It’s a sad but unavoidable question: Where did the civil rights movement go wrong? A cause that, at its modern origins in the 1950s, no decent person could oppose has over the years taken turns that even many of its most committed advocates find morally problematic. It’s been a long downhill journey from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 to where we are today. The problem is not simply with the obvious charlatans and demagogues who have become attached to the movement”the ministers Farrakhan and Sharpton, for example”but with the misguided policies that the most respected of civil rights leaders have in recent years seen fit to take up.

Foremost among the roads better not taken is, of course, the embrace of the racial quota system. That transformed a self-evidently just insistence on expansion of traditional American rights to include citizens of all races into a demand for group entitlements that was not merely alien to the American creed but inimical to it. Of that folly critics have taken frequent note.

A less obvious wrong turning reached, one hopes, its dead end just recently. On September 10 Federal District Judge Robert D. Potter ordered an end to the school busing system in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) School District. This was not the first ruling of its kind. According to the report in the New York Times , programs of busing to achieve racial integration in schools have already been struck down in cities such as Nashville, Oklahoma City, Denver, and Cleveland. Like Charlotte, those cities have been certified as officially desegregated and thus no longer subject to court-imposed busing systems to maintain racial balances throughout the school system.

What makes the decision to end busing in Charlotte notable is that it was there that busing began thirty years ago. It was in 1969 that Judge James McMillan of the Federal District Court ruled that the district had been intentionally segregated”virtually all black students went to all-black schools”and ordered a district-wide busing system to achieve integration. Two years later the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling ( Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ) and soon federal judges imposed desegregation orders on scores of cities across the country similar to the one in Charlotte.

The precise meaning of the Swann decision remained murky for years. The Charlotte situation had been relatively clear-cut. The city had intentionally constructed and maintained a segregated school system. But what of situations where a dual-race system arose not de jure but de facto, i.e., in response to housing patterns in which public officials and public policy had little or no direct role? (Many liberals, including the district judge in the Charlotte case, insisted that residential segregation was always, in the end, de jure. The actions of government”through zoning boards, urban renewal agencies, public housing authorities, school boards, etc.”inevitably contributed, or so the argument went, to residential segregation.) In any case, what constituted segregation? What amount of racial disparity in the schools compared to district-wide population ratios could pass muster? Must all schools in a district precisely reflect the overall black-white ratio? Were single-race schools ever acceptable?

The questions extended to the remedy of busing. Was it to apply to all students from kindergarten on, or only to those in higher grades? Was it to be voluntary or mandatory? Suppose, as was the case, that some black parents preferred that their children remain in their neighborhood school, without regard to its racial make-up. Must they nonetheless acquiesce in having their children bused elsewhere in order to achieve racial balance?

Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote the 9-0 Swann decision, achieved unanimity only by avoiding clear answers to almost all these questions. Swann was a masterpiece of ambiguity. Burger himself interpreted it narrowly. It required only, he insisted, the end of official segregation. The imperatives that civil rights leaders (and many federal judges) read into the decision”forced integration, mass busing, racial balance”were simply, in his view, not there. But a great many judges, both on and off the Supreme Court, thought they were, and, at least until recently, the broader reading of Swann has prevailed.

From the beginning, civil rights leaders”the NAACP in particular”adopted the broadest conceivable reading of the decision. Swann to them required as comprehensive a system of busing as was necessary not merely to end segregation but to achieve precise racial balance. Thus, for example, in Charlotte they fought for and got a policy whereby each school would reflect the district’s overall 60-40 white-black ratio. This meant that every day almost 30 percent of the students had to ride buses past their neighborhood schools, even in situations where those schools were underenrolled because not enough children of the desirable color were available.

Enough such bizarre occurrences and some federal judges, at least, began to take note. Thus Judge Potter halted busing in Charlotte because, he said, no remnants of intentional discrimination remain. Housing patterns in the area are such that in the absence of compulsory busing it is estimated that more than half of the district’s students will attend schools with little or no racial diversity. The judge noted, however, that the Supreme Court has decided that school districts are not required to rectify racial imbalances in residential housing.

The civil rights establishment throughout the country has reacted with dismay to the dismantling of busing systems. Even where, as in Charlotte, they and their liberal allies control the school board, they have pushed the counterintuitive argument that courts should force the boards to continue busing on the grounds that they have not complied with the original desegregation decrees and need continued court supervision. Judge Potter found that argument distinctly unpersuasive.

It sum, it would seem that the civil rights movement made a massive error in investing so much time, energy, and moral fervor in such a dubious cause as mandatory school busing. The attempt to require racial balance in the schools lacked either a mass constituency or a plausible rationale. Most parents, black or white, were reluctant to send their children out of their neighborhoods to attend distant schools, especially when those schools were perceived, often correctly, as educationally inferior or even physically unsafe. Those who favored mandatory busing were seldom those whose own children were involved.

No one ever satisfactorily explained why racial balance was considered necessary to achieve decent education for black children. The apparent assumption that those children could learn effectively only in the presence of some critical mass of white children struck many blacks as condescending at best. Busing wasted money that would have been better spent in classrooms; it created unnecessary racial and class divisions; and, after all that, it wound up failing anyway. One school system after another on which busing was imposed resegregated itself through white flight.

Why so much investment by so many people in so unlikely a cause? Perhaps the best explanation is that well-intentioned people unreflectively supported busing because it seemed a symbol of a noble end. One cannot think of many instances in which the cost of symbolic politics has been higher.

In Charlotte, as elsewhere, the school buses have stopped running. It’s about time.

Articles by James Nuechterlein

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