Busing is the means by which public school systems across the United States have sought to achieve proportionate representation in student enrollment of disparate racial groups. Patterns of residential segregation in public school districts where policy required students to attend schools in their local area made achieving a diverse student body a challenge. Transporting K–12 students via school buses to schools outside of their neighborhood to satisfy court-ordered mandates became a source of great tension among various school communities. In addition, typical school funding formulas that depend upon local property taxes raise questions about who can benefit from school district resources. This entry looks at the origins of busing and resulting protests and assesses the outcome.
The U.S. Supreme Court initiated the process of school desegregation with its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which held that separate schools were inherently unequal. The cognate 1955 Brown II decision was rendered to expedite the process by proposing that school desegregation be carried out with “all deliberate speed.” What followed in the years (even decades) post Brown I and II—confusion about how to comply as well as massive resistance—revealed the depth of emotion people attach to retaining the power to control their children’s schooling experience.
The Brown decisions were particularly directed at segregated schools in the Southern region of the United States. Many all-White public schools in the South employed a number of tactics to get around the demand to desegregate, including closing schools and establishing private schools, where they could realize their desire to maintain “racial” homogeneity. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Brown more muscle to encourage Southern school districts to desegregate because it included a threat to cut off funding to schools that practiced racial discrimination. By the end of the 1960s, the percentage of Black students attending desegregated schools in the South had increased substantially, partially due to busing.
Intervention by the Supreme Court was still necessary to attempt to resolve the problem caused by continued resistance to school desegregation efforts and reinforced by residential segregation. In 1971, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a unanimous Supreme Court held that busing children beyond their immediate residential areas was a legitimate means to desegregate schools. Within a year of the Swann decision, more than forty federal judges promptly entered orders directing the use of busing to eliminate school segregation.
Searing media images of violence, protests, and civil disobedience captured the sentiments primarily of White families who did not want their children bused out of their neighborhoods or Black children bused into their neighborhoods. Popular polls taken during the early 1970s found more than three out of four respondents opposed busing. Black respondents were about evenly split on the issue. Southern school districts that opposed busing found allies in Northern schools districts when lower federal courts began ordering busing to remedy school segregation nationwide. The alliance sought antibusing legislation as a way to resist what some perceived as interference with their right to run their local schools, including the right to allow residential patterns to determine school profiles. Northern school districts in cities like Detroit, Michigan; Denver, Colorado; Boston, Massachusetts; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are on record for their very public opposition to court-ordered busing mandates.
Metropolitan Boston earned a notorious distinction for its particularly violent response to court-ordered busing. Massachusetts U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr.’s ruling in 1974 found that consistent and recurring patterns of racial discrimination in how Boston public schools were being operated resulted in unconstitutional segregation. A busing plan developed by the Massachusetts Board of Education was used to rectify the situation and implement the state’s existing Racial Imbalance Law. The law required all schools to seek racial balance by achieving a student enrollment that was at least 50 percent White. The Boston school committee openly disobeyed orders from the state board of education to obey the law.
The desegregation plan sparked such violent criticism among some Boston residents that Judge Garrity himself was physically attacked. A photographer won a Pulitzer Prize for capturing a shot of a Black attorney named Theodore Landsmark leaving Boston City Hall and being attacked by a White youth who used an American flagpole as a lance. The televised images of riotous protesters hurling insults and rocks at buses during the start of the 1974 school year were reminiscent of 1950s and early 1960s Southern school desegregation protests.
The violent responses to busing during the mid-1970s occurred during a period of time when a federal judge supervised the city’s desegregation plan. When supervision of the plan ended fifteen years later, the Boston School Board began using a “controlled choice” system of assigning students to schools throughout the city, which it continued for the next ten years. Since September 2000, Boston has used a race-blind admissions policy. The 2000 Census recorded Boston’s White population at 54.48 percent and the Black and Hispanic populations together at 39.77 percent. Interestingly, Boston public schools are 86 percent Black and Hispanic.
Similar trends have occurred in other urban school districts. San Francisco, California, requires students to attend schools outside their own neighborhoods to promote racial diversity. Asians, primarily Chinese Americans, are the ones who actively oppose this kind of educational engineering.
In 1974, Prince George’s County, Maryland, located in the east suburbs of Washington, D.C., became the largest school in the United Stated to adopt a busing plan. The White population at the time was 80 percent and growing. Busing effectively eliminated that growth to the point that now the county’s residential population is less than 25 percent White and more than 65 percent Black. The school district’s numbers reflect even more dramatic shifts. The more than 136,000-student school district is now less than 8 percent White and more than 77 percent Black.
Evaluating The Outcome
To determine the success of busing as a tool for desegregation requires consideration of several intersecting factors. Some cite the Supreme Court’s limit on interdistrict remedies for segregation as a feature that boded failure of the plans. Most desegregation plans have favored intradistrict remedies. While that may have worked for many Southern urban school districts, with their majority White and majority Black schools, it has not worked so well for many Northern school districts, which contain only majority Black schools. Detroit is an example of a Northern school district that attempted to use interdistrict remedies to desegregate all Black city schools by busing exchanges with mostly White suburban schools. The plan was not successful, and widespread protests led to a reversal of the court plan.
Court-ordered busing for desegregation purposes also met its demise because of an increasing tendency of the federal courts to find that the effects of past intentional discrimination and segregation had been eliminated. Persistent segregated residential patterns in the 1980s and beyond became an acceptable reason to release school districts from their court-ordered busing plans. The rationale of nonintentionality was successfully argued. Although busing for desegregation continues, the strategies used to maintain it as a viable tool have been broadened to include magnet schools, charter schools, and similar controlled choice plans that allow parents to choose the schools their children will attend.
The popular criticisms of busing, some more legitimate than others, include concern for student safety, loss of traditional community, stress of long-distance travel, limits on student participation in extracurricular activities, and compromises on educational quality. All of these prompt educators and stakeholders to rethink the concepts of school and community. Busing joins a long list of controversial strategies, such as affirmative action, that have been used with mixed success to enforce judicial and legislative policy. Promoting social, political, and economic equality in American society is a complex task of monumental proportions. Schools will continue to be at the forefront of that struggle.
- Armor, D. (1995). Forced justice: School desegregation and the law. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Clotfelter, C. (2006). After “Brown”: The rise and retreat of school desegregation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Formissano, R. (1991). Boston against busing: Race, class and ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Menkart, D., Murray, A., & View, J. (Eds.). (2004). Putting the movement back into civil rights teaching. Washington, DC: Teaching for Change.
- Patterson, J. (2001). Brown v. Board of Education: A civil rights milestone and its troubled legacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
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