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School busing’s lasting legacy on cities

Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Joe Biden’s debate resurrects a long-standing issue for U.S. cities

Kids talking in front of a school bus in Berkeley, California in 1971. Senator Kamala Harris, who grew up in Berkeley, took part in a school busing program. She brought up busing during the first debate, specially calling out Vice President Biden’s stance on the issue.
Corbis via Getty Images

As the second round of the Democratic presidential debates enters its second night, many political pundits and voters are looking for a repeat of the fireworks that erupted last time Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Joe Biden shared a debate stage.

The main exchange between the two leading candidates concerned school busing, specifically Harris’s experience as a child in the Bay Area, when she took a bus to attend Thousand Oaks Elementary School in North Berkeley, California, as part of a busing program that started in 1968. Harris called out Biden’s voting record around school busing during his early years in the Senate; he said he didn’t oppose busing, just busing mandated by the Department of Education.

The complex argument over busing as a means of desegregating American schools reached an apex with Milliken vs. Bradley, a 1974 Supreme Court case that evaluated school busing schemes in Detroit. The debate over busing isn’t about buses, per se. It’s about racial integration and equal opportunity in America, local control of school districts, and the way the pursuit of integration and local control have changed our neighborhoods and our cities.

Why did busing become a solution for segregation?

The debate over busing began with one of the best-known Supreme Court cases of the 20th century, 1954’s Brown vs. Board of Education. The landmark decision established that previous “separate but equal” doctrines regarding school and public amenities led to inequality.

Black and white Americans should have equal access to educational facilities and opportunities, and local school districts needed to desegregate, the court ruled. But immediately enforcement became the biggest issue, especially since many Americans lived in segregated neighborhoods.

Civil rights advocates argued for busing, court-mandated desegregation interventions that moved students between schools to achieve more racial parity. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, many courts ruled in favor of mandated busing plans to try and achieve desegregation. Berkeley, where Harris attended school, created its own integration plan that was voted for by the local school district, one seen as a model by other cities; Martin Luther King Jr., after hearing about the scheme, wrote that “hope returned to my soul and spirit.”

Did school busing work?

Even after the Civil Rights Act and other such legislation passed in the ‘60s, many white parents and many politicians took anti-busing stances, ignoring court-ordered desegregation and even staging protests. Many said that federal civil rights remedies should only come into effect when there’s blatant, “unconstitutional de jure segregation,” meaning the establishment of separate black and white schools, as opposed to the kind of segregation that results from inequality in housing and wealth by neighborhood. Northern congressmen even added antibusing provisions into the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“It’s only when busing gets linked to school desegregation that it becomes an issue,” Matthew Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth and author of Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation, told Vox. Busing “becomes a political codeword and a way for white parents to say ‘we oppose this change’ without saying that they oppose their children going to schools with black and Latino students.”

Students in Columbus, Georgia, getting off the bus to school in 1971. A court-ordered desegregation plan ruled that schools in the district needed to be 70 percent white and 30 percent black.
Bettmann Archive

Larger societal trends and demographic shifts also heightened the tension around integration and busing, leading to more segregated neighborhoods and schools. During the postwar era, urban planners and developers began building out the highway system and the suburban developments that would help many white, middle class urban residents move away from cities. This led to an exodus of money and a shrinking tax base for cities, and therefore less funding for education. It became clear that urban schools, especially majority black districts, would suffer from these demographic shifts.

As white flight increased in the 1960s, more schools became majority black, and more white residents left, exacerbating a move to the suburbs that had been happening for decades.

What is the Milliken case, and why is it important to the busing debate?

Legal challenges to and debates over busing continued with the Milliken case.

In April of 1970, the Detroit school board began discussing an integration plan that would change the racial balance of the city’s 22 high schools, including sending a substantial number of black students to the three remaining predominantly white schools. The state legislature passed a law, Act 48, that allowed white students to opt out of the integration plan, in effect saying segregation was permissible.

In 1970, the national NAACP filed suit against Michigan Gov. William Milliken on behalf of Detroit student Ronald Bradley, arguing that Act 48 should be ruled unconstitutional. The NAACP argued that while these schools were not officially segregated, policies enacted by the city of Detroit and state of Michigan had led to segregation. Housing policy was a key element of the NAACP’s argument: the organization said that unfair housing policies, such as redlining in the suburbs, had contributed to inequality.

Chicago parents in March 1968 protesting the city’s then-new desegregation plan in front of Sayre Elementary School.
Bettmann Archive

Many local black politicians and community leaders, including future Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, argued that more local control of schools was needed to provide more funding in majority-black neighborhoods. At the time, roughly 25 percent of Detroit neighborhoods were integrated; some local politicians feared that busing, which would reduce the local control white parents would have on their children’s education, would cause more to leave the city, leading to a greater racial imbalance between the city and suburbs.

The district court judge who first heard the case, Stephen J. Roth, affirmed that segregation had taken place, and that the only way to rectify the situation was to create a regional school busing plan. Since the city schools were 70 percent black at the time, he argued no meaningful desegregation could occur if the process was limited to the city limits. That would have meant busing students from the cities to the suburbs and vice versa, and a state-overseen solution to the issue.

The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-4 decision that suburban districts couldn’t be held liable for the segregation in Detroit, since they didn’t create the policies that led to such segregation, and didn’t intentionally keep black students out. The court ruled that the citywide desegregation plan, as opposed to the regional one, needed to go into effect.

The eventual desegregation plan wasn’t up to the task of actually impacting segregation, and the institution of a citywide plan not only failed to desegregate the city’s schools but also took place during a decade of accelerated white flight from Detroit. A federal judge ordered a plan that excluded 80 percent of Detroit’s black students. In 1972, President Nixon ordered that the federal government limit desegregation to “unconstitutional de jure segregation.” These orders implied that while intentional segregation was illegal, segregation as a result of housing patterns was not school districts’ problem to fix.

The legacy of school busing

School busing would go into effect across the nation, with varying degrees of longevity and impact. Many researchers agree that busing didn’t fail students but actually helped students of color. But it failed to be politically palatable, or achieve the scale necessary for systemic change. In cities like Boston, where busing led to sustained protests against local school boards and supportive politicians, and even violence, busing resulted in more white flight.

“School integration didn’t fail,” Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson, who has studied busing and school integration, told Chalkbeat. “The only failure is that we stopped pursuing it and allowed the reign of segregation to return.”

Segregation is still a serious problem in Detroit, New York City, and other cities across the country, and many studies suggest it’s getting worse. A 2014 study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found schools in northeastern U.S. cities have actually grown more segregated since the late ’60s: 51.4 percent of black students attended schools that were less than 10 percent white in 2011 compared to 42.7 percent in 1968. And many white parents have opposed integration plans to this day. The continued lack of a larger movement to improve school performance has reinforced educational inequality between different neighborhoods and cities, a key factor determining where parents decide to live. If done right, school busing and integration can work. But getting it to work is still a big challenge.