As the 1970s began, Kevin White, the mayor of Boston, was the beau ideal of a Democrat: Young, handsome, Ivy-educated, a white man in the mold of the Bobby Kennedy of 1968, ready to roll up his sleeves and do the work of running a storied city in a time of white flight and segregation.
White had his eye on the Massachusetts governorship, but some party insiders nudged him higher. And then he hit the buzz-saw of busing.
It was fitting that a Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2020, Kamala Harris, used busing to bust another, older, white male politician, Joe Biden, who also once saw himself in the Kennedy mold. Because for Democrats, busing has always been a problem in the family.
Louise Day Hicks, the great opponent of busing in Boston, was a stalwart Democrat. In “Common Ground,” J. Anthony Lukas’s masterly history of Boston and busing in the 1970s, you scarcely meet a Republican.
Lukas, a former reporter, set out to create a book-length work that ultimately ran to 688 closely-packed pages examining busing and Boston through the lives of a black family, an Irish-American family and a WASP family. It won all the prizes – the Pulitzer for General Nonfiction, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Award – and deserved even more.
Reporters are taught to get the make of the car and the name of the dog, with perfect faith that truth is in the details. Lukas richly laced his story with history and details, which makes it all the more eye-opening, still. That and his empathy ensure it, because there are no villains and no heroes. There are only past wrongs made worse in some ways by efforts to right them, which probably also sums up the spent and disillusioned liberalism of the 1970s. And we are still arguing about how to right them, or how bad or chronic they are, or whether they even can be fixed.
We can no longer agree about what racism is or whether it exists.
No one in Boston had that last problem when busing began. Segregation of schools by law had ended with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, but it had not been applied through much of the country. Boston effectively had white schools and minority schools, varying by neighborhood; almost all the students in South Boston were white, and some Roxbury schools were nearly all black.
In 1974, federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. found a pattern of racial discrimination in Boston schools and ordered busing as a remedy.
The problems of race and class in America are intertwined. What happened with busing in Boston pitted poor and working-class black and white communities against each other, which is partly what made it so bitter; but undeniably, the racism of lower-class whites prolonged it. And most Democrats pandered to them.
George Wallace, the segregationist former governor of Alabama, ran for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, predictably as an opponent of busing. Less predictable, perhaps, was his complaint that on race, front-runner and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was flanking Wallace on the right.
What has changed in 45 years? Busing did seem to improve equality of educational opportunity in Boston, as well as outcomes for many non-white students. At the same time, the white share of the city’s population has fallen by more than a third, to about 50%, and owing partly to continued white flight from desegregated schools, only 13% of public school students are white.
In 2014, Boston historian Jim Vrabel said busing was a failure of public policy: “The last 40 years we’ve been pursuing a mathematical solution to desegregate the Boston public schools, instead of an educational solution to improve them.”
Perhaps, instead of debating who opposed busing and why, Democrats can learn together from failed policies in proposing new ones meant to cure the same, persistent American ills.