“Nice White Parents,” “Fiasco,” and America’s Public-School ProblemBreaking News
tags: Boston, digital culture, history podcasts, School Desegregation
Another new series about race and education in the Northeast, “Fiasco: The Battle for Boston,” hosted by Leon Neyfakh, takes a different approach. “In September of 1974, the city of Boston faced a test,” Neyfakh says. “What would happen if thousands of white and Black children living in segregated neighborhoods were forced to go to school together?” In an archival clip, we hear a little girl named Joanne, who is Black, tell an NBC reporter, “When we go up there, we’re going to be stoned. It’s not fair.” She isn’t wrong. The series tells the story of the school system, the Black activists and parents who initiated change, and the inter-district busing, which resulted in several years of violence and mayhem, usually perpetrated by enraged white people: bus stonings, firebombings, threats, demonstrations, street scuffles. Even the gangster Whitey Bulger got involved.
Neyfakh, formerly of Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast, was a marquee hire for Luminary, “Fiasco” ’s subscription-based platform, which launched in 2019. His work tends to focus on late-twentieth-century political scandals and the experience of living through them; he chooses historical episodes that listeners think they know and upends their assumptions. Here, he starts with “the busing crisis,” the conflict’s name in much popular memory. As Tom Atkins, the head of the Boston N.A.A.C.P. at the time, says in an archival interview, “ ‘Busing’ was a nationwide code word” for keeping Black people in their place. “People could run racist campaigns without making racist statements,” he says. Neyfakh is white, and he and his team quickly learned that “busing” wasn’t the best way to describe desegregation: when they used the term, potential interviewees hung up on them.
Neyfakh creates the artful impression of subtlety. His stories always have direct, clear connections to contemporary life, but he lets listeners have the pleasure, or the illusion, of connecting the dots themselves. He has a gift for crafting memorable scenes, and his longtime executive producer, Andrew Parsons, is deft at animating them through sound design. In one scene, from April, 1968, the liberal mayor of Boston, Kevin White, has recently defeated the anti-integrationist firebrand Louise Day Hicks; he seems to be one of the only forces who can prevent the desegregation controversy from exploding into chaos. So it’s startling to learn that when he hears that Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated, he’s at a movie theatre, watching “Gone with the Wind.” (“Rhett!” Scarlett says. “Where shall I go, what shall I do?”) Officials are worried about civil unrest, and the next day, when Atkins, then a city-council member, proposes a peacekeeping plan involving that night’s James Brown concert at the Boston Garden, we learn that White isn’t sure who James Brown is. These are minor but potent details, vividly evoked, as is the concert, to powerful effect.
The sensational violence of Boston’s early busing era came to an end, but desegregation, with modified busing, lasted. Research has long shown that school integration, in Boston and far beyond, has worked, correlating with better-resourced schools and enduring academic and social benefits for students. Yet what many white people remember is the mayhem. De Blasio, who grew up near Boston in the seventies, believes that busing there “absolutely poisoned the well,” and is a model to be avoided: “I think history is on my side here.” Both “Fiasco” and “Nice White Parents” suggest otherwise. At one point, Joffe-Walt notes that her goal is to forge a “shared sense of reality” to counterbalance the innocence, or the naïveté, among white parents that she believes stands in the way of progress. Together, these two podcasts offer ample evidence of that reality, for those who choose to listen.