The last few weeks of electoral politics have somewhat unexpectedly prompted a surge of historical interest in busing. The practice of transporting students for long distances to achieve racial integration at schools in other neighborhoods created a recurring point of contention in American politics from the 1950s through the 1980s, although it had mostly faded from the modern political landscape.
That changed a few weeks ago when former Vice President Joe Biden came under fire for his own anti-busing stance in the 1970s, and subsequently defended working with segregationists in the U.S. Senate on related legislation as a political necessity of the time.
The practice of busing was, and remains, politically contentious for a reason. While offered as an ostensible corrective to the very real injustices of the school segregation that preceded it, busing itself is also a form of politically directed and centralized social planning. Busing requires the allocation of students into specific schools and classrooms based on their racial characteristics for the purpose of meeting centrally planned statistical targets. Those targets often aim to replace an existing and discriminatory imbalance but that imbalance is also caused by an earlier and absolutely pernicious form of social planning. It is therefore unavoidably a centrally planned response to an earlier centrally planned government failure. And individual agency - the student’s own say in both the location and type of school he or she attends - is almost entirely sacrificed in the process, be it from the discriminatory design of state-enforced segregation or the haphazard government correctives it precipitated.
As of this writing the political fire over Biden’s remarks still rages strong – and sometimes in directions that strip the accompanying events of their historical context (University of Central Arkansas historian Marcus Witcher offers an important corrective here in the Washington Post). While the surrounding rhetoric reflects the ethical baggage of segregation as well as the emotional response to a genuinely ugly period of American history, most commentators have completely missed a crucially important dimension of the busing story. At its core, busing was a government-initiated attempt to fix a problem that was entirely of its own creation.
In most places where busing occurred, segregation under the cover of law was no longer official policy. The Supreme Court struck down that practice in the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and subsequently ordered integration to take place with “all deliberate speed.” As initial segregationist resistance to Brown met with defeat in the federal courts, local government officials changed direction and began adopting “passive resistance” to Brown, or indirect policies aimed at perpetuating racial segregation in practice if not in name.
Preserving De Facto Segregation
I discussed one such example from Arlington County, Virginia in a previous article. Although Arlington’s school officials nominally complied with Brown – indeed they were one of the first to do so on paper – a group of “moderate” segregationists on the state-installed board immediately went to work to undermine this paper commitment.
In 1958, the board’s chairman Barnard Joy personally rejected 30 out of 30 African-American transfer applicants to a majority-white junior high school, alleging a litany of specious excuses. He called the applicants psychologically “unfit,” claimed that their test scores fell below minimally acceptable standards (the NAACP countered with evidence placing the black students’ scores well within the range of white students who currently attended the school), and used geographic zoning rules to assign the students to existing black-majority schools.
Federal judge Albert V. Bryan partially overturned the board’s decision in a landmark case and ordered the admission of 4 of the 30 applicants. The Arlington school board clung to “passive resistance” though, and the same exact process repeated for the 1960 school year only to be struck down in court again.
The busing controversy did not come to Arlington until the early 1970s, but as we shall see its seeds were directly planted by the Arlington School Board when it switched to another form of “passive resistance” in 1961. After the succession of courtroom setbacks on their attempts to deny black transfer applicants, the Arlington board switched tack to a much more subversive policy. They turned the school construction budget into a political tool to ensure that black students remained assigned to all-black schools.
The next phase played out at Drew Elementary School in the majority-black Green Valley and Nauck neighborhoods. Drew Elementary was founded as a black school in the segregation era, and quickly became a visible demonstration that “separate” in schooling was “not equal.”
Neighborhood zoning assignments ensured that the Drew student body remained entirely black after Brown v. Board, but decades of neglect left the school busting at the seams. At the time of the Brown decision in 1954, Drew housed almost 300 students in its 15 classrooms – almost twice the norm for nearby white elementary schools.
Population growth and the use of geographic zoning to direct black neighborhoods to this school caused a rapid swell in its student body over the next six years. By 1960, the school was so overcrowded that administrators set up 6 additional makeshift classrooms in a nearby gymnasium and cut Drew’s school day in half, allowing them to run a morning and afternoon school session but also severely reducing the students’ instructional time. The overcrowding problem saw another setback when Arlington voters rejected a general school improvements bond, but the real crisis broke out in 1961 as the school board considered how to handle demographic pressures.
James Stockard, one of the few openly integrationist members of the Arlington School Board, proposed what seemed seems like an obvious solution to the problem. Given the existing overcrowding at Drew and expected population growth for decades to come, Stockard proposed constructing a new elementary school adjacent to a county-owned park at the edge of Green Valley and a nearby white-majority neighborhood. Due to the requirements of Brown v. Board, this new school would then presumably open as an integrated institution and draw its student body from both populations.
The majority of the school board had other plans though. Rather than create a new and integrated elementary school to alleviate the overcrowding, the board proposed undertaking a massive 22- classroom expansion of the existing facilities at Drew. A second smaller all-black elementary school in a nearby neighborhood would then be consolidated into Drew as part of the facilities upgrade, creating a single all-black institution to service the population growth. The newly rebuilt Drew-Kemper Elementary would house an astounding 1,200 students in 37 classrooms. As Stockard explained many years later in an oral history recording, Drew-Kemper would be “nearly twice the size of a standard elementary school” to service the county’s white population.
