are we suddenly talking about busing as if it represented some watershed moment in civil rights history?
Still, we tried, even as the burdens of desegregation landed disproportionately on black and brown kids. And for a generation of children like Kamala Harris, the experiment had something to offer. It opened her eyes to a world beyond her working-class block.
Over the long haul, busing wasn’t the solution to the problem of school segregation. It was one imperfect tool in an ongoing struggle to fairly distribute opportunity — a struggle that has always had allies on both sides of the racial divide.
Many black parents hoped busing would give their children access to a world bent on locking them out. And many white parents willingly put their children on buses, too, believing that integration would also benefit their children.
We shouldn’t forget the lessons that era taught, about the potency of racism and the footprint of white privilege. Neither should we let go of the commitment to educational and racial equity that brought school busing about.
What we can’t afford to do now — when our families, neighborhoods and schools need real support — is romanticize the movement, or resurrect it in the process of casting for votes.