Power  /  Explainer

How School Desegregation Became the Third Rail of Democratic Politics

White liberals opposed segregation in the South, but fought tooth-and-nail to keep it in the North.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Images

The issue of “busing” has returned to public conversation following a testy exchange between Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former vice president Joe Biden in the second night of the Democratic presidential debate. When Harris highlighted Biden’s opposition to “busing,” Biden pushed back, saying he had been a “lifetime champion of civil rights,”but just opposed “federal intervention” and what opponents called “forced busing.”

After scoring points in the debate for her courageous intervention, Harris herself later backtracked, saying busing is a tool that should be “considered” by local districts, but that she opposed federally mandated busing. Despite studies documenting how deeply segregated schools across the country now are, Harris told reporters in Iowa on Thursday that “today it is very rare that we require the courts or the federal government to intervene” in school desegregation.

But despite its prominence in recent debate, busing was never actually the issue. The real issue was the pervasive and damaging segregation that existed in schools throughout the country and whether all schools would actually desegregate. And with their slippery positions on desegregation, Harris and Biden expose the longtime cowardice of the Democratic Party in dealing with school segregation, particularly outside the South.

Liberals express outrage at federal judges nominated by President Trump who refuse to say whether Brown v. Board was correctly decided, yet Democrats, both historically and in the present, have been largely unwilling to take concrete steps to fulfill Brown’s legal and moral mandate of equal education, so as not to alienate their local white constituencies. As such, school desegregation has long been a third-rail issue for liberal politicians.

Despite their different personal experiences with busing, Biden and Harris are emblematic of a Northern liberalism that for more than 60 years has championed the ideals of civil rights and federal intervention in the South, but resisted it when it came to desegregation at home. A phalanx of Northern white politicians and parents have used code words like “busing,” “neighborhood schools” and “local control” to thwart meaningful school desegregation in their cities in the half-century since Brown, while still claiming a moral authority over segregationists in the South.

Recognizing the way racism continues to overtly shape Northern politics and stall, even reverse, desegregation forces us both to a more sober accounting of our past and what must be done today to actually commit to and pursue desegregation and educational equality.

When the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Brown v. Board, black parents and civil rights activists celebrated, seeing it as a way to change their own schools. They held meetings, organized rallies and initiated school boycotts to press for desegregation across the North as well as the South. Faced with growing movements in their own cities, many Northern white parents and politicians (like their Southern counterparts) objected.

The rhetoric of “busing” became a key way white Northerners cloaked their opposition to desegregation in the post-Brown era in more palatable language that simultaneously worked to obscure the deeply separate and unequal schools that existed across the Northeast, Midwest and West. The word “busing” was used to turn necessary decisions about school assignment and transportation, which had been routine parts of school governance for decades, into something new and suspect. In reality, from L.A. to Boston to New York, students had long been bused, often to maintain segregated schools. As civil rights activist Julian Bond observed, “It’s not the bus, it’s us.” Few white parents objected to putting their kids on a bus — until the bus was used for desegregation.

When they did object, they found that they didn’t need Southern tactics to maintain segregation. It turned out you didn’t need a governor at the schoolhouse door if you had school board officials willing to adjust zoning lines to maintain segregated schools. You instructed your school administrators to call it “separation” not “segregation,” as New York Superintendent William Jansen did after Brown. You professed your commitment to civil rights and insisted you only objected to “busing.” Through this language, and the ways the media helped to make it sound innocuous, school segregation persisted across the North.

During the debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, Northern politicians faced with growing desegregation movements at home witnessed many of their white constituents using code words like “busing” and “neighborhood schools” to protest school integration. In response, these congressmen added “antibusing” provisions in this landmark legislation.

Both liberal and conservative politicians understood that these amendments were designed to keep federal civil rights enforcement of school desegregation focused away from the North. “So that that the record will be straight, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not ask for busing of students; in fact, to the contrary,” said Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) , known as a champion of civil rights. “There is a proviso in the act saying that the act shall not be applied for the purpose of busing students from one district to another.”

They amended Section 401 b of Title IV by adding “ ‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance” to ensure that desegregation did not come home to their own schools.

Southern senators, who already opposed civil rights legislation, were incensed by the blatant hypocrisy of the bill’s education section and the way the amendment so clearly catered to white Northerners’ concerns. “I do not blame the two distinguished senators from New York, for they desire to protect New York City, as well as Chicago, Detroit, and similar areas,” said Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), referring to Sens. Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating, both from New York. “In my opinion the two senators from New York are, at heart, pretty good segregationists; but the conditions in their state are different from the conditions in ours.” And yet this underbelly of the Civil Rights Act is rarely acknowledged today.

