American Interest

School Busing: Yes, It’s Personal

The rhetoric flying around about school busing after the most recent Democratic debates was beyond sloppy. And the actual history is far from tidy.

Former Visiting Fellow
African American and white school children on a school bus, Charlotte, NC – 1973 (Library of Congress)
African American and white school children on a school bus, Charlotte, NC – 1973 (Library of Congress)

p(firstLetter). This is personal for me. When you hear these words uttered by a political candidate, what do you expect will follow? If you are closer in age to Joe Biden than to Kamala Harris, you will likely expect a reasoned argument, or perhaps an anecdote intended to show that the candidate has hands-on experience with a certain issue. If you are closer in age to Harris, these same words will likely translate as, This my turf, not yours! You cannot possibly know anything about it, so get the hell off! And what follows will be a fierce proprietary claim, not just to a particular identity but to exclusive, authentic, unassailable, nontransferable knowledge of everything associated with that identity, whether or not the person actually possesses such knowledge.

Case in point: during the second presidential debate on June 27, Biden and Harris had a testy exchange about school busing, a topic that was a very hot potato half a century ago but has long since become a very cold spud. Why did Harris decide to re-heat it? Is she planning to make school busing a key proposal in her campaign? Or was that cold potato the only vegetable she could find to hurl at the white guy who served alongside America’s first African-American president? I suspect it was the latter, and there is no denying that it worked. For an entire news cycle (which now means about 15 minutes) the Twittersphere was deeply divided on the issue of whether school busing is an effective remedy for racial inequality.

For the record, I do not question Harris’s assertion that she benefited from Berkeley’s decision to bus students from the lower-middle-class neighborhood in the western flatlands to an upper-middle-class school in the eastern hills. Nor do I dispute her self-identification as African American, although it does strike me as odd that racial identity and sexual preference must now be regarded as inborn and indelible, while biological sex is celebrated as a matter of free choice.

As for Biden, I do not think it is entirely his fault that the media describe him as coming from a blue-collar background. After all, it took me almost five minutes on Google to learn that his father started out as a salesman, then worked his way up to executive, co-owner of a small airport, and sales manager for car dealerships and real-estate firms. By the time a reporter did that, the news cycle would be almost over.

But I do object to all the sloppy rhetoric that went flying around after the debate. And here’s why. School busing is personal for me, too.

A few decades ago, I conducted a natural experiment in what today might be called the intersection of race, class, and public education. I use the word experiment because it was in vogue at the time. My experiment was conducted in three stages, and in each, I learned a different lesson.

The first stage was a master’s program in urban education at the University of Pennsylvania, in which I enrolled in after college—not because I had always dreamed of being a teacher but because I was obsessed with race. The word woke was not known to me at the time, though its African-American roots are deep. But woke is what I was trying to be, the only imaginable alternative being a white racist.

Read the full article in the American Interest.