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Why Kamala Harris’ thrashing of Joe Biden matters to North Carolina’s racially segregated schools

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California)

When presidential hopeful Kamala Harris tore into Joe Biden last week, the California senator exposed the fundamental schisms, even among liberals, on school desegregation.

“[It] was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country,” Harris told Biden during last week’s rowdy primary debate.

“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

For his part, the former vice president bristled at Harris’ characterization of his position on “busing,” although the tale of the tape is not so kind to Biden here either.

But, in the fallout from Harris’ timely take-down, pundits have missed the point, focusing instead on what the senator’s comments mean for her candidacy.

Perhaps, our time would be best spent analyzing the willingness of politicians and policymakers — from any political party — to truly consider the sickly decline of diversity in U.S. schools. Indeed, resegregation is a malady felt keenly in North Carolina, creating two different school systems and two offensively contrasting outcomes.

I’m not talking about the idea of school diversity. The most moderate to conservative politician — outside, perhaps, of a seemingly xenophobic Dan Forest — can espouse some appreciation for a multi-cultural student body while doing virtually nothing to make such a thing possible.

I’m talking about real steps, real reforms, the sort that made diversity initiatives a model in places like Berkeley, Wake County and — under a judge’s order — Charlotte in the 1970s.

I’m talking about understanding why those initiatives worked, and why leaders have allowed that progress to stall or founder.

History professor Matthew Delmont contributed his own sepia-toned analysis of the debate at The Atlantic Monday morning, explaining how our own eroding understanding of segregationist history — and the widely despised but efficacious “busing” programs — leaves us with a skewed perspective even among policymakers on the left.

From The Atlantic:

By invoking her own story, Harris highlighted a generational gap between people who lived through school desegregation as students and those, like Biden, for whom the feelings and opinions of white parents and constituents are paramount. As scholars such as Amy Stuart Wells and Rucker Johnson have shown, the generation of students who experienced school desegregation firsthand in the 1970s and 1980s benefited greatly. In public-policy debates and popular memory, though, the perspectives of students have been overshadowed by those of antibusing parents and politicians. As a result, the successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.

When Harris boarded a school bus in the fall of 1969 to attend Thousand Oaks Elementary School in an affluent part of North Berkeley, busing was already a hot-button political issue. The controversy was driven by white opposition to school desegregation, not by the use of school buses. Students in the United States had long ridden buses to school. Buses made the modern public-school system possible, enabling multigrade elementary schools and comprehensive high schools to replace one-room schools. Buses had long been used in the South—as well as in New York, Boston, and many other northern cities—to maintain segregation. This form of transportation was not controversial for white parents. Put more starkly, school buses were fine for the majority of white families; busing was not.

White parents in New York City organized in the late1950s to oppose plans to bus black and Puerto Rican students from overcrowded schools to white schools with open seats. The parents used euphemisms such as busing and neighborhood schools to maintain segregated schools without explicitly saying they did not want their children to go to school with black or Latinx students. Similar antibusing protests occurred in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities in the 1960s.

Northern congressmen responded to the anger expressed by many of their white constituents by writing antibusing provisions into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These amendments were designed to keep federal civil-rights enforcement of school desegregation focused on the South and away from the North. While the Civil Rights Act finally pushed to the South to comply with Brown v. Board of Education by enabling the withholding of federal funds, cities in the North, Midwest, and West routinely flouted federal authority.

Antibusing rhetoric spiked in 1972, the year Joe Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate. White protesters such as Irene McCabe of Pontiac, Michigan, received massive amounts of media attention for their defiance of court-ordered school desegregation. President Richard Nixon called for Congress to pass a busing moratorium and used televised presidential addresses to signal that he would limit federal oversight to unconstitutional de jure segregation, most commonly associated with the South, to set the terms of the busing debate. Nixon also warned his appointees and the lawyers and officials who worked in the Justice Department and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that they could either support the administration’s evolving school-desegregation policies or lose their jobs. When Biden came to the Senate and began introducing his own antibusing amendments, he was building on more than 15 years of white parents and politicians using busing as a code word to oppose school desegregation.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest is in hot water for his comments on “multiculturalism.”

The use of “code word” in this context is key, because you’re not liable to find many politicians of Biden’s ilk eager to sidle up to segregationists. That may be true even if their disdain for diversity initiatives — couched in a cozy devotion for “neighborhood schools” or school choice — has precisely the desired effect for segregationists.

Diversity initiatives worked, we know. They worked damned well, a point often lost when ideologues joust on this issue. Yet our progressive principles are not simply rooted in some hazy sense of decency, but in an empirical awareness as well.

From a 2016 New Yorker piece on Charlotte’s re-segregation woes:

Some might wonder why a commitment to school desegregation matters. Can’t we just inject more resources into poor schools so that they have the opportunity to compete on an equal playing field? But research has long shown that singularly investing capital into a school in which the vast majority of students live in poverty has limited impact on achievement. The social science on the impact of desegregation is clear. Researchers have consistently found that students in integrated schools—irrespective of ethnicity, race, or social class—are more likely to make academic gains in mathematics, reading, and often science than they are in segregated ones. Students in integrated K-12 schools are more likely to both enroll in and graduate from college. While the most disadvantaged students—most often poor students of color—receive the most considerable academic benefits from attending diverse schools, research demonstrates that young people in general, regardless of their background, experience profound benefits from attending integrated schools. As the editors of “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” make clear, “Students who attend desegregated schools exhibit greater levels of intergroup friendships, demonstrate lower levels of racial fears and stereotypes, and experience less intergenerational perpetuation of racism and stereotypes across multiple institutional settings.”

The racial composition of schools affects the quality of the teachers, too. A 2009 study by Kirabo Jackson in the Journal of Labor Economics found that as student populations in Charlotte-Mecklenburg became increasingly black, the most qualified teachers transferred to other schools. In other words, the more a school resegregated, the less qualified the teachers became. Additionally, school segregation was deeply correlated with the likelihood of a student becoming entangled in the criminal-justice system. In Charlotte, the chances of black males coming into contact with the criminal-justice system increased with the resegregation of their high schools.

There is also an economic imperative to move toward integration. School desegregation is associated with higher graduation rates, greater employability, higher earnings, and decreased rates of incarceration. Higher earnings mean more tax revenue. Decreased incarceration means less money spent keeping people in prison. All of which means more money for localities.

These points may be wonky, but they’re essential to recall as the pundits bicker and banter over last week’s primary debates. Horse-race analysis in the media may be fun, but the broader context must be unearthed if we’re to advance, if we’re to understand that our racially sundered history in the schools and public spaces is more relevant than we’d have ever imagined today.

History may have given the win to desegregationists, but perhaps we rang the bell before the bout was truly over.

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