We’re joined by Matt Delmont. He’s the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College, and he wrote the book on busing – 2016’s Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation. Given the prominence “busing” has had in discussions about school desegregation, particularly in light of the exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden at a recent democratic presidential primary debate, we thought we’d take a break from taking a break, and talk about “busing”.
–Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation – Dr. Delmont’s 2016 book on desegregation
–There’s a Generational Shift in the Debate Over Busing – Dr. Delmont in The Atlantic
–How Desegregation Became the Third Rail of Democratic Politics – Dr. Delmont and Jeanne Theoharis in the Washington Post
–It Was Never About Busing – Nikole Hannah-Jones from the NY Times
The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits.
Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver.
Courtney: And I'm Courtney, a White mom from LA.
Andrew: So we are supposed to be taking a break over the summer. And I think we were doing a pretty good job when this happened.
CLIP of Kamala Harris: 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.”
Andrew: So, many of you probably noticed that the topic of school segregation and particularly the use of busing to desegregate is in the news a lot after that debate moment.
Courtney: A lot has been said about it. And much of it has actually been pretty good. And if you have not read Nikole Hannah-Jones’s New York Times article, stop everything and do so now.
Courtney: It made us realize just how murky the real story is around our nation's attempt at desegregation.
Andrew: Yeah, right. I mean, even the framing and much of the media of this being a question of busing, it ignores that what we're actually talking about is school desegregation and not transportation.
Courtney: Yeah. I mean, we talked about some of this in the Brown v. Board series, but with this new focus on the method of desegregation, we thought it would be worth having a conversation specifically about busing. What it means, how it was used as political cover for anti-desegregation sentiments. You know, and how the way that the story was told continues to affect our ability to have a clear-eyed, honest discussion, right, about where we currently are in school segregation stuff.
Andrew: Yes, but never fear listeners. This is not just the two of us waxing philosophic about it. We brought in a heavy hitter who has been all over the media in the wake of the debate. And he was nice enough to give us some time and share his deep knowledge.
Courtney: Yeah. So Dr. Matt Delmont is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College. And he has literally written the book on busing, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to Desegregation .
Andrew: He's great. His work is showing up everywhere right now for very good reason. And we're thrilled to have him on the show.
Courtney: Yeah, let’s hear it.
Andrew: Dr. Delmont, thank you for joining us.
Matt Delmont: Thanks for having me.
Courtney: Yeah. So busing is, you know, big in the news right now, following the Harris Biden exchange during the recent Democratic presidential candidate debate. And I know you have been quoted all over the place. We definitely want to get your take on the current discussion and how it's playing out.
But I think first I'm interested in what brought you to write this book? Like why do you care about this issue?
Matt Delmont: Yeah, it's a good question. So I started research on this in about 2010. Um, all my work is on African American history and history of Civil Rights in some way. So my first book project was on the history of the Civil Rights movement in Philadelphia.
And so I've looked at issues around school segregation going on in the fifties and sixties in Philadelphia. And for the next project I wanted to look nationally and kind of get a broader understanding of what was going on in terms of, uh, school segregation and Civil Rights in the North but on a national level.
Initially, I planned to start the book focusing really just on the 1970s, trying to understand what happened in Boston in the 1970s, then what, what came after that. But as I got into the research, I realized that these protests against the use of buses for integration, they started almost two decades earlier. Um, so they started just after Brown versus Board in New York City.
And so for me, as a historian, I'm always interested in trying to complicate stories that we think we know pretty well. Um, so almost everyone’s heard about the sort of busing in Boston and almost everyone has sort of negative associations with it. And so for me, what motivated me with the book was what can I find and reveal that's going to kind of open people's eyes and get them to see what seems like a familiar topic, get them to see that in new ways.
Andrew: So, so the history a little bit, like, let me see if I have this right. 1954 Supreme Court says we can't have separate schools. Like a decade later, the Civil Rights Act says, no, no, seriously, we can't have separate schools. And then we invent school buses to rip White families away from their neighborhood schools.
Is that, that basically, basically how things went down?
Matt Delmont: That's, that's basically it. No one had ever ridden a school bus before some meddlesome judges got involved to, uh, to, to transport some, some White kids, some helpless White children across district lines into scary minority schools.
Andrew: I feel like that's the way we talk about it now. But in fact, uh, there were school buses before the Supreme Court got involved, weren't there?
