Busing in America: The Human cost.
Snipers staked out on rooftops. Armed police battling with local insurgents. Cars overturned and set afire by angry mobs. Crowds decrying a suppressive government. Not Iraq or Chechnya, but Boston and other cities around the country, 30 years ago, when courts ordered mandatory busing to integrate our cities’ public school systems.
The children who attended school in these local war zones are all grown up now. They are adults with jobs and families, worry lines and wisdom, and a lot of latent bitterness. Lost in the vivid images of violent conflicts and the theoretical haggling over legal maneuverings has been the very real, lifelong impact on those thousands of people who were of school age in the 1970s.
I have spoken with dozens of these former students and many of their parents in the course of researching On the Bus, and have heard stories that are both heartrending and maddening. Like the woman who remembers, as an eight-year-old girl, cowering on the floor of her school bus as the rocks and bottles smashed against it, hoping the window wouldn’t shatter over her head. Or the man whose parents pulled him out of school after he was beaten up for the third time in ninth grade. He never got his diploma, never had the chance to become the pilot he had hoped to become.
There are differences in perspective, of course. In the African-American community, there was, and still is, the sense that this was bigger than them, more important than the impact on any one individual’s life. It was a continuation of the entire civil rights struggle, worth the risk of riding into a hostile, often violent environment every day. Not to say they weren’t scared. Or that mothers didn’t cry as they put their children on the bus.
Not surprisingly, the white people I spoke with see it differently. Kids were yanked out of their neighborhood schools and, like their black peers, also sent to a dangerous neighborhood. Except they were being sent to an inferior school. Their parents were powerless to stop it. To these working class people it was insult heaped on injury by wealthy suburban judges whose own children were unaffected by their decrees. One thing struck me as a common thread in all of the people, black and white, that I spoke with—a resigned sadness over the lost potential of their lives, the mourning of the adults they might have become.
None of this does anything to excuse the overt, blatant, and very often dangerous racism Americans displayed during this time. Nothing can excuse that, and no one should even try. It’s a national embarrassment and a shame to a country that is founded on the doctrine of equal rights for all and owes its success and prosperity to its broad diversity.
Integration is more than just a worthy goal; it’s necessary for a truly democratic society. And most civil rights advances in this country have come with some amount of social upheaval. In this sense, desegregation of the schools was not different. However, the busing remedy imposed marks an enormous departure from the past. By selecting some children to be placed in inferior schools we are asking those individuals to sacrifice their rights for the greater good of society. That is a distinctly un-American approach to a problem, with the exception of the military draft during war. And just as we honor our soldiers for the sacrifices made for the good of our nation, we should remember these young casualties of the battles that shook our cities three decades ago, and know what they have given up for our betterment.