Politico – AFFH Doesn’t Work. And to Say So Isn’t Racist.
Both the headline and content of Jason Sokol’s August 4th piece about Vice President Joe Biden and the 1970s busing debate do a disservice to Biden and distort what really was happening in the Democratic Party during the period. Sokol has selective facts right. But he has overall truth wrong.
Principal 1960s civil-rights leaders, including my boss at the time, first Senate Whip and later Vice President Hubert Humphrey, sponsor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, were dubious from the beginning about compulsory school busing as a tool to advance civil rights and improve education for minorities. The “neighborhood school,” contrary to Sokol’s depiction, was a cornerstone of American public education. It has provided the principal basis for community and neighborhood solidarity in towns, cities and rural areas since the advent of public education in the United States.
Following passage of the Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, and attendant Great Society legislation aimed at upgrading minority skills and education, Democratic leaders of all races and ethnicities searched for ways to break patterns of de facto segregation. Neighborhood structures, both North and South, had resulted in neighborhood-school segregation even after legal segregation had ended. Moreover, black families were slow to move into previously all-white neighborhoods. Widespread neighborhood diversity would come only later.
If black kids were not living in mostly white school areas, the thinking went, they should be transported to such areas rather than stay in mostly or all-black neighborhood schools. This would serve the cause of desegregation and, also, provide better quality education to African-American kids enrolled in what often were academically inferior schools.
Legislative initiatives and court rulings resulted in busing. In many places, like in Boston as Sokol describes, there was raw racism involved in protests against busing. In many other places, however, there was non-racist consternation based mainly on parents’ concern for the well being of their children.
This was the case even in liberal Washington, D.C. My wife and I had two sons enrolled in a Northwest Washington elementary school when busing began in the city. School buses would deliver black kids from Southwest D.C. at the Janney School front door at the morning bell. The same buses picked up the same kids, immediately at the end of classes, and took them back to Southwest. They did not participate in any pre- or after-school activity. No black parents took a bus or drove from Southwest to attend evening PTA meetings or to otherwise participate in school-related activity. The quality of classroom instruction fell off markedly. Fourth- and fifth-grade neighborhood students, for instance, were repeating material learned in earlier grades because teachers found their bused classmates had not yet received it. Not surprisingly, parents from the neighborhood began looking for private schools for their kids or moved to Maryland or Virginia suburbs—not because of racism but because their neighborhood school no longer was working.
To varying degree, the same thing was happening in other places where busing had been instituted. Elected officials—even those strongly in favor of civil rights—began to conclude that busing was a well-meant mistake. Presidential candidate George McGovern, in 1971, proposed to his advisers, of which I was one, that he would straightforwardly take an anti-busing position. We prevailed on him not to do so because we believed that the issue then was so emotion-laden that busing proponents would misunderstand his opposition.
This was the environment in which then-Sen. Joe Biden and other Democrats began to say out loud what their colleagues were already saying privately: Busing was not working. The emphasis should be on improving neighborhood schools, wherever people lived, rather than forcing kids daily to take buses, often quite far from their neighborhoods, distant from their parents and neighbors.
During the period in question I served not only Humphrey and McGovern but represented in Washington, D.C. the Southern Elections Fund, then headed by Julian Bond, which raised money for local-level black candidates in Southern states. I traveled to Mississippi to assist Charles Evers in his gubernatorial campaign. I was in daily contact with Democratic national and congressional leaders and several times served as principal author of the Democratic national platform. From the mid-1970s onward, there was a growing consensus within the party that neither civil rights nor education were being served by busing. Joe Biden represented that consensus; he was not some reactionary outlier.
To Democratic alumni of the civil rights and Great Society era, present debate about civil rights and racial justice seems to have wandered far off-track. The cornerstone of our thinking, back then, was that important court cases and national legislation, such as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, would destroy legal bases for discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion or ethnicity. Tangible programs to lift the educations, skills, health, nutrition and housing opportunities of minorities, in particular, would bring them a more equal chance at the starting line.
Yet the emphasis now is not on such initiatives but on real and imagined grievances against a “white establishment,” denunciations of local police, focus on race-based violence (which has diminished markedly in recent years) and on the labeling as “racist” anyone not buying completely into the current politically correct talking line. The most visible black spokespersons, on the Democratic side, are nothing like Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, or even authentic Selma march hero Rep. John Lewis. They are Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who use race as a wedge issue to generate attention and income for themselves.
I have no doubt what brave leaders of the civil-rights revolution would be saying as they witnessed today’s so-called dialogue about race. It would go something like this:
We did not see how hard it would be to truly free black Americans. No more talk please of white racism by anyone or denunciations of past and present political leaders by folk who never risked anything in a tough period when it counted. Let us get on with the work. What good does it do if we have a black president, black attorney general, black judicial, executive, and legislative leaders at all levels, successful black leaders in business, labor and the arts if black communities, North and South, are plagued by high black-on-black murder and violent crime rates, narcotics dealing and use, horrific school dropout and incarceration rates, high unemployment, and broken or non-existent families? All Americans need to get on this now with tangible, practical initiatives. Enough grandstanding, self-righteous talk. Time to separate the talkers from the doers.