Busing Redux, Again

About two weeks ago I had an essay in City Journal on Biden and busing. I could have said more about Biden, such as how utterly unconvincing his attempt to qualify his longstanding opposition to busing was. For example, the day after his disastrous debate performance he argued, according to the New York Times report, that he “‘did not oppose busing in America,’ Mr. Biden said. ‘What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education…. [I] never, never, never ever opposed voluntary busing’ like the program Ms. Harris participated in as a child, implicitly drawing a distinction between voluntary busing allowed by some local governments and the mandatory, court-ordered busing that also took place decades ago.”

In fact, far from limiting his opposition to federally imposed busing, in 1975 then Senator Biden supported an amendment by Senator Jesse Helms, and later offered his own when that was tabled, that would cutoff “any Federal funds for any school or school district because, they, in fact, assigned teachers or students to classes or schools because of race.” Had those provisions passed, the Berkeley school district would have been prevented from imposing the busing program experienced by little miss Harris.

But enough about Biden, at least for now. The controversy over busing to achieve racial balance in schools, put back on the table by the recent Democratic presidential debates after being dormant for decades, has always been something of a racial Rorschach test. Progressives look at the white and black ink blots being moved from their neighborhoods and see the promotion of integration and “equity”; conservatives see what liberals used to see but no longer do: a Constitutional offense — the state classifying individuals and imposing benefits and burdens based on race.

Because it touches so many of the exposed nerve endings of our current fixation on race, this controversy is not likely to go away soon, even in the face of Biden’s predictable attempts to clarify and qualify what was his full-throated opposition to busing in the 1970s and beyond. Thus on July 1, in “Democrats convulse over race as debate exchange reverberates,” the Washington Post quoted the founder of a group dedicated to bolstering women of color in politics, Aimee Allison, stating that “It’s not really about busing. It’s about what [the Democratic candidates’] commitment to racial justice looks like.”

Apparently to the Post racial justice looks very much like busing, since it continues to harp on the subject. For example, in a long article on July 7 it described busing as “effective but never popular,” claiming that “later, evidence would emerge that busing improved outcomes for black students, with no harm to white students. But that evidence came far too late to change public perceptions of a program that was hugely unpopular among whites and left blacks divided.”

On July 8 the Post ran another article claiming at length that those public perceptions were wrong, focusing on “What black students who were bused said about their experiences.” To make the case that busing was effective the Post turned to an outside expert, Richard Rothstein, described as “a renowned researcher on segregation” and “distinguished fellow of the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute and a senior fellow emeritus at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the Haas Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.”

In fact, the entire Post article consisted of a reprinted piece by Rothstein that had appeared on the blog of the Economic Policy Institute. Most readers will recognize the Economic Policy Institute as a progressive think tank and will know that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was an ardent advocate for busing but may be less familiar with the Haas Institute. 

In describing the $16 million gift from the Haas family (think Levi Strauss) creating the Institute, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau stated, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “We’re turning the challenges of a multicultural society into a major academic endeavor. The message the university is sending to its students, he said, is that ‘We no longer can live in our own world surrounded by people who are just like us.’” (Critics might ask what Birgeneau meant by ”we,” since he is Canadian.)

The five initial endowed faculty chairs,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, included “one of the nation’s first devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equity.” Being “devoted to … equity” does not, of course, necessarily discredit any resulting scholarship, but neither does it inspire confidence in scholarly objectivity. Rothstein, in short, may well be “renowned,” but he is clearly a partisan observer. Readers will hardly be surprised that the experiences of the black bused students that he reports, quoting from several studies, were overwhelmingly positive.

Rothstein’s piece reported much more, however, than the positive evaluations of many of those bused. “Assemble a list of African Americans in their mid-to-late ‘50s or early ‘60s … who are the most successful lawyers, political leaders, executives in the non-profit, corporate, and foundation sectors, or otherwise spread throughout the professional and managerial class,” he wrote, “and you will find a disproportionate share were bused during the heyday of court-ordered school desegregation.”

Busing, he argues, worked.

Other studies demonstrate that many (in some surveys, most) blacks opposed busing, but, even if we assume many blacks supported it, that is hardly the end of the story. Indeed, it is striking how many busing apologists, such as the Post and its experts, think the only question worth asking is whether it was good for the blacks. It’s as though there were a controversy over lowering tax rates only for blacks, or forgiving student loans only for black students, and racial justice advocates thought the only relevant question was whether blacks approved.

Busing, however, was a two-way street, and even aside from the fundamental question of whether assigning students to schools based on their race did or should pass constitutional muster, there is the too often ignored matter of how busing affected whites (and Asians, presumably treated like whites) — not their opinion (“hugely unpopular,” etc.), often paraded as evidence of racism, but its actual effects. One needs to know the effects in order to determine whether or not white opposition was simply bigoted or rational.

In that regard, let me encourage readers to look at an impressive article from 2012 by three economists analyzing reams of data on the end of busing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, where busing began. But don’t take my word for it. On the same day my recent discussion of the Biden-Harris controversy appeared here, Tyler Cowen posted a pointer to it on his widely influential blog, Marginal Revolution, calling it “one of the best looks at what we know about busing, based on rigorous analysis of data, combined with natural experiments.” 

Cowen’s evaluation should carry a great deal of weight. A quirky libertarian economist at George Mason University, he is highly regarded across the ideological spectrum. On the right (arguably), libertarian Reason magazine notes that “Over the past 20 years, arguably no libertarian thinker has cut a broader or deeper intellectual swath across American public policy and culture than Tyler Cowen.” On the left Cass Sunstein, Harvard law professor, formerly President Obama’s Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and now University Professor at Harvard, describes Cowen as “a national treasure.”

In 1991 the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) were prohibited from continuing to use race in assigning students to schools. The authors of the article Cowen praised — Stephen B. Billings of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Jonah E. Rockoff of the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, and David J. Deming of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explain that 

we study the impact of the end of court-ordered desegregation in CMS on students’ achievement test scores, educational attainment, and criminal activity. We match college attendance records from the National Student Clearinghouse (henceforth “NSC”) and arrest and incarceration data from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff … to yearly student records from CMS. These matches are done using full name and date of birth, enabling us to track students who subsequently leave or drop out of CMS. Critically, the CMS data also include students’ exact addresses measured in the fall of each school year, which allows us to assign students to neighborhood school zones under the two policy regimes.

Among their findings:

  • “all students, white and black, score lower on high school exams when they attend schools with more minority students”;
  •  “white students are less likely to graduate from high school or attend a four-year college when they are assigned to schools with more minority students. Given the increase in same-race segregation, this implies that white students had higher graduation and attendance rates after the policy change.”
  •  “high school students took fewer honors and advanced placement courses when they were assigned to schools with more minority students.”

And perhaps most dramatically:

  •  “The re-zoning of CMS schools led to statistically significant and large increases in crime among minority males…. The increase in crime is similar in magnitude across grade cohorts and persists through the end of our data in 2011, nine years after the re-zoning. We allow the impact of being rezoned to vary by both race and income, and we find that the increases in crime are driven entirely by poor minority males who are assigned to schools with higher shares of poor minority students.”

Finally, and depressingly:

  •  “Our results suggest that equal or greater resources combined with active policy efforts may be able to reduce the impact of school segregation on academic outcomes, but not for crime…. [I]t will be difficult for schools to address racial and economic inequality through means other than deliberately integrative student assignment policies.”

Thus follows the authors’ conclusion, which many readers will find at odds with the above findings. “Our results show,” they conclude, “that the resegregation of CMS schools widened inequality of outcomes between whites and minorities. [It] led to an increase in racial inequality.”

What they — and presumably those who agree with them — must mean by racial equality is reducing the academic and socio-economic gaps, such as crime rates, between the races, a narrowing that they documented, if done by busing, results in lowering the achievements of whites.

I have no idea whether Tyler Cowen agrees with the authors’ conclusion, that racial equality requires “deliberately integrative student assignment policies,” i.e., assigning students to schools by race — in short, busing. But their belief that it does, despite the starkly negative effects they documented, probably reflects a majority view among social scientists who have studied the issue and, more threateningly, most Democratic politicians with the possible, not at all certain exception of Joe Biden. Thus look for busing’s rebirth in a new Democratic administration, especially one able to nominate many judges.

Perhaps more depressing than the authors’ findings concerning the actual effects of busing is their view that racial equality requires reviving it.

Once again, it will be difficult for Joe Biden or anyone else to sell that process in Scranton, or beyond.


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