There’s a Generational Shift in the Debate Over BusingBreaking News
tags: civil rights, Race, busing, desegregation
Matthew Delmont is a Professor of history at Dartmouth College.
During the second Democratic presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris of California challenged former Vice President Joe Biden regarding a topic that has received little attention in recent presidential elections: school desegregation. Harris described Biden’s recent remarks in which he fondly recalled his “civil” working relationships with segregationist senators such as James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia as “hurtful.” “It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris continued. “And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
By invoking her own story, Harris highlighted a generational gap between people who lived through school desegregation as students and those, like Biden, for whom the feelings and opinions of white parents and constituents are paramount. As scholars such as Amy Stuart Wells and Rucker Johnson have shown, the generation of students who experienced school desegregation firsthand in the 1970s and 1980s benefited greatly. In public-policy debates and popular memory, though, the perspectives of students have been overshadowed by those of antibusing parents and politicians. As a result, the successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.
When Harris boarded a school bus in the fall of 1969 to attend Thousand Oaks Elementary School in an affluent part of North Berkeley, busing was already a hot-button political issue. The controversy was driven by white opposition to school desegregation, not by the use of school buses. Students in the United States had long ridden buses to school. Buses made the modern public-school system possible, enabling multigrade elementary schools and comprehensive high schools to replace one-room schools. Buses had long been used in the South—as well as in New York, Boston, and many other northern cities—to maintain segregation. This form of transportation was not controversial for white parents. Put more starkly, school buses were fine for the majority of white families; busing was not.
White parents in New York City organized in the late 1950s to oppose plans to bus black and Puerto Rican students from overcrowded schools to white schools with open seats. The parents used euphemisms such as busing and neighborhood schools to maintain segregated schools without explicitly saying they did not want their children to go to school with black or Latinx students. Similar antibusing protests occurred in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities in the 1960s.
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