Friday, January 13, 2017

Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s

Formisano, Ronald P. Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

When federal district court judge W. Arthur Garrity found the Boston School Committee guilty of deliberate and systemic segregation and ordered desegregation of Boston’s municipal schools, the working-class sections of the city erupted in demonstrations and violence. Working from a state plan to desegregate Boston’s schools, Garrity ordered students from the working class neighborhoods of South Boston and Charlestown bused to impoverished black neighborhoods in an effort to reduce the number of schools with a majority of non-white students. The result was mass protest, white flight from both schools and Boston’s city limits, and schools that were ultimately less integrated than they were before busing started.

While many studies of Boston’s virulent anti-busing response credit the combination of race and class, Robert Formisano’s Boston Against Busing moves beyond these arguments to add Boston’s unique history of antipathy between Irish Catholic inhabitants and African-Americans, local machine politics and civil service corruption, defended neighborhoods, and “reactionary populism” to the explanations for the white backlash against desegregation. The key to working class discontent was the long campaign against desegregation led by Louise Day Hicks and her allies starting in 1963. Hicks’ cynical manipulation of race and class to ensure her own electoral success ensured that when Garrity finally ordered busing in 1974, working class Bostonians reacted in anger.

The conflict over Boston’s schools began in 1963 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked Hicks, in her role as chair of the Boston School Committee, to end the de facto segregation of Boston’s schools. The NAACP asked the committee to recognize segregation based on residential patterns, to train teachers to eliminate racial prejudice against African-Americans