Matt Delmont: Absolutely. I think that's one of the things I've been trying to tell everyone I talked to in these last couple of weeks, that the reason I use busing in quotation marks throughout the book is that school buses had long been and use the United States to transport students.
So starting in the 1920s school buses, it's what allows America to, to develop a modern school system, um, to move from these kind of one-room rural schoolhouses to multi-grade elementary and comprehensive high schools. All of that use of school busing is entirely uncontroversial among White families.
Um, and in fact, in many cases, the school buses are used to maintain segregation. So when Linda Brown, who was the plaintiff in the Brown v. Board case, she's bused past a closer school, which is a White school to a further way African American school. So all of that use of busing wasn't controversial.
It wasn't until it got linked to issues of integration and school desegregation, that it became a controversial issue among a lot of White parents.
Courtney: Yeah. I was talking to a dad in my neighborhood the other day, and he was telling me all about how wonderful his White daughter's school was and that she rides a bus an hour, at least, each way. And you know, I'm just thinking like, Yeah, we don't actually hate busing. We just hate busing for desegregation purposes.
Matt Delmont: That's exactly true. And so it continued through the seventies and eighties, as long as busing was linked to better schools and the opposite end of it. Um, White parents remained in favor of it.
Andrew: Or at least like what we think of as better schools, right?
Matt Delmont: Yeah. It was only if they had some concern that they were losing, uh, access to the privileges they already held. Um, and then of course issues around racism and integration. That's what fuel a lot of the protests against busing.
Courtney: So maybe, could you kind of talk a little bit about the busing debate? Do you want to kind of take us a little bit into the history of, of those discussions?
Matt Delmont: Sure. So Brown versus Board passes 1954. The Southern half of the story is relatively straightforward. The South refuses to do almost anything in that first decade after Brown versus Board. So you have increasing Civil Rights activism. There's the Little Rock school integration crisis, but by and large, there's very little actual integration that happens in the South in that decade after Brown v. Board.
In the North and Midwest and the West, things are a bit more complicated. Um, you have a very active Civil Rights movement in places like New York City, Boston, Chicago, where African Americans and their White allies are really pushing school boards to address the segregation they see in their cities.
Brown versus Board doesn't explicitly apply to these Northern districts, but so far as activists see segregation on the ground, they see that their schools are, are unequal and they want the school officials to do something about it. So you have Civil Rights activists pushing, at the same time you also have a lot of White parents who are pushing back against these sort of very modest efforts that school boards are starting to make to address segregation. And some of those first protests against busing show up in New York City in the late 1950s. And I think it's important to note at this point that the parents who are protesting, um, their students aren't being bused anywhere. Um, so the first evidence I saw was a protest in 1957 where, you know, White mothers picketing outside of a school carrying signs saying We oppose busing, We're in favor of neighborhood schools. Both of which I think are really code words. But what they're opposing is plans that are gonna transport about 400 Black and Latino students from an overcrowded school in the Bronx, to transport those students to a school in Queens that's overwhelmingly White, but that has empty seats.
So it's a one way busing program. It's only busing minority students. But already you have White parents up in arms about this.
Andrew: And I'm guessing they weren’t up in arms because they were concerned about the Black and Latinx kids who had to ride the bus.
Matt Delmont: No, they were not, they were not concerned about the transportation times for the minority students.
they were using that language of busing and neighborhood schools, as a way to try to maintain the racial status quo of segregated education in New York without explicitly saying, We don't want our White students to go to school with Black and Latino students. And then those kinds of protests continue to pop up in the North throughout the early 1960s.
So you see them in Detroit, you see them in Chicago, you see them in Boston, all returning to this language of opposing busing and being for neighborhood schools. Language that just didn't exist before until the issue of integration got on the table.
Andrew: I think that, that, that language piece seems really important in your work. I mean, when we talk about busing, it seems that everybody knows that we are using some sort of coded language, right? You know, we're, we are not opposed to kids actually riding on a bus. So we all agree that we are using some sort of code when we say busing, but I feel like we don't really agree on what that code is. And it allows us to pretend that the sort of things that are going on underneath are not actually there or something.
Matt Delmont: I think that's absolutely right now. And I should have said at the outset that my training is as a historian of Civil Rights, historian of education, but also a media historian. So I'm particularly interested in the way that terms like those terms, like busing or neighborhood schools, can get taken up in media accounts, both in the newspaper, but also in television, um, and then kind of take on a life of their own. Um, and also how the protesters were very conscious of the language that they were using. They, these White opponents of school desegregation, they were very careful students of the Civil Rights Movement.
