Busing Is Really About Racism, And Other Things Historians Already Knew

Education issues almost never make it into the presidential debates, but one created a flashpoint in the last Democratic primary debate. Instead of tuition-free college or raising teacher pay, it was the unlikely topic of busing. Even if it was only a savvy bit of debate theatre by Kamala Harris designed to take Biden down a few pegs, I’m glad it was a topic that cuts to the core of racism, inequity, and segregation in our education system rather than one of the many impossible-for-the-president-to-implement ideas that have been floated.

The debate has brought the topic back into the news, so work by academics and journalists school segregation and integration strategies like busing have enjoyed renewed coverage. Education and civil rights historians are having a moment. Busing is a multifaceted topic, so the best writing out there includes all angles: inequity, segregation, politics, racism at the root of the problem, and racism that fueled resistance to busing as a solution.

For instance, on Monday, scholars Matthew Delmont and Jeanne Theoharis recentered the busing discussion on the real issue — segregated schools — and refused to let Democrats off the hook for the lack of progress since Brown v. Board:

But despite its prominence in recent debate, busing was never actually the issue. The real issue was the pervasive and damaging segregation that existed in schools throughout the country and whether all schools would actually desegregate. And with their slippery positions on desegregation, Harris and Biden expose the longtime cowardice of the Democratic Party in dealing with school segregation, particularly outside the South.

Liberals express outrage at federal judges nominated by President Trump who refuse to say whether Brown v. Board was correctly decided, yet Democrats, both historically and in the present, have been largely unwilling to take concrete steps to fulfill Brown’s legal and moral mandate of equal education, so as not to alienate their local white constituencies. As such, school desegregation has long been a third-rail issue for liberal politicians.

Below are a few more pieces that I think are worth your time. Drop your recommendations in the comments.

And lastly, both “busing” and “bussing” are acceptable spellings of the word. “Bussing” is antiquated but not incorrect. “Busing” is more popular. “Bus” is short for “omnibus.” The word “buss” is a synonym for “kiss.”

– Guest post by Jason Weeby

2 Replies to “Busing Is Really About Racism, And Other Things Historians Already Knew”

  1. A very misunderstood topic, and one where both sides are now very much older, since most busing took place. However, a topic worth mining for its historical insights.
    My primary concern over busing has to do with its initial premise that one school (often the white middle class school) is seen as having magical powers. That the building/staff were on the right stop of geography. Simply moving under achieving students to that location was somehow going to make them successful. This is nothing more than an educational version of the 18th & 19th century idea that “taking the waters” of a natural spring would cure what ails you. In recent years there have been a number of stories, by African Americans, who have been able to attend elite private schools, or be one of the few interlopers in a “successful” suburban public school. Some of these people advocate this notion of submersion-busing. But they miss factors which led to their “success” It was not the place so much as the zeitgeist and practices of the people which resulted in positive outcomes.
    Much of the problems of toady’s schools are rooted in the the belief system of the EDUCATION GOSPEL. It drives people in charge to repeat ideas based on magical thinking and a desire to be part of the elite in society rather than to educate those skills needed to be competent citizens

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