For me, the most frustrating moment in the first round of Democratic debates was also the most widely discussed: Senator Kamala Harris’s criticism of Vice-President Joe Biden’s record on busing.
It was frustrating because it was a reminder that the debate stage is rarely the right venue for complexity, nuance, or understanding. It’s a format which produces more heat than light, as the saying goes. Although we learned that Harris disagrees with Biden’s record on busing and that Biden stands by it, we didn’t learn much about the arguments in favor and opposed to busing. We didn’t have the opportunity to reflect on whether busing was a useful tool or not in the fight against racial injustice. The exchange indeed gave us soundbites for cable news commentators to opine on for days, but I think it was a missed opportunity. I don’t agree that it was a missed opportunity for Biden to apologize for his past, as many wanted him to do. I think it was a missed opportunity because it didn’t give us the chance to reflect seriously on how best to help struggling communities, minority or otherwise, as we continue to strive to open opportunity to all.
I hope we can take it for granted that the vast majority of Americans believe in equality and want all people to have opportunities to develop their inherent potential. True racists do still exist—those who believe one race is inherently superior to another—but those are, fortunately, very rare. Even many white supremacist groups these days are more animated by the perception that they are being ignored or left behind, rather than the desire to hold others down. And there are practically no true segregationists to speak of left in America. This is a stunning fact that too rarely receives the attention and celebration it deserves—that a mere 50 years ago, ordinary people protested and threatened violence outside of a Little Rock high school to oppose integrating it, which would be unthinkable today. Despite our current struggles, we have a tremendous amount to celebrate as a culture in our fight against racism.
I emphasize this because in the debate about the legacy of busing, there is no one defending segregation, and few are truly indifferent to the plight of those who experienced struggling schools and neighborhoods. Everyone agrees on the goal busing sought to accomplish: to offer a quality education to all. The disagreement is merely about different means to achieve that goal, not the goal itself. Surely we can find a way to have productive conversations when we’re discussing the best way to achieve a shared goal.
The arguments in favor of forced busing in the 1970s were pretty straightforward. For a host of reasons, predominantly black schools in the 1970s woefully underperformed compared to white schools in the same areas, and so the solution seemed obvious: bus black children to the superior schools so that they too could benefit from a better education, while simultaneously normalizing social interactions between white kids and black kids.
The arguments against forced busing were more nuanced and easier to misconstrue. As Biden himself said in 1975, “I don’t want to be mixed up with a George Wallace. There are some people who oppose busing because they are racist.” So why did Biden and so many other champions for civil rights oppose busing?
According to a now-infamous 1975 interview, Biden saw busing as heavy-handed, condescending, and ineffective. He saw it as a “quota system” in which the federal government would not make nuanced decisions based on local knowledge, but generalized decisions based on abstract reasoning. Biden explained, “It is one thing to say you can’t keep a black man from using this bathroom, and something quite different to say that one out of every five people who use this bathroom must be black.”
Biden also considered forced busing to be condescending. “Who the hell do we think we are, that the only way a black [child] can learn is if they rub shoulders with [a] white child?” This is a view many African-Americans held at the time as well. Many were uncomfortable with the idea that the only way African-Americans could succeed would be to abandon their own communities and enter white communities.
Finally, Biden considered forced busing to be ineffective. Because majorities of both whites and African-Americans opposed busing (even while favoring integration,) it’s not surprising that the resistance was intense. Many white families simply fled urban areas to self-segregate. Others enrolled in private schools. It is rarely effective to impose on a group of people by fiat a solution they do not want, however desirable that solution might be.
My main objection to the legacy of federally-mandated busing is that it was a bandaid solution which kept us from focusing on the bleeding wound beneath, a wound which required and still requires far more intensive care than busing offered. Poor communities everywhere—largely African-American but white as well—are still suffering. The proper response to this need is vigorous and sustained help and attention. The solution to struggling communities, whether black, white, urban, or rural, is to help those communities become stronger and healthier, not to give up on them by encouraging their most talented members to leave them.
I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware—the very city Biden had before his eyes when thinking about racism, segregation, and busing. I’m embarrassed to admit that there are whole depressed sections of the city which, growing up, I literally didn’t know existed. We could certainly bus a select, lucky few minority students from these communities to more affluent schools, but this maintains the illusion that we’ve done our part to help these places. We haven’t. We’ve helped individuals, but we’ve given up on the places. As long as they remain invisible to us, or nearly so, we have not done our patriotic duty.
Barack Obama put it best in 2004 in one of the greatest speeches in US history:
[We know] that it’s not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we’re all connected as one people.
If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.
It is that fundamental belief, it is that fundamental belief, I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.
Unlike many of my progressive friends and colleagues, I don’t believe much explicit racism exists in our country today. Nor would I say that inadequate awareness of the poverty in our midst—a trait shared by many conservatives and progressives—is a kind of racism. But such a lack of awareness is wrong and it is destructive. Ignorance can be just as harmful as hostility.
I am personally willing to make great sacrifices to help my impoverished fellow Americans–whether they be in urban ghettos or rural slums—but I believe the solution requires us to heal these broken places, not merely to help people escape them. If we bus one student to an affluent school but leave nine students behind, we haven’t done our duty.
If we want all Americans to flourish and thrive, we have no choice but to help heal the many broken communities in our land, whatever inconvenience or sacrifice of resources it requires. If improving our struggling schools requires that we find the best teachers in the country and pay them triple the usual salary to work there, we should do it. If improving our struggling schools requires a wholesale change in our economy to ensure good-paying jobs exist in inner cities, we should do it. If improving our struggling schools requires a service requirement of every citizen, we should do it. We should do it because Obama was right: as long as one of my fellow Americans is suffering, I am the poorer for it, even if I never encounter that person directly.
The prophetic writer Wendell Berry wrote in 1988:
“My own experience suggests to me that busing for any reason is, in reality, a tool of disintegration. I believe in neighborhood schools for the same reason I believe in neighborhood shops and stores, for the same reasons I believe in the neighborhood. There can be no greater blow to the integrity of the community than the loss of its school…. [Today’s schools] exist to aid and abet the student’s escape from the community…”
If Berry’s words seem strange or quaint, it’s because we have become so unaccustomed to thinking about community that invoking it as a standard sounds like something out of another era. But I believe Berry is right. If there is a need to bus students out of a community, the solution lies not in busing those students but in healing the community. It is a harder job, a job which requires more sacrifice—but it is the only way to heal those communities and truly respond to the needs of our fellow Americans.
These are complex issues in which people of goodwill can certainly disagree. But what we saw on the debate stage several weeks ago was not a serious reckoning with this challenging and difficult issue. The standard shouldn’t be whether a candidate’s views are “hurtful,” but whether they are true.
In an attempt to score points or a memorable sound bite, the candidates missed an opportunity to have a real discussion of these issues. But we can’t wait for our elected officials to lead the way. These are conversation that we, as citizens, need to have. Many of our fellow Americans are hurting, and the help cannot wait.