They saw those kinds of public protests and they explicitly said, we're going to use those same kind of public protests. Lots of mothers marching, lots of carrying American flags, pushing baby carriages. And we're not going to use explicitly racist language. At least we're going to try to avoid using explicitly racist language.
Instead, we're going to say these are our rights. These are our rights as homeowners. These are our rights as taxpayers to send our kids to neighborhood schools and to oppose busing. And I think the way that that language got taken up by the media,
They really set the terms for the debate. And what I think that did was it made it really easy for White parents to, to claim that they were the ones whose rights were being trampled upon. It made it a story about their feelings and their children, as opposed to a story about the civil rights of Black students. Which I think is to our loss and we're still trying to kind of undo that and grapple with that to talk more honestly about how schools became segregated in our country and how they, how that segregation was maintained and who benefits and who's, who's harmed by that.
Andrew: Yeah. This seems to like tie into this idea of the real high premium that people sort of all of a sudden seem to place on neighborhood schools. When did that start? Has that, has that always been a value for parents?
Matt Delmont: So it's a good question. So the first evidence I saw of people explicitly using that language “neighborhood schools”, it dovetailed entirely with the anti-busing protests started in the late 1950s. So I think it had a lot to do with, had a lot through the understanding that, you know, our neighborhoods are segregated.
If we want to avoid having to integrate one way to do that is to say, well, let's just stick with our neighborhoods. Let's sort of double down on this neighborhood concept and do everything we can to protect that. So I think a lot of it had to do with, with racism, frankly. And, um, trying to maintain that, that racial privilege that went along with residential segregation.
I do think that there might be something more at play with the neighborhood concept. I don't know if I've entirely worked through it yet. So my work really focuses on sort of the ‘50s through the 1970s where you have pretty clear relationships between the sort of housing policies that determine who's going to live where in urban areas and who has access to the suburban areas and the kind of socioeconomic status. I think those things have gotten more complicated since the 1970s.
And what I mean by that is, and particularly today, you have a lot of people of color and and a lot of low income families living in suburbs, the kind of inner ring suburbs, and you have a, a larger proportion of, uh, higher income families moving back into cities. And so I think that issue of neighborhood I think is really a complicated one, um, because I think people can either invoke it when they want to or ignore it when they want to. I know some cities, the issue is if everyone actually attended the neighborhood schools, that would be more integrated than the different choice plans that are already in place. And so I think I'm still trying to read up myself on some of the contemporary scholarship to understand, you know, how are, how are people invoking that term now?
But I can safely say that the period I study from the 50s to the 1970s, when it was invoked, it was usually invoked as a code word for, We want to maintain racial segregation.
Andrew: Right. Yeah, this seems to like tie into this idea of the de jure versus de facto segregation. That if, if you start at whatever, 1954, you look and the schools are segregated and in the North, they say, Well, it doesn't say in our school school board policies that kids have to go to separate schools, so this is just the fact of the world. And I know you previously and in your book talk about de facto segregation. It's really just sort of a ridiculous concept.
Matt Delmont: Yeah, it, it is, uh, it's something that scholars have shown over the last couple of decades is really a myth. This idea that there's de facto segregation.
So the split that came out of the Brown v. Board decision, um, was that you had de jure segregation, segregation by law, taking place in the South. And that's fairly easy to picture and to identify. We can think of the Black drinking fountains and the White drinking fountains, Black schools and White schools.
The South made no bones about the fact that they had an explicitly segregated system. Doesn't mean it was easy to overturn it, but it was much easier to identify it and to make it clear this is what was going on. In the North, school officials, politicians always claim that the kind of segregation that was happening there was accidental or happened by nature based on individual choices and market forces.
That's what they would term, in quotes, de facto segregation. Once those cases started to move through the courts in the 1960s and 1970s, judges in places like Pontiac, Boston, eventually Chicago, found that there were intentional decisions made by school officials that segregated those schools.
And a lot of those intentional decisions built on the history of mortgage redlining and intentional federal policies that segregate our neighborhoods. So I'm just one of many, many scholars over the last couple decades who have been able to kind of provide the receipts, so to speak, to show that there was no accidental segregation in our nation's history, that these kinds of segregated neighborhoods we saw, particularly outside of the South in the way they produce segregated schools, was intentional. It was very, very difficult for Civil Rights attorneys to prove, those cases cost a lot of money to bring to court. Um, but when they got to court, the judges found that those schools had intentionally segregated.
