Bradley, Busing, and America’s Segregated School Systems
“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.”
One of the most popular moments of the 2020 Democratic Primary debates came when now Vice President Kamala Harris targeted now President Joe Biden for his opposition to busing. Following this exchange, the practice once again became a buzzword for media and politicians alike. And while the Harris team used the moment to demonstrate how important it is to have the voices of people of color on the debate stage, the Biden team scrambled to explain away the candidate’s previous positions. Though the fallout from this conversation was short-lived, the issue of busing has plagued the discussion of public schooling, race, and civil rights for generations.
As the validity and effectiveness of busing are still being debated, let us take a moment to look back on the history of this practice and reflect on how those past choices continue to influence the equity of our education system today.
Let’s first roll back the clock to the civil rights era of the 60s and 70s to understand where the busing debate first sprouted up. While many American’s associate public education and the supreme court with the case of Brown v. Board, two lesser-known cases: Swann v. Mecklenburg (1971) and Miliken v. Bradley (1974) both added the busing debate to the larger legal discussions of public schools. With each creating contradictory realities of American education; one filled with integration and achievement, while the other was plagued by a willful ignorance to the causes and effects of school segregation.
Swann v. Mecklenburg was centered around the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina. This case picks up where Brown left off; while the famous case outlawed racially segregated schools, it failed to provide any recommendations as to how this desegregation should take place. This failure was marked by years of slow-moving integration plans that allowed for many schools to remain deeply segregated.
This is where Swann stepped in; in a school district which was found to have “a long history of maintaining two sets of schools deliberately operated to carry out a governmental policy to separate pupils in schools solely on the basis of race;” it was the environment that the court had in mind when deciding the Brown case. Prior to Swann, the school district had “less than 5 percent of African American children attended integrated schools.” It took intervention by the NAACP, who sponsored the case, to push the district to incorporate more racially inclusive zoning policies. Among these policies was a busing rule that took both Black and white students out of their zoned high schools and transported them to a different school within the same district. Soon, both the traditionally white and traditionally African-American schools were becoming more racially heterogeneous.
Though this integration was seen as tumultuous at its inception, as the years went on students of different races formed friendships, grew academically, and forged a place for themselves in their school communities. Further, the idea of racial busing was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1971 under the leadership of Chief Justice Burger. In this decision, the Court pointed both to the equal protection clause in the 14 amendment; as well as the findings in the second Brown case which concluded that state officials were to be the ones charged with leading the integration movement due to their intimate experience with the racial makeup of their districts, as an explanation for their unanimous ruling. Following the court decision, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg model of racial integration expanded across the country as segregated school districts were provided with a real solution to implement the racial equity dreamt up in Brown.
Many students, including the current Vice President, benefitted from busing. Among the tangible impacts that busing had was that the achievement gaps between white students and students of color within these integrated schools were dissolving. Further, the benefits were not only limited to students of color; many white students grew to be more culturally competent as they were placed in an environment where they were constantly learning from and interacting with people of diverse backgrounds. However, the successes of the Swann case were quickly undercut by another court case; Miliken v. Bradley. This case was decided three years later and during a much more conservative political climate, thanks to the Nixon administration and the four justices which they appointed. The Miliken decision seemed to work directly against the progress made in both the Swann and Brown rulings.
The case was centered in Michigan, specifically the Detroit school district and its surrounding suburban school systems. Much like Swann, it seemed clear that without busing, the Detroit and surrounding school districts would remain heavily segregated. While the more urban Detroit district was largely African-American, the suburban schools were almost entirely white. Such racial separation was set up and perpetuated by government organizations like the Federal Housing Administration through mortgage-based initiatives like red-lining.
When the case was first introduced into a district, and later federal, court, the busing proponents came out on top with a federal judge urging the case to include further districts in their bussing plan on the basis that the Detroit school system was too racially insulated to be able to produce any impactful integration efforts on its own. However, when the case eventually arrived at the steps of the Supreme Court, the more conservative streak of the justices proved to be integral to their perspective on the case, and in a 5-4 ruling, the court decided that Michigan did not have the legal standing to enforce busing in their districts.
Despite their similarities, the cases of Swann and Miliken had several key differences which led to these opposite rulings, mainly the geographical makeup of their busing plan. While in Swann, students were bused between schools within the same district, Miliken students were bused between districts. This distinction was the Achilles heel of the former case as the court could find no evidence of de jure segregation between the districts. In fact, they ruled that the housing segregation between the suburbs and urban areas was more or less happenstance, and thus the courts had no right to infringe on things like the racial make-up of the school districts, thus completely ignoring the racist housing policies that had been put in place to make sure that the suburban and urban regions of a state were racially segregated.
While the decision did not completely reverse Swann, it took all of the teeth out of the busing argument. This deceleration stemmed from the fact that the court’s decision had blocked any chance of between district busing. This provided protection for white families who had already fled to the suburbs while also paving an escape route for white families who could be impacted by a Swan-esque within district busing plan. Soon, the rising tide of busing began to dissipate, and America’s school districts realigned with the racial make-up of whatever housing region they were based in.
Fast forward to today, and we are faced with a national education system that remains largely segregated, with 50% of students enrolled in racially isolated schools. Without the court’s support, busing quickly fell out of favor and many schools returned to being racially and economically homogeneous. In fact, the same district which brought the Swann case to court later ended their busing policy when a judge had rules that the district had completed their goal of creating a racially diverse school district. The impact that this decision had on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district serves as a stark reminder of how quickly these reversals will impact the education of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. In fact, after the busing program ended one high school in the district, West Charlotte High, went from having a demographic make up of “40 percent black and 60 percent white in the 1970s” to a school that was “88 percent black and 1 percent white.” And this transformation was not rare, several other districts which had previously been ordered to integrate were no longer expected to follow through, most famous among them being districts in Little Rock Arkansas, the epicenter of the fight to integrate public schools.
Turning to my home state of Maryland, we can see that despite the ever-growing racial and economic diversity in the state, school districts remain heavily segregated. So segregated that 25% of schools in the state are classified as being heavily racially or economically segregated. A number so significant that the Civil Rights Project ranked Maryland in the top 3 most segregated state school systems in the country. Similar to the problems faced by the students in the Miliken case, much of Maryland’s segregation stems from the racial isolation of different districts and counties that were perpetuated by housing policy and color-blind zoning practices. Perhaps if Swann had represented the final movement in our nation’s school integration movement, students across Maryland and the nation would be learning in much more diverse classrooms.
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