Northern liberals insisted that residential and school segregation in their cities was “natural,” not a result of specific policies. A contrived distinction between Southern “de jure” segregation (rooted in law) and Northern “de facto” segregation (rooted in nature) made it possible for politicians and citizens to deny legal responsibilities for the visible realities of racial segregation.

Over the past two decades, however, scholars have amply documented the vast web of governmental policies, from mortgage redlining to school zoning practices to teacher placement, that produced and maintained racially segregated neighborhoods and schools in the Jim Crow North. These studies provide overwhelming evidence that, in every region of the country, neighborhood and school segregation flowed from intentional public policies, not from private actions or free-market forces.

By upholding the myth of de facto segregation, Northern politicians and residents sought to maintain public policies and school practices that funneled resources to their communities, passing on appreciating assets to future generations while also claiming to be free from the ugly stain of racism.

The battles over busing showed that this faith in white racial innocence with regard to residential and school segregation was largely immune to evidence. When courts found school boards in Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities guilty of intentional and unconstitutional racial discrimination, politicians and parents insisted that their cities could not possibly be segregated and decried the court-ordered desegregation remedies, such as busing, as unjust and inconvenient infringements on the rights of white families.

The myth of de facto segregation, which continues to be taught in many schools today, has persisted for decades because for many people, no amount of evidence to the contrary could upset the bedrock belief that unlawful segregation and systemic racism were fundamentally a Southern phenomenon. The Southern story continues to hold sway because it makes racism a regional malady rather than a national cancer, expressed in violence and epithets rather than policy imperatives and political priorities.

The national news media, largely based in the North, was complicit in perpetuating this regional binary. National newspapers like the New York Times proved essential in the 1960s to shining a light on Southern segregation and the movements that grew to challenge it.

But they took a very different tact when covering segregation at home. Over and over, the Times distinguished New York’s school inequality as “entirely different from the South.” It disparaged New York civil rights activists as “unreasonable.” When a decade-long movement for school desegregation in the city lead to a massive school boycott in February 1964 calling for a comprehensive plan for desegregation — a full decade after Brown — the Times referred to it “unjustified” and “violent.”

Whereas the news media helped underscore the urgency of the black civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, by the mid-1960s and 1970s white “antibusing” protesters received the bulk of media attention. Television and print news helped establish the issue as busing, not segregated schools, which obscured that these protesters were fighting against school desegregation.

Framing the issue this way allowed them to argue that federal intervention was needed in the South but not in the North. By overemphasizing white parents’ and politicians’ resistance to busing at the expense of the civil rights of black students the news media contributed to the perspective among white Americans that “busing” was foolhardy and moving too fast, that federal judges like W. Arthur Garrity who ordered the comprehensive desegregation of Boston’s schools had deeply overstepped, and that “anti-busing” mothers in Boston or Pontiac, Mich., were not as racist as those mothers opposing desegregation in Little Rock or Birmingham, Ala.

When Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, therefore, he joined nearly two decades of organized efforts by white politicians and Northern parents, with tacit support from the media, who fought to ensure that federal civil rights policies never got too close to home. “Busing” served an effective code word that allowed them to claim to support the civil rights movement in the South, while also actively working to thwart school desegregation in their own cities and states. Northerners preferred to think of themselves as open and fair, even as they hoarded educational resources, something long made possibly by school segregation. In all these cities, black parents, students and civil rights activists had spent decades fighting for school desegregation and educational equality. Over and over, their demands were dismissed or disparaged.

The damaging legacy of framing the issue as one of busing, rather than one of achieving Brown’s promise of desegregated schools, continues to be with us in the present. A comprehensive survey by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found the most segregated school systems today are largely found outside the deep South, with New York as the most segregated. Facing that history of segregation and inequality — how it was propagated and shielded in the North as well as in the South — forces us to acknowledge that “busing” simply meant “desegregation,” and opposition to it, at a fundamental level, meant an opposition to integration. The persistence of school segregation over six decades after Brown shows that as a nation, we are still not committed to desegregation in any part of the country.

At the local level, some cities and school districts have implemented policies that foster integration — such as ending exclusionary neighborhood zoning, adding more affordable housing, redrawing school zoning lines, determining student assignments based on zip codes and, yes, busing — and could serve as a model for the nation. At the federal level, the next president could offer additional funding to school districts that implement ambitious integration plans, fund research on strategies for school integration and support the Office of Civil Rights in playing a serious role in investigating discrimination in America’s schools.

But fulfilling the task of Brown requires leadership, political will and a commitment to name the problem of segregation and educational inequality even in places that pride themselves for their liberalism. As Martin Luther King told a crowd in New York City in 1960, “there is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North that is truly liberal, that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South.”