Courtney: So you just talked about how the debate was kind of centered around the feelings of White people. I think we understand why, but can you share why you think this is a problem?
Matt Delmont: Yeah, so I think it was a problem for two reasons. I think firstly, if we just think about how we talk about the history of civil rights in our country, the Southern sort of civil rights is a story that foregrounds experiences of, of Black people, right?
So we have famous images of Martin Luther King leading marches. We can identify Rosa Parks as one of the sort of iconic figures in our nation's history. There are great pictures of Ruby Bridges integrating schools in New Orleans, the Little Rock Nine in Little Rock. Black people figure prominently in those civil rights stories in the South.
Outside of the South,
They put in place these busing orders because these school boards in places like Boston did everything in their power to intentionally segregate schools and then did everything in their power to avoid dealing with that reality, to rebuke the civil rights demands of their local Bostonians at every turn.
And so I think one of the issues with focusing on the feelings of White people, is it entirely obscures the civil rights of Black students and Black parents in these Northern cities. I think the other reason that it's a problem is that it, it deprives us of a language to be able to talk honestly about race in our nation's history because it focuses so much on, on White innocence.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. I think that that's huge. And that to me seems like part of the problem of referring to it as just busing.
Courtney: And I'm also thinking like, what are, you know, what are these ugly stories? We know people hurled Coke bottles at, you know, Melba Beals, but, you know, are there, are there particular stories around busing that really illustrate that this was in fact actually race?
Matt Delmont: Yeah. So all the language focused on busing, there were many cases in which sort of the racism became more prominent.
Um, one of the first ones that comes to mind is in Pontiac, Michigan. Um, Pontiac was one of the first Northern districts to be placed under court order and be required to bus. One of the things that happened there just before the start of the school year in 19-, I think it was 1971, a group affiliated with the KKK broke into the bus depot and dynamited 10 school buses.
They were empty thankfully, but they dynamited 10 school buses as a threat to school officials, the judge, and to the Black community, that they were adamantly opposed to this idea of, of having racially integrated schooling in the North. That's the kind of story that we don't usually think about. We certainly don't think about with regards to the North or a place like Michigan in the 1970s, but it was this kind of undercurrent of on the, Um, we saw it show up in Boston. We saw it show up in Louisville.
Um, and so I think that those are kind of two sides of the same coin. On one side, White racial innocence and the other side, the willingness of too many Whites to resort to violence to maintain their privileges. Um, it posed a real challenge to Black parents who had to think about sending their students into some of these racial integrated schools.
That was a, that was a real fear that, Will my child be safe going into a White neighborhood to go to school?
Courtney: So what kinds of advocacy work were Black parents and Black civil rights organizations doing around this? And then, and then a followup to this is, were there any Latinx or Asian-American or other groups vocal in this debate? We, we think about it often as a Black and White issue, but was it?
Matt Delmont: Those are two very good questions. So, on the first side, the kind of efficacy you saw among Black families and civil rights organizations. So the Black perspective on busing was pretty complicated.
And what that meant was you would have these one-way busing programs. So there were some school districts that had two-way busing programs, where both students of color and White students were bused. Those are relatively rare. What you saw more commonly were one-way busing programs where you would have students of color bused out of their neighborhoods into White neighborhoods. That was controversial and upsetting for a lot of Black parents for a few reasons.
One, it meant that they would be going into strange neighborhoods and they would be worried about whether the teachers and parents at the receiving school would be openly hostile to their students. It also meant that in many cases the schools in Black neighborhoods were closed, uh, in what led to job losses for Black teachers and Black administrators.
Um, and in some cases the schools, they might stay open, but the names will be changed. So it might go from being the Booker T. Washington School to Central High School, which was sort of a loss of community identity and community pride around the school. All of which is to say that Black parents wanted the best education opportunities for their students, but they also wanted these busing orders to, if they're going to be put in place, to be put in place equitably and to respond to the real concerns that they raised.