At a contentious school board meeting in 1961, supporters of the all-black Drew-Kemper construction and consolidation plan won out over the new and integrated elementary school. As a local newspaper account explained at the time, “Stockard charged that three of the Board members were being “led like sheep with a ring in your nose” by a fourth, whom he later identified as Barnard Joy” – the board chairman involved in the previous two court cases over the rejection of black students.
In his public comments Joy denied a segregationist motive, telling the Washington Star (January 29, 1961) that the “geographical choice of the facts in no way involve a racial decision.” Board member Lee Bean, part of the Joy faction, echoed that he did not “want to leave anyone with the impression that we are trying to build a school to perpetuate the segregation theory.” The proposed site for a new school was “too hilly,” they claimed.
Stockard however rebuffed the narrative, pointing out that de facto segregation would become a clear and certain result. He acknowledged that he had “never heard [the board] advance this point,” openly, but “would not be at all surprised to learn that the real heart of the objection to the Douglas-Park site was is fed by racial considerations, not educational, cost or site considerations." He pointed next to the realities of the geographic zoning map, which had been used by Joy during the previous two school terms as a pretext to reject several of the transfer applications from black students. As Stockard explained:
"One of the last vestiges of defense to be used by the South against the law of the land is to build schools in the mathematical center of the Negro community. Look at the map of Arlington and you will see that the Drew-Kemper site is in the mathematical center of the Arlington Negro community and that the Douglas Park site is at the edge of the school district which serves that community."
Ultimately, the school board approved the Drew-Kemper plan and submitted it to a bond referendum on the fall ballot. The local NAACP opposed the bond, recognizing that it would institutionalize de facto segregation for years to come. In a letter to the school board, the secretary of an African-American community center servicing the Green Valley-Nauck neighborhood explained the implications in stark terms:
"Heartbroken citizens realize that your plan will make Drew school a segregated school in perpetuity. Do not sacrifice the dignity of the individual to expediency; then you will have no remorse or mental torture in years to come. There will be no anguish of soul, no stifling of conscience, no haunting of memory that you were weighed in the balance and found wanting."
The majority of the board ignored this plea and successfully secured the bond. Construction on the 22- classroom expansion of Drew commenced in 1963 and all surrounding black neighborhoods were consolidated into the massive Drew-Kemper elementary.
De facto segregation at Drew-Kemper followed, exactly as Stockard and the NAACP predicted. By 1971, a full seventeen years after Brown v. Board, the institution remained entirely segregated. The Arlington School Board under a succession of new chairs and members spent the intervening decade rebuffing pleas for redress from the African-American community of Green Valley and Nauck.
Segregated schooling had its most direct toll on the students of Drew-Kemper, which faced continued overcrowding and also lagged academically behind the county’s white schools. An entire generation of African-American students found themselves racially isolated and under-prepared when they graduated to the integrated high school that serviced Drew. So in December 1969 their parents returned to court and sued the school board.
This chain of events, caused entirely by the school board’s “passive” policies to preserve de facto segregation in 1961, set into motion the policy of court-ordered busing a decade later. After discovering no alternative means to rezone or reallocate the student body of Drew-Kemper short of shutting the institution, federal judge Oren L. Lewis ruled that “If Arlington is to convert to a unitary system, and the Supreme Court had decreed that it must, there will of necessity be some busing.”
Government Solutions to Government-created Problems
The Arlington experience represents an especially severe yet also little-known example of ostensibly race-neutral government activities such as funding for new classroom construction were enlisted to prop up and perpetuate racial segregation after Brown decreed the practice unconstitutional. In rejecting Stockard’s proposal, which would have allowed integration to proceed naturally with the population growth of two adjacent neighborhoods, the board used the overcrowding at Drew as a pretext to further consolidate all black students at a single school.
This decision placed the expanded Drew-Kemper school on a segregated path dependence from which it could never emerge on its own. In desperation, the parents of affected students turned to the courts and the haphazardly administered, politically contentious policy of busing became the government’s only practical option to a problem of its own creation from a decade earlier.
In noting this embarrassing example of government failure, we may also discover a larger lesson about the corrupting role of politics in education. While many standard accounts of school desegregation paint a picture of benevolent political actors moving to strike down an unethical and perniciously racist institution, they neglect to adequately consider that racial segregation is itself a creature of the same political system. It is a policy premised upon using collective authority to force students into specific schools and exclude them from others on account of their race. It is a policy, as Milton Friedman often stressed, that seeks to impose a politically-determined and uniform rule upon society while leaving no option to escape or avoid the consequences of that rule.
If the channels of political allocation are not merely ineffectual but also corrupt, or are enlisted toward discriminatory ends as the Arlington case illustrates, the repercussions of the resulting decisions are seldom if ever felt by the figures who enacted them. The harmful social consequences of school segregation, whether by law before 1954 or surreptitious scheming thereafter, were transferred entirely onto those who had no say in the matter, the students.
Denied an exit option (as a voucher system might afford them) and forced into the path dependency of earlier political decisions, those students were left with the imperfect and politically fraught recourse of seeking relief from the government itself. And as the recent controversy surrounding Biden illustrates, the deleterious effects of a recurring string of government failures is still being felt a half century later.