Digital History of Busing

Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (University of California Press), Matt Delmont’s national history of busing is an eagerly anticipated (at least around here) book that connects to many important historiographical trends. It promises to carry forward the work of undermining the notion of a Civil Rights movement that won broad acceptance until its leaders became too militant and demanding (generally in an imagined time called “the late sixties”) by showing that resistance to school desegregation began in the immediate aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. And, in an intervention that is intimately related, Delmont promises to dismantle distinctions between de facto and de jure segregation and regional mythologies that have obscured nationwide resistance by metropolitan whites and their political representatives to desegregation. And, Delmont’s book proposes to show the ways that both local activists and national politicians framed a media narrative around busing that fixated on an instrument of desegregation and obscured the injustices that made the instrument necessary.

Delmont’s also used the Scalar platform to produce a cool digital companion site to the book, which is now live.

The site’s intro frames the contentions of the whole book rather effectively through a list of suggestions about how to teach busing that are pointed and useful, emphasizing the gaping holes in conventional narratives about busing and opposition to it–notably that New York whites protested busing for school integration in the early 1960s, that those protests led to drafting the 1964 Civil Rights Act in ways that prevented school districts from aggressively desegregating (including by busing), and that that nexus of protest and accommodation by nominally liberal legislators gave institutional support to a deceptive and disingenuous distinction between de facto and de jure segregation that allowed school districts nationally to avoid and minimize the scope of desegregation while focusing public attention on the alleged unfairness of busing programs that, in the grand scheme of things, affected a small portion of students in segregated schools.

Perhaps most insightfully, Delmont explores the relationship between antibusing activists and news media that broadcast a manichean narrative when covering the South, but were “unwilling to depict school integration outside of the South as a present civil rights activity in the North with the same moral clarity.” Antibusing activists were able to present themselves with sufficient credibility as grassroots defenders of their own children, muddling public perceptions of school desegregation so that “the white defense of school segregation in the North looked much more reasonable and justified than similar efforts in the South.” Further, the technological and financial constraints that network TV news programs faced in covering Civil Rights issues in the field created institutional pressures to focus attention on the South and on a narrow set of Northern cities that came to define the desegregation struggle, and to report with an amnesiac lack of attention to the long histories of school segregation in the North and protests to dismantle it. Within this frame, busing appeared to be an arbitrary and sudden product of judicial or political fiat (rather than a measure necessitated by persistent political refusals to desegregate) and opponents merely defenders of their children’s right to education (rather than defenders of segregated schools). Further, the framing of desegregation around “busing” obscured the complexity of political views in communities of color about desegregation. Rather than a discussion of the issues of community control, inclusive curriculum, representation in administration and on school boards, racist school discipline and tracking, and equalization of resources for white and nonwhite students, none of which were congruent with a narrow discussion of integration, media either marginalized Black and other minority critics of existing busing programs, or enlisted them as supporting witnesses for an argument that desegregation was a judicial imposition without any true constituency.

It’s a great digital history project. Check it out.

Tribute to Dr. Cliff Kuhn

Dr. Cliff Kuhn of Georgia State University–oral historian, champion of labor history archives, and peerless public educator of Atlanta’s history–passed away today.

I had the good fortune to meet Cliff when I was a visiting scholar in Atlanta, and while I didn’t get to know him well, he was extremely generous with his vast knowledge of the city and the region at a time when I was just beginning a research project there.

I want to express my condolences to his family, his colleagues, and the Atlanta area. I would also recommend that anyone who knew Cliff or knew of his work read this wonderful tribute at Tropics of Meta by his colleague Alex Sayf Cummings.

On the Chi-Raq Trailer (Updates)

So, this trailer’s out, and I have a few thoughts.

Spike Lee’s adaptation of Lysistrata as a statement on violence in Chicago’s Black communities seems provocative. And it’s certainly Lee’s prerogative as a filmmaker to explore questions of violence as a (partial) product of toxic (Black) masculinity, or of the relationship between Black men and women.

But based on the trailer, I wonder about a few things.

Is there a character representing a carpetbagging, belligerent Mayor from the North Shore by way of Washington, D.C. and Wall Street, whose wife refuses to sleep with him until he stops privatizing public resources, shoveling TIF funds from the general fund to special development interests, and closing neighborhood schools, forcing kids to cross gang territories daily? (note: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is mad about Chi-Raq, but allegedly because he fears an impact to tourism, not because of how he’s portrayed)

UPDATE: How’d I forget about the private equity multi-millionaire Governor (and oenophile buddy of the Mayor) who’s created a politically useful (but unnecessary) budget crisis in order to attack political enemies (unions) and made after-school programs collateral damage? Is he getting any in this movie?

Are there characters representing gun sellers in suburban counties and Indiana who experience sexual denial until they stop profiting from the sale of instruments of death that they know full well will end up on the streets of Chicago?

Are there police officers who are likewise denied until their department stops holding people in a secret interrogation facility without communication from family or access to lawyers? Even as the city pays out millions of dollars to reparations to victims of police torture from decades past?

Are there business executives held to account through celibacy for relocating or automating manufacturing jobs?

Are there characters including now-dead mayors, aldermen, and housing authority leaders going without their lovers’ affections in the afterlife to answer for their roles in creating the “second ghetto“?

Because if there aren’t, I question the film’s working theory of the causes of urban violence.

And, really, while the female leadership of Lysistrata and the solidarity she creates among her sisters may seem an appealing image of women’s empowerment, the idea of women as a civilizing influence on the base instincts of men can cut in complicated ways, as Ida B. Wells argued in 1901. If the presumptive thesis of Chi-Raq is (and, pardon a reductionist reading of the trailer) that Black men’s predilection for violence can be overcome only by leveraging their stronger desire for sex, then that comes perilously close to blaming Black women for the alleged crimes of Black men (because they’ve failed in that disciplining capacity), and therefore justifying the actions of white men (in 1901, the lynch mob; in 2015 the police and the prison) in containing the threat. At risk of overthinking things about a film trailer, I’m reminded of Angela Davis’s critique (in Women, Race, and Class) of Susan Brownmiller’s insinuation (in Against Our Will) that Black women’s obligation is to oppose rape, even in terms that reinforce the subjugation of Black communities through images of dangerous and pathological Black male sexuality.

There are intersectional feminists much more qualified than I to parse this, so I’m not claiming any original or definitive insight. But it is a little concerning. Of course, a trailer is not a film, and Chi-Raq may have more up its sleeve; I’m willing to pay up to find out.

In the meantime, though, if we talk about withholding as a political strategy, we could talk about withholding other things:

Withholding labor in demand of living wages and control over working conditions-for people other than cops.

Withholding rent in demand of fair housing.

Withholding school attendance in demand of schools that serve communities.

UPDATE: thanks to the Twitter feed of historian Matt Delmont (@mattdelmont –whose synthetic history of school busing is on the must-read list), I’ve learned that there is a documentary in production about the 1963 Chicago School Boycott.

Withholding obedience to civil authority if these don’t work.

And, if you want to see something about Black men and women resisting violence in Chicago, it might be worth your while to (re)watch The Interrupters (full version):



American Studies Association Report

I spent the weekend of October 8-11 in Toronto  for the American Studies Association annual meeting, which included a number of panels around the theme of misery, its production and reproduction, and resistance to it. One session really struck me as a historian and a researcher. Filmmaker Orlando de Guzman screened and discussed his Focus documentary “Ferguson: A Report from Occupied Territory.” (link to full doc, embedded videos below are clips) I’ve followed Ferguson a bit, and had some things to say (as well as highlighting things written by others) about how the events there highlight the convergence of policing and the carceral state and officially supported racial segregation and dispossession.

So, I’ve always been receptive to the argument that the unrest in Ferguson reflected more than just the horrifying killing of Michael Brown, but rather spoke to a much longer and broader cycle of immiseration by policy. As Walter Johnson and Richard Rothstein, and Colin Gordon, among others, have argued, the story of Ferguson and many inner-ring suburbs like it is not simply a mechanistic process of white flight and abandonment. Rather, governments at local, state, and national scales have chosen to promote and encourage segregation, countenance gross disparities in school funding, and, more recently, to allow local governments to raise revenue by fines in lieu of state support to municipalities.

It’s a bitter irony that the multitude of municipal governments dotting St. Louis County were originally formed to keep Black residents out through exclusionary zoning; now, through a private market that has allowed many whites to relocate from close-in North County suburbs and (weak) federal mandates for regional sharing of affordable housing, those municipalities have become much blacker, but their governments exploit their Black populations for revenue.

This is the history that Ferguson’s residents, and the residents of other North County areas near St. Louis, live out. One thing that’s humbling to me as a researcher is that I’ve long argued that the political fragmentation of metro areas supports racial inequalities and creates a metropolitan social life that justifies and naturalizes those inequalities, particularly by creating both property and emotional investments by whites in maintaining local control of their communities. But, one thing that de Guzman allows his subjects to reveal is that the significance of boundaries has been obvious and inescapable to Black North County residents for years. Crossing a municipal border is inviting harassment from a new police agency that sees a Black driver as a revenue opportunity. And Black residents like Chris Brown Sr., interviewed throughout de Guzman’s film, plan their travel around it.

To put it another way, I spend a lot of time and effort using involved research and fine-pointed writing to try to convince a relatively elite audience of something that is so obvious to North County residents as to require little exposition among themselves. A shuffle between jails and courts in one city and the next is simply the “muni shuffle,” a dance that links yesterday’s use of fragmented borders to exclude the Black and poor to today’s use of those borders to exploit them for revenue.

And, when reports like the one published by Arch City Defenders (link to .pdf) revealed the extent of the process, many people like me regarded it as earth-shaking. Academics consider ourselves quite savvy and well-informed, but our capacity for surprise is sometimes larger than we’d care to admit. If we were to place ourselves in this scene–a community forum convened by Governor Jay Nixon after the decision not to indict Wilson–would our roles be more like the people on the rostrum or the people in the audience?

“Metropolitan Secession” Now With a Volume-Issue Designation and Page Numbers

It’s the same article that appeared in advance online print a year ago, but I gather that some people find a volume/issue designation and in-series pagination to add to the already scintillating excitement of a journal article. Kinda like flames painted on the side of a Volvo station wagon.

So, I present, in final published version,

Connor, Michan Andrew. “Metropolitan Secession and the Space of Color-Blind Racism in Atlanta.” Journal of Urban Affairs 37, no. 4 (2015): 436–61. doi:10.1111/juaf.12101.
Available to those with subscriber access at

Dead Horse Beating: Preemption is a Serious Issue

I know I keep coming back to this, but today’s conservative and reactionary politics have a specific spatial form. Whether it’s because cities house populations conservatives dislike, or because the problems of urban life tend to confound the political-economic prescriptions of privatism, austerity, environmental free-fire zones, and neofeudal labor relations, state legislatures have been aggressively targeting the ability of municipalities to pass laws, reversing more than a century’s practice of urban home rule.

North Carolina’s the latest example (via Kriston Capps at Citylab), where the legislature temporarily inserted provisions into a bill addressing the licensing of counselors to constrain municipal government actions around particular issues, notable among them fair housing and the minimum wage. This gambit wasn’t sneaky enough to avoid intense opposition, and the final bill was stripped of the stealth attack on home rule and local democracy, which, for now anyway, are safe in the Tar Heel State.

Chicago, Housing and School Closures

Just go ahead and read this by Eve Ewing in the New Yorker. The thesis is that, much as Jesse Sharkey explained the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools are “broke on purpose,” community areas on the city’s South and West Sides have been undergoing a purposeful depopulation of school-aged children through the closing of public and low-income housing. While the closure of schools in a “utilization crisis” seems to speak to the intelligent allocation of resources, it in fact speaks to the purposeful removal of poor and Black families with children from vast swaths of the city and the conversion of those neighborhoods to less hospitable terrain. In Ewing’s words:

The former superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett explained the closures by citing what she termed a “utilization crisis.”…. Byrd-Bennett’s argument that the schools should close because they were enrolled below their capacity was intended to counter another argument that was persistently bubbling up across the city—that the school-closing process was racist, and the schools were being closed because they served black students and, in many cases, employed black teachers. “What I cannot understand, and will not accept is that the proposals I am offering are racist,” Byrd-Bennett told members of the school board, local media, and assembled community members at a 2013 board meeting. “The greatest population losses in our city over the past decade have taken place in the South and the West sides. Underutilized schools in these areas are the result of demographic changes and not race.”

But this picture fails to account for two of Chicago’s least-favorite reasons for national notoriety: the city’s history of segregation and its public-housing system. Perhaps the demographic changes that drove enrollment numbers down at schools like Dyett—indeed, the very “utilization crisis” itself—did not arise by happenstance but through the machinations of where and how black people in Chicago have been allowed to live in the course of the last hundred years.

This approaches a very significant point that I’ve been thinking about lately, in response to some insightful academic and non-academic writing on the relationship of schools to urbanization. Cities are habitats for humanity, but what sort of habitat, and what sort of humanity, are subject to the vicissitudes of urban ecology. In the past, of course, Chicago sociologists posited that this ecology was akin to natural ecological secession, accommodating difference and facilitating gradual assimilation through spatial mobility out of ethnic enclaves and ghettoes. This view has always been insufficiently attentive to the use of political power to manipulate that environment, which is particularly important today in light of the aggressive neoliberal redevelopment efforts cities like Chicago are undertaking, where leaders have rejected the traditional urban burden of housing and educating the poor.

And, language like that Byrd-Bennet uses in the quote above is particularly important, because it signals the willingness of reformers to appropriate the language of earlier educational justice and civil rights advocates to advance reforms that are in fact deeply regressive. The material deprivation of poor and Black children becomes a justification for actually removing the vestiges of educational institutions from their communities.