Racial integration of public schools – an issue that dominated national politics for 20 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education – is back in the news, thanks to the confrontation between former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris , D-Calif., at the second Democratic presidential debate last month.
Citing her own experience as a child who benefited from being bused to a white-majority school in Berkeley, Harris challenged Biden’s opposition to busing in the 1970s as a first-term senator from Delaware.
At that time, Biden worked with segregationist senators to promote legislation to remove busing as a tool that federal courts could use to integrate schools.
Clearly rattled by Harris’s attack, the vice president said that he was not opposed to voluntary integration plans implemented by local school boards, just those mandated by federal authorities. This response conjured memories of how segregation was justified in the name of states’ rights, compounding the political damage to Biden’s presidential candidacy.
Since the first debate, Biden’s lead in national polls over the Democratic field shrunk to single digits, and Harris vaulted to the top tier of presidential contenders.
Despite the political complications for Biden in 2020, it should be remembered that his past opposition to busing was in the political mainstream.
The high court’s ruling in Brown, to integrate public schools with “all deliberate speed,” was directed at the 20 states, mostly in the South, with segregation laws on the books, not at those states where de facto segregation existed.
However, federal courts began ordering the integration of Northern schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where there was evidence that racial discrimination by local authorities helped bring about segregated schools.
These judicial remedies, which included busing white students to non-white majority schools and vice versa, led to protests in Boston, Detroit, and Wilmington, Del., (in Biden’s home state, which legalized segregation).
Sensing an opportunity to attract white, blue-collar voters, President Nixon became a strong opponent of busing. Polls showed strong support among whites for neighborhood schools, even if it meant the student body composition was predominantly one race.
Reflecting the impact of four Nixon appointees to the US Supreme Court, Milliken v Bradley (1974) ruled that judicial plans to remedy segregated schools in inner cities could not include suburban school districts, unless those districts also committed unlawful segregation practices.
Milliken ratified what had been happening in the US since Brown – massive white flight to either the suburbs or to private schools. As a result, public schools in Northern cities became even more segregated by race and class.
Biden’s antagonism to federally-mandated racial integration is political consensus now.
Attention has turned to different methods of addressing educational inequality, including school finance reform, magnet schools, and housing anti-discrimination efforts.
Pennsylvania is a case in point.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission took the lead in combating segregated schools in Pittsburgh and other cities.
By the 1990s, the PHRC focused on other forms of discrimination and the state legislature enacted a ban on the use of busing to achieve racial balance in Pennsylvania schools.
Since then, the percentage of African-American and Latinx students attending minority-dominant schools in the Commonwealth has increased. In addition, there are more schools – urban and rural – with majorities of high-poverty students.
Pennsylvania’s response has been expansion of school choice, in hopes of improving outcomes for all. However, a 2017 study revealed that private and charter schools reinforced rather than decreased racial and poverty segregation. Racial and economic gaps in educational achievement continued.
The tragedy is that measures to integrate schools by race and social class are among the most effective tools education policymakers can use.
Studies show that where plans to promote racial and socioeconomic balance in schools are well-designed and supported by local leaders, positive outcomes happen.
Non-white and poor students improve educational performance, attainment, and success without lowering white and middle-class student achievement, a finding that goes back to the famous Coleman Report in 1966.
Nevertheless, odds are that the revival of interest in school integration will fade as new campaign issues emerge.
No one, not even Harris, wants to bring back federally-mandated busing.
When Harris was asked about her own views on what should be done about racially segregated schools, she said busing should remain a tool in the desegregation toolkit — but only as a local option That placed her position much closer to Biden’s decades ago.
The question arises: Who would young Kamala be more disappointed in today – Joe Biden or adult Kamala?
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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