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Racism and busing

July 17, 2019

It is easy to imagine that many of those vested in the slave system of the early American south held no personal animus against blacks. Slave traders dealt with free blacks in Africa. Plantation owners frequently took black concubines. Slavery has been practiced through much of history, in many places and climes. It does not require any particular notions about race to participate in that practice. The desire to acquire wealth and social status will drive many to careers exploiting any resource available. I suspect many early slave owners held no particular view of race. They each would have been able to say, more honestly than Trump, that he doesn’t “have a Racist bone in my body.”

Now, a historian or sociologist would point out that the system they made to build their wealth built in significant inequities. More, it shaped the notions of race that now are so much a part of American culture. Both the pseudo-scientific notions around that and the religious notion that blacks bore the curse of Ham were sharpened and more propagated as a political defense of slavery as political controversy around it grew. Those arguments weren’t needed to lay its foundations. The promise of wealth was enough for that. They were needed only in the political struggle that came later. That they would remain popular for a century after the Civil War shows the enduring power of the system that was created, and its long resistance to reform.

Nicole Hannah-Jones writes an excellent article on one of the battles enjoined: school integration. She points out how easily those defending their place and position shift from race-based arguments to more abstract ones:

But white Northerners, who were watching as mandatory desegregation orders were breaking the back of Jim Crow education, quickly adapted a savvier resistance than their counterparts in the South. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund repeatedly persuaded courts to order desegregation upon showing that Northern officials had maintained official — if not public — policies to segregate black children, the resistance increasingly took on “busing.” This allowed white communities and politicians to deny the role of racism and therefore give respectable cover to their resistance. It was the educational version of arguing that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery — one could uphold racist practices and systems while arguing that race had nothing to do with it.

When I was in junior high, it was one of the white schools to which black students were first bused. That did indeed cause some conflicts among the students. Strangely, not nearly as many as it did among the parents. One of the sillier arguments I heard then, and still encounter today, is that busing is social engineering, and therefore wrong. As if all that came before it was not also social engineering.

One response to busing was white flight. Hannah-Jones partly credits a court decision:

And then in 1974 the Supreme Court, stacked with four Nixon appointees, dealt a lethal blow to Northern desegregation. In Milliken v. Bradley, it struck down a lower court’s order for a metropolitan desegregation plan that attempted to deal with white flight by forcing the all-white suburban school districts ringing Detroit to integrate with the nearly all-black city system. By ruling against a desegregation plan that jumped school district borders, the court sent a clear message to white Northerners that the easiest way to avoid integration was to move to a white town with white schools.

As messy as it was, busing worked. Schools in most parts of the nation became less segregated. (See graph right.) It brought large change to the culture of the south, turning it from almost an apartheid society into something better. Desegregation is one of the few things we know that helped black student achievement:

We now know that school desegregation significantly reduced the test-score gap between black and white children — cutting it in half for some black age groups without harming white children. No other reform has reduced the gap on this scale. Rather, the opposite is true: The test-score gap between black and white students reached its narrowest point ever at the peak of desegregation and has widened as schools have resegregated.

Yet what was done remains as controversial today as it was then. And then, as now, those opposing change easily shift from race-explicit to other kinds of arguments. Lee Atwater famously explained that, when discussing the GOP’s successful southern strategy.

I think Chris Cillizza is mistaken in attributing those racist tweets to misunderstanding. Trump campaigned on fear and political resentment. Fear of modernity. Fear of liberals. Fear of globalism. Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims. It is hardly surprising that his base is characterized by racial resentment.

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