How Forced Busing of Boston Advantaged American Equality


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Between 1974 and 1975, a period of unprecedented racial tension gripped the city of Boston. In a strange inversion of character, housewives, blue-collar workers, and other middle Americans took to the streets in protest. In a time of widespread forced busing, this liberal, yet well-educated population that seemed the most capable of adapting to such legislation reacted with unparalleled tumult. Although this separation of interests between black and whites appeared to provide clarity to this issue, the strife which emerged in this antibusing movement were not merely reducible to matters of race. Forced busing was an integral step in ensuring the equal opportunity for African Americans, yet Boston’s constituency of Irish Catholics made this a volatile social system to impose it upon. Among this majority, a combination of racism, class resentment, and defense of one’s community and identity served as powerful catalysts for opposition against the busing movement.

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A large component of this public outcry in regard to forced busing involved the relatively low social standing of the Irish Catholic population present in Boston. The similar mistreatment that Irish Catholics and African Americans had faced throughout their history in the United States contributed to a highly competitive atmosphere. In general, the Irish Catholic population felt little remorse for blacks. Due to their own prior difficulty in assimilating with American society, the Irish were not susceptible to appeals to guilt or shame from the black community. Though the Irish had gradually seized a degree of influence, they still possessed little social and economic power. Despite constituting some 60 percent of the population, the Irish still saw themselves as a minority. As Formisano quips, they were characterized as “the only oppressed majority in the world” (42). Due to the steep slope that the white population in Boston had to climb prior to the 1970s, they felt entitled to all that they earned. By being very similar to the African American identity in terms of their lack of privilege, both of these groups vied for social supremacy over the other. Since each group had claim to so little, both were unwilling to give what they had secured.

In addition to the personal condition of the average Irish Bostonian, much of the white population in or around Boston possessed a strong connection to their local schools as a sense of individual and communal identity. For individuals from such areas as South Boston, attending school was one of the highlights of a young man or woman’s life. It gave children and teenagers the ability to engage in liberating and significant activities such as being a member of athletic teams, clubs, and participating in school dances. School provided an avenue for the uneducated to become educated and allowed for a means of social mobility and increased opportunity. Along with the benefit of learning and being part of a community, school was very memorable. In addition to being constructive, in what would otherwise be unconnected groups of wage laborers, this mutual experience functioned as the social thread which tied people and communities together. The thought of having African American students taint this outpost of identity was unthinkable. The Irish Catholic individuals in South Boston who were subjected to this forced busing felt they at least deserved claim to the schools which came to define them. By trampling on these traditional values, and for arguably violating the integrity of homogeneous neighborhoods, forced busing served to inflame the passions of the vast majority of the white population in Boston.

Most white residents of Boston, namely white parents of schoolchildren, were overwhelmingly antibusing in some way. Some fought the court orders by acts of individual resistance. Some fled, putting their children in parochial schools or anywhere but in the Boston public schools. During this time, white flight away from the city became a stark reality. Many during the first two years tried to give desegregation a chance by sending their children to the public schools. However, those who did cooperate in the first two years risked threats, abuse, and harassment from antibusing militants. These individuals labeled those who went along with the busing as “traitors” and intended to deter their neighbors from consenting to the legislation in any way. While these words between white individuals seem divisive, their reaction came from a desire for unity. Busing posed a great threat to the way of life for the Irish population

Another valid reason for the white opposition to forced busing was the disadvantages that integration posed for white students. Instead of attending a white school that is close to one’s household, many children were now going to spend between one to two hours on a bus to attend a school in an area that was considered foreign and potentially dangerous to the white residents. For example, Roxbury, an impoverished neighborhood almost entirely composed of African Americans, was where many white students came to be bused. By being forced to attend a previously all black school, the level of academics, athletics and other extra-curricular activities were considered to be inferior to white schools. In short, the parents gained nothing by sending their children across town to these black schools and were not willing to sacrifice their own comforts in order to establish a desegregated school system. It was also believed that the parents, not the government, should have the power to decide where and with whom a child attended school. In many respects, the government seemed to be exceeding their bounds in making personal decisions. Due to the lack of incentives to send a white child to an integrated school, it would appear that the only individuals to support this movement would be those who favored racial equality. From a practical standpoint, few were interested in embracing this more principled and moral perspective as compared to defending their own identity.

Even though this legislation put a great constraint on the liberties that Bostonians enjoyed, it was arguably a necessary course for the social progression of the black community. Although African Americans had been living freely in the United States for over 100 years by this point, they still lagged behind the rest of society. In a specific way, the forced busing legislation aided the immediate need of educational reform among black schools. Predominantly African American schools lacked permanent teachers, basic furniture and supplies, even books. The integration with white students allowed blacks to bolster their social standing by being able to attend traditionally white schools. The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education struck down the region’s “separate but equal” system of segregated schools that had been established by state and local law provided the educational system with hope. In Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren claimed that segregation is psychologically harmful to black children and implied that all-black classrooms are inherently inferior. Warren’s ambiguous opinion allowed lower courts and lawmakers to infer that stopping segregation was not enough, but that social justice depended upon integrating the races in school, at whatever cost to neighborhoods and to children, black and white. Although such legislation was in place, it needed to be enforced.

In the North, busing was not a gradual movement, but instead a sharp push forward by the government. However, there is something to be said about finishing this process quickly instead of gradually. As history has expressed, the integration of black and whites is an incredibly difficult task regardless of the time frame considered. A slow change requires that each successive generation support the initiative. The poor educational standards of blacks in the 1970s necessitated this immediate change in opportunity. While social change is often slow and progressive, the advantage of legislation from the top down is that it can induce widespread change in an incredibly quick manner. If the white community knew what sacrifices they would have to endure in order to improve the economic and social situation of African Americans, it is not likely that any racial progress would have taken place.

An important consideration is that busing provided equality in education not only for the black community, but also for Boston in general. From a practical standpoint, the busing movement may have been slightly successful for the social standing and education of blacks. More importantly, it was a foot in the door which helped to pave the way for mutual acceptance between black and white students. Additionally, by imposing the busing on children less than 12, it allowed black and white children to become habituated with the presence of the other race from an early age. By promoting racial equality in the classroom, the hope was that this acceptance would extend to all contexts. From a human standpoint, this busing movement was a material representation of the notion that black and white individuals are equal and deserve equal access to resources such as education.

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