‘Why Busing Failed’ author on Biden remarks: ‘This sense that communities should only desegregate when they locally decide to do so is farcical’

Matthew Delmont, the Dartmouth history professor who has written extensively on school segregation and busing, didn’t even watch the debate Thursday night.

But he realized early Friday morning — “I woke up at 5:30 and saw a bunch of tweets,” he says — that a back-and-forth between Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had put his area of interest at the center of the national political conversation.

Harris, the former California attorney general, had challenged Biden’s record of opposing desegregation efforts as a senator in the 1970s in starkly personal terms. “There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me,” she said.

Biden’s response: “I did not oppose busing in America. I opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.” (Read their entire exchange here.)

Delmont’s 2016 book, “Why Busing Failed,” examines how politicians and the media shaped fights over desegregation efforts across the U.S. during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Chalkbeat caught up with him Friday to help put the candidates’ comments in context. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Chalkbeat: So what did you make of that exchange?

Delmont: First of all, I was really surprised that school segregation came up as an issue. It hasn’t shown up a lot in the last couple presidential cycles. So I was surprised it came up at all. And the power of it was that Harris was able to speak from her own personal experience. One of the things that happened with busing historically as an issue is that we almost always heard from parents and politicians, and we almost never heard from students. I think for her, as a presidential candidate, to speak to her own experience as a student — and it was a positive experience — was powerful. And he seemed flustered and not really sure how to deal with it.

It seemed like the crux of his response was, he was trying to draw this distinction between when busing or desegregation efforts were mandated by outsiders versus when communities came up with them or OK’d them themselves. I wonder what you made of that.

It struck me as a distinction without much meaning to it. By which I mean, the local and the federal roles have always been intertwined with schooling in America, particularly on the school desegregation issue. This sense that communities should only desegregate when they locally decide to do so is farcical. It demonstrates a complete either lack of knowledge or willful misunderstanding of how race and school desegregation played out in the country.

But it does echo a lot of the talking points from the history of the debates about busing. This idea that you need local support before you do anything, and any court order or federal intervention to make it happen is somehow an overreach or makes it “forced.” That’s the kind of thing Biden would have said in the ’70s, and it’s what a lot of his colleagues would have said. But it doesn’t align with the evidence that we have, in terms of the kinds of intentional decisions that segregated school districts in the first place. And the reality that, in both the South and the North, if you had to wait for school leaders to voluntarily do this, it would never ever happen.

I wanted to talk for a moment about the word busing. Your book is called “Why Busing Failed,” and you tweeted this morning: “you have to understand that “busing” has been used since the ‘50s as a code word.” What do you want people to understand about what your research has shown that the word “busing” often means? 

That word only starts to be used in political debates when people want to oppose school desegregation. That first happened in the late 1950s. It actually starts in New York City, which is the first public protest I found against busing.

But the reason I use it in quotations throughout the book is that it’s a very selective way to describe school desegregation. School buses had been used starting in the 1920s and ‘30s in the United States. It’s what made the more modern American school system we know now possible. That’s what allowed us to transition from the rural, one-room school houses to larger, more comprehensive schools. That use of school buses was never a controversial issue. It was never a problem among white parents until it got linked to the issue of race and school desegregation. So I would want people to know that busing is a political code word.

I think part of what the exchange last night illustrated was that, the scholars who have looked at outcomes of the busing programs that were actually put in place, looking back to see how students did a decade and two decades later — I’m thinking of Amy Stuart Wells at Columbia — found that by and large, students had positive experiences, had different opportunities. So that the reality on the ground was a lot of busing programs succeeded, or rather that school desegregation plans that used busing succeeded.

But busing as a political term, I argue in the book, was a failure, because the narrative that came out of it from the media and politicians was almost only negative. It only emphasized the inconvenience to white families and white students. It emphasized that it was going to be costly, it emphasized all of the negative things without talking about the constitutional rights of black students. It talked about the feelings of white people rather than the constitutional rights of black students.

And I think in that very small soundbite, that exchange between Harris and Biden, illustrated that. Harris was speaking to her positive experience as a student, and Biden was speaking more to what this is politically — it doesn’t always poll well, particularly with white parents.

One thing we’ve been thinking about is, how relevant is that debate — that back-and-forth last night — to the larger conversations about school desegregation efforts right now? In what ways is the word busing and talking about the ’70s a distraction, and in what ways is it actually really helpful?

I think it can be helpful if we don’t just fixate on that word, busing, but if we talk about what kind of policies can cities, and then federally, can we put in place to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes, particularly for students of color and also low-income students. That isn’t just the use of buses, but zoning and a whole host of things that schools and districts have been trying for decades now.

I honestly don’t think a lot of the candidates want to run on that platform and make that an issue that’s front and center of their campaign. It remains a pretty hot-button issue. In New York City, even — the specialized high schools, and then the debate going on on the Upper West Side over zoning — even in a liberal city, these things are still very contentious.

But I think, if we don’t just fixate on the word busing, we can think about — should the next president take seriously the fact that our education system continues to not serve students of color and low-income students as well as it should? If that could become an issue that politicians care about, I think that would be a great outcome. I’m not super optimistic about that, but I think that would be the upside of this coming up.

I’ve already seen some people tweet sort of snidely, well, ask Harris what her position is on forced busing is. And I think that’s exactly the wrong thing. I don’t think the question is, do you support busing today? I think the question is, do you support policies that would improve educational opportunities for students of color and low-income students? When that whole debate got linked to that single word of busing, it made it very, very difficult for civil rights activists and advocates and those who cared about this issue to succeed. It was just such a powerful code word. If it shows up in the same way, it will only lead, I think, to the same outcomes.

Does it feel possible for the next president of the United States to make a dent on this issue? In what ways can history inform what we expect from that? 

I like to think anything is possible. I think we have the system we have now because politicians and school officials made specific choices that led us in different directions. And that when the country decides it’s going to do something very difficult and actually puts the funds there and puts the political leadership there to make it happen, those things can succeed. I would be very surprised to see that from the next president, but I think it is technically possible.

I think what it has to look like in practice is allocating funds to the Department of Education and having leadership at the Department of Education to get school districts to put in place meaningful plans over the next decade or two decades to really make those kinds of changes. I say that because, given the composition of the Supreme Court, it’s not going to come from court orders. So I think funds need to be put in place as a carrot to encourage schools in this way.

And I think if it happens at the top, it gives local leaders either cover to make more aggressive moves or it gives them motivation to do it. That’s all very speculative, because I think honestly all of their pollsters will say there are more votes to stick with the status quo than there are votes to make sweeping changes. But I remain optimistic that some change is possible.