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.

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