Um, so, I know one of the things I've seen come up in the last week or so is people citing some poll data from, I think 1973, that suggests that only 9% of Black parents supported busing. What I don't think comes up clearly there is what other options they wanted to advocate for. So Black families and civil rights activists were interested in integrated housing that was almost entirely off the table in most places. They were interested in more funding for those schools. That happened in some places, but didn't happen nationally and didn't happen on a consistent basis.
the kind of ambivalence that some Black parents felt about busing was that when it was actually put in place and how it kind of played out on the ground, it didn't always foreground their needs and their interests. So in terms of advocacy, it was just consistently trying to make the case that if we want the best education opportunities for Black students, it's not just resources, but it's having administrators and teachers who legitimately care about the students and their, and their learning outcomes. That it's not just getting them into the school so they can sit next to a White kid, but it's having teachers, parents, and principals there who are going to value these kids and not suspend them when they, when they arrive.
To the second part of the question, it was absolutely a multiracial story. And so based on the demographics of the country, you saw a lot more organizing among Latinos and Asians in places like California, Texas, and New York. And the story again is complicated there. So without overgeneralizing, a primary issue for Latinx families and, and Asian American families was bilingual education as opposed to desegregation.
And so that's where you saw what might've been civil rights alliances among people of color sometimes break down because whereas African Americans are particularly interested in desegregation, for a lot of Latinx families, they actually preferred to have a larger concentration of Latinx students in a school so that they could have bilingual education and funding for bilingual education. And so that was a real roadblock in places like California and Texas.
It got very complicated because then depending on what side of the kind of political ally you were on, people would kind of pick and choose which minority groups they wanted to sort of elevate their voices and try to pit against each other. But understand that the kind of complicated multiracial dynamic, dynamics of it just makes it even more kind of complex and nuanced.
Andrew: Yeah. You know, the, the overwhelming story is White resistance to desegregation, but were there, uh, White and privileged groups who were sort of coming out in support of busing and desegregation in places where it was not so vehemently protested, where people sort of accepted it and, and, and embraced it?
Matt Delmont: Yes, there were many, and that's one of the things I think falls out of the way in which you talk about school desegregation. So one of the reasons I titled my book Why Busing Failed was there was such a steady drum beat of, This policy failed, It can never work, It was a failed experiment, Let's never try it again, that I want to try to address that head on.
So I ended up focusing mostly on the resistance to busing, but when I try to open up in the conclusion is recognizing that where these policies were actually put into place, they, they tend to work. So I can highlight just a few places where you saw White parents being more active and trying to support these movements and trying to make them work.
So in the 1960s, Evanston, Illinois is one of the first type of voluntary school integration program, which kind of makes sense ‘cause it's very close to Northwestern University, but you have a multiracial group of parents there who organize and try to really do the grassroots organizing it takes to put a plan in place and then to see it through and make it work.
I thought it was interesting that Kamala Harris mentioned Berkeley. Uh, Berkeley is another example of a success story. So they did put in place a voluntary program after some more pro-integration folks were elected to the school board. It was not without controversy. A number of White parents organized the resistance to it, but the larger proportion of White families and then, uh, families of color as well, organized for it. And so that's another place where you saw White parents doing their share to, to lobby for it. But, and I think the final kind of set of success stories I would say is really in the South, once these court orders are put in place and it became clear that they had to desegregate, you have a period of success from the mid 1970s through, I would say the late 1980s when courts and politicians start to walk away from enforcing the court orders.
So in places like Louisville, Charlotte, Raleigh. Citizens, not just liberals, but people across different party lines see it as their sort of civic duty to make sure that these policies work. Doesn't mean they're always happy about it, but you have White parents who, who commit to recognizing we can't maintain the segregated school system any longer. We have no other options, of course, if they are forcing us to do this, now we need to make it work the best possible way. I take those as positives stories, because I think it showsonce the federal government or courts really have an active role in saying, This has to happen, people are adaptable. They, they adapt to political realities and those, those White families in some of those Southern cities adapted to those political realities. And I would say did a much better job than a lot of liberals outside of the South in terms of promoting integrated education for, for those couple of decades in the seventies, eighties, and early nineties.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I feel like that's, when we don't tell that story as well, then, like where's the space for people to try to do that again today? You know, if the narrative is all White people hated this forever. And it's just the way of the world, then it's much harder to think about overcoming.
Matt Delmont: I think that's true. And I think that almost every place we've seen desegregation efforts attempted, there's initial pushback. I think the places where it worked was where you had school officials and local leaders who could provide leadership and provide patience to hear out the upset parents and sort of ride the wave of those that initial year to a protest, but stick with it and to really make a strong case that this was something that was civically important. That we didn't need to agree on every issue, but for the best school outcomes for that community or for that city, or for that region, people had to come together around, around this issue. That, that took leadership and I would say a political courage that was lacking in too many places. But the places that, that saw it work had people who were willing to stick with it over a period of time.
Courtney: Yeah, school desegregation efforts are largely discussed as like fact and function of policy, right? But as we see from your account, it's always much, much more than that. The news media, which is, you know, made of White people who were probably often themselves parents and vocal individuals and, you know, marches of 15,000 White moms were also really influential in the desegregation debates. So can you talk for a little minute about the relationship between individuals and policy here?
We're also all about building a brave constituency for brave policy, building a movement of parents with skin in the game. And so, so we hear a lot at Integrated Schools that desegregation is a policy issue, but you know, we also really believe that individual choices are, are significant in this as well.
Matt Delmont: Yeah. I always think of sort of policy and individual choices and individual feelings as really working in tandem. I think policy can, can set the terms of what people deem to be normal and what they deem to be possible. So in the time period I study, because there are already decades of intentional policies that segregated neighborhoods, for a lot of White families, they just understood it to be normal that their neighborhoods and their schools were going to be segregated.
That sort of was a foundational belief. It's meant to be the case that White people are gonna live by White people and Black people are gonna live by Black people and Latinos by Latinos. Policy shaped that. But then I think in turn that shaped how individuals understood their place in the world.
At the same time, it's absolutely the case that, that political officials, school officials, judges, are influenced by the kind of individual feelings and individual choices they see their constituents making. So one of the things I saw playing out, particularly in the case of New York, was the school officials were really scared to death by the perceived viewpoints of White parents.
So already by the 1950s and ‘60s, there are these rumors circulating in community meetings that, that the school board is intending to bus all 1 million students who are in New York public schools. They're gonna be busing kids from Harlem to Staten Island and vice versa. Whereas the school board only at that point is, has plans to bus a 1,000 or 2,000 students.
But school officials hear those rumors and they hear the anger and the frustration and the concerns. Those individual choices and emotions then in turn shape policy because they have a chilling effect on policy makers that don't want to sort of go too far to upset the views of their White constituents.
And so I think the things kind of work, work in tandem.
It's complicated but I think that is a sort of cycle of how, how a lot of school decisions have been made in our country's history.
Courtney: You know, can you talk a little bit about what, what some of the impacts of the busing debates have been like?
Matt Delmont: I think the lasting impacts of the busing debate, particularly as it peaked in the 1970s, really two things. I think it took school desegregation off the table as a national issue. So you still have a lot of schools that were under court order through the 1970s, even some that are still under court order today. But the sense of, of a national commitment to making good on the guarantees of Brown, of the promises of Brown, both the legal and moral mandate of Brown? I think that largely got shifted off the table after the mid-1970s and the busing debate. Um, the second thing I think came out of the busing debates was to my mind, it really shaped how we talk or how we don't talk about race in our country. I think
Busing wasn't the only aspect of that but I think busing was the, was really the, the kind of fulcrum issue where we had a chance to say, This is how things got this way and here's what we're gonna do to change it. And instead we took it the path of, Let's not talk about how things got this way, and let's, let's pretend that, that Whites were victimized by these policies. And then just sort of double down on sort of a market logic that, that rewards people who already have the resources. So I think, unfortunately, that's, that's what I see as being the legacy of, of the busing debates of the 1970s.
Courtney: Yeah. So I'd like to kind of move into, you know ,the current conversations around busing and desegregation and what I'm really interested in, like, if we maybe are beginning a new conversation, right, small as it might be about desegregation, how do you see today's stories the same as or different from the ways the conversation was playing out in the sixties and seventies?
Matt Delmont: Yeah, that's a really good question. I mean, to start off with, I was really surprised at how much attention busing and school desegregation has received in the last couple of weeks.
When I went back and watched the tape, it was a fairly small part of the debate, but it ended up being in sort of the news cycles for almost two weeks. Which to me, as a historian of this stuff, was just shocking that it, that people were interested in talking about it. So, on the one hand, I mean, maybe focus on the negative side first. A good chunk of what I saw repeated a lot of the same kind of old worn out tropes from the 1970s, including pictures from busing protests in Boston, where they would just sort of show the bus and not again, talk about, Why was the bus there? What was going on for the two decades before that, in terms of the Civil Rights activism or the court case that led to the busing? So just acting as though the buses showed up and that was the start of the story. And even using that language of busing or asking candidates or pundits, So do you support busing today, pro or con?
Um, I thought, I thought that kind of coverage was pretty limiting ‘cause it doesn't reflect the differences in terms of the political and legal dynamics today, what is, or is not possible after the sort of Supreme Court's Parents Involved decision with Seattle, but also the difference in terms of racial and socioeconomic demographics. That the kind of integration plans are going on today, they look different than a lot of what we saw in the 1970s and I think having some more contemporary information.
But more positively, I was impressed by how many media outlets did more nuanced coverage of the issue. It helped that they reached out to a lot of experts on the topic and really sort of include their scholarly perspectives.
But also I thought that they did a good job of focusing on different local areas. I think school desegregation, school integration, it's a really difficult issue to talk about nationally. Obviously the federal government has a role to play, but to understand sort of what is working now, what's being tried now, you have to really zero in on, on specific locations. And I thought some of the best reporting was able to kind of pinpoint, Okay, here's what this sort of school district has tried and here's how it's working or why it's not working. Or here's the kind of political issues that are, that are stalling school integration in this other place. So I've been encouraged by that.
I think the last thing I'll say is, I've kind of wondered why it has received so much attention in the last two weeks? I think it's almost like one of these issues that people don't want to talk about it so much that then when it does come up, they, they feel compelled like they have to talk about it.
I guess what, what I mean by that is I think
And so I think for me, the kind of two weeks that people spent talking about and around the issue, I'm hopeful about it in some ways, because I think it's almost like this sort of repressed part of our, our country's history that we've been forced to talk about in these last couple weeks. I think it indicates that even if people don't yet have the collective goal to do something about it, there's at least a collective awareness that this is not the kind of educational system that we want to have in our country.
Courtney: Yeah. And I think, you know, I think like the increasing conversations about redlining and structural racism in general have really allowed for, you know, a more nuanced conversation.
Matt Delmont: No, I think so. I mean, I'm always encouraged when people sort of everyday people can kind of nerd out on these things and try to understand the policies that got us to where we are today and what kind of policy changes in terms of exclusionary zoning for housing and in terms of school zoning. What kind of policy changes would produce different outcomes in the future? And then trying to work through their own emotional, and I don't know, I'd say lifestyle commitments or lifestyle attachments to the system as it currently stands and what it would take to produce a different system.
I think it's encouraging when people are willing to have those conversations.
Andrew: What does it matter that we get this story right? Why, why is it important to know the history, to look at the coded language head-on and what it actually means. And then going forward, why do we need to tell this story?
Matt Delmont: For me as a historian, just professionally speaking, I just think it's important to get the facts straight. I think, regardless of what your political affiliations are in regards to what you think we should do in the future, um, I think we have to start with the same set of facts and I think sort of an honest accounting of our nation’s history around this particular issue, I think is important.
And that just professionally speaking as an historian, that's, that's all I can do in the classroom usually is sort of, let's just all be on the same page about what actually happened and then you can make your own, your own choices going from there. So I think that's the first part. I think the second part is
I should say, I don't think everyone will make those kinds of decisions. I think you can look at the history and say, It's too bad things things were, things were structured in that way, but I'm, I'm unwilling to give up my privileges now. I think some percentage of people, both Republicans and Democrats, are always going to think that, but I think hopefully there's a larger proportion of people who, when they see the facts and they see if I'd been born in a different zip code, if I'd been born with different parents and different racial demographics, I could work as hard as I want and the kind of education that was put in front of me is not going to send me in the same, the same professional direction. It's not going to give me the same kind of set of life chances. If you recognize the unfairness of that and sort of the injustice of that, I hope that there are enough people who would make a different set of choices and push for different policy outcomes so that we don't have to be having this conversation a generation or two generations from now.
I think that's
It's like we want to claim the metal, claim the trophy for having completed the race, but we haven't finished it yet.
Courtney: I want to leave room for if there's anything that you think our listeners should know.
Matt Delmont: I can't think of anything more from my own research. I think that, so I got an email earlier today from a student in New York who's part of this group of students called Teens Take...
Courtney: Teens Take Charge, yeah!
Matt Delmont: Teens Take Charge. And what struck me and it strikes me, strikes me talking to you all is that I didn't see voices of people like you all in the last couple weeks in the media coverage. And so I guess I wonder what it would take to get the voices of people who are doing the on the ground work of trying to make this a reality now, more attention. I don't have an answer to that, but I think media strategy is always a part of the equation about which, which side wins or loses. And the time period I studied, the anti-busing folks were much more successful at setting the terms of the debate than folks who are advocating for racial integration in the schools.
It's for me, it’s kind of an open question of what can we do to get your kind of perspectives or the Teens Take Charge perspectives, um, more visible. I think the people who currently have skin in the game as, as parents and students and whoever sort of work on these battles on the ground. I don't know, I mean, I wonder, like in my book I write about sort of Irene McCabe and Pontiac and her, her “mother's march” to Washington DC.
And some of the most successful political activists of the 20th century were White moms, right? They were often advocating for things that I'm not in favor of, but there's such tremendous power there.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I think it's, it's, it's a question we think about a lot because I, ‘cause I don't see a way out of the current state that we're in without a real shift in on the ground level thinking about it. It seems like we have one of the ways, one of the reasons that we're doing this podcast, and one of the ways that we get there is by helping people see other ways of conceiving of, I mean, even things as basic as what is a good school and what's not a good school...
Courtney: Good parenting, yeah.
Andrew: What counts as good parenting and what doesn't count. You know, all of those things, that if we can't sort of change those things really hard, I mean, I think you need the policy to push on some, some ways there's got be a sort of a push and pull. You can't ignore the policy piece of it, but the policy alone is how you, is how you get the sort of backlash that we got after Brown v. Board.
Matt Delmont: Yeah.
Courtney: Well, and I know you've had requests all over the place, so thank you so much for taking the time with us.
Matt Delmont: Well, it's great to learn about the work that you are doing. It's, it's a fascinating… I don't know, I spent so much of my time looking historically that I don't really know a lot about what's going on today. So it's good to have a chance to talk to you all and know more about what, what you all are up to.
Andrew: We are very grateful to Dr. Delmont. He's got such a nonchalant delivery but his content is just so strong.
Courtney: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: It definitely feels like this could have been part of the Brown v. Board series, right? ‘Cause he's, he, he really sets out to complicate the stories that we tell about our desegregation efforts, right? Like that, that somehow this was actually about busing and transportation and not about desegregation.
Courtney: Right. Right. And like that, that the neighborhood schools was always a value apart from the ways that it allowed segregation.
Andrew: Right. Or that busing, busing failed. Right? I mean, like, as it turns out, actually in a lot of places, it worked and White people, yes, even Southern White people, weren't always hurling epithets and projectiles, but in some cases just actually embraced it.
Courtney: Yeah. And I think, you know, I think the other myth that he was really busting is that, you know, this isn't the natural state of the world that people are separate, right? Like de facto segregation is made or constructed as we were talking about with the same White folks. You know, listening to Dr. Delmont, I just couldn't stop thinking about the interview we had with, uh, Dr. Elizabeth McRae.
Andrew: Yeah, totally Mothers of Massive Resistance. It was a lot of these same things, that the work of segregation took a lot of effort it needed, as she says, constant gardening, right? And I mean Dr. Delmont right near the end there right, he said something like, uh, some of the most successful political activists of the 20th century were White moms.
Matt Delmont: Yeah.
Courtney: What if we actually had like White moms, you know, plus Andrew.
Courtney:I mean, you know, White parents, White caregivers working towards something else, but let's get to it, right. Because we need to frame the debate.
Andrew: Yes. We've got to frame the debate through like real facts. Actual clear-eyed look at history, a decentering of White feelings about that in order to focus on true equity.
Courtney: And I think one of the things we can all do is like comment the hell out of this everywhere we can. Right? Like we have power in this metaphorical playground, on the Twitter, on the Facebook, in the grocery store lines at birthday parties.
This is daily work, this gardening. Right? And we can all do it.
Andrew: Yep. Can't be silent. So this podcast is a volunteer labor of love and your financial support is what makes it all possible. So if you'd like to be a part of continuing this effort, head on over to IntegratedSchools.org. Click on that donate button.
Courtney: Yes. And please share the podcast on your social media. Send it to your favorite Mommy blogger. Send it to your cousin in Tulsa, post it in your parent Facebook groups.
Andrew: Yes, we're incredibly grateful for your feedback. Keep the voice memos and emails coming. Comments, questions, thoughts for future episodes. Send them to [email protected]
Courtney: And we are happy as always to be in this with you as we try to know better and do better.
Andrew: See you next week, when we talk to Dr. Michelle Adams about the Milliken v. Bradley anniversary
Courtney: So much for our break.