How White Americans’ Refusal to Accept Busing has Kept Schools SegregatedRoundup
tags: racism, busing, suburban history, school integration, Swann v. Mecklenburg, Milliken v. Bradley
Matthew D. Lassiter is professor of history and director of the Environmental Justice HistoryLab at the University of Michigan and the co-creator, along with eight undergraduate students, of Give Earth a Chance: Environmental Activism in Michigan.
Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court issued the landmark decision of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the most far-reaching school desegregation case since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The Swann ruling upheld a lower court-imposed plan to integrate the public schools of metropolitan Charlotte through two-way busing between the segregated White suburbs and the all-Black central city neighborhoods. During the next few years, busing helped transform the public schools in the states of the former Jim Crow South into the most racially integrated in the nation. The technique proved successful despite intense opposition that ranged from White resistance movements to the administration of president Richard Nixon.
But the Supreme Court deserves very little credit for this development, which depended on the NAACP’s visionary litigation and Charlotte having previously merged its schools with the outlying suburbs of Mecklenburg County. Chief Justice Warren Burger, the author of the Swann decision, actually wanted to overturn the Charlotte busing plan but could not achieve a majority to do so. Instead, he wrote a reluctant and convoluted opinion that provided a road map for metropolitan areas in the North and West to avoid meaningful school desegregation — something that became clear three years later in Milliken v. Bradley, when Burger helped invalidate an almost identical district court decision ordering two-way busing between the city and suburbs of Detroit.
The lesson? Then, and now, a supermajority of White Americans, both political parties and all three branches of the federal government have opposed the public policies necessary to dismantle housing and school segregation that stems from decades of government policy. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, the Supreme Court established formidable barriers to meaningful integration and equitable access in urban and suburban neighborhoods that remain largely intact to this day, including decisions upholding the discriminatory policy of exclusionary zoning and allowing suburbs to ban low-income housing.
Despite popular narratives that focus on civil rights battles as a Southern issue, White resistance to substantive school desegregation happened across the country. In fact, the first organized antibusing movement in the nation began in 1964 in New York City, when several hundred thousand White families boycotted the public schools to protest a very modest desegregation plan that violated their racist conception of “neighborhood schools.”
During the mid-1960s, the NAACP launched an “all-out attack … against Jim Crow schools northern style.” But, the federal courts blocked its campaign, seeing segregated urban schools outside the South as a result of market-based patterns of neighborhood housing segregation and not unconstitutional state action.
This stark distinction between “de facto” segregation in the North and West and “de jure” segregation in the Jim Crow South was, however, a legal and political fiction. In fact, a vast array of government policies had divided metropolitan areas nationwide along racial lines, from redlining in the mortgage market to gerrymandered neighborhood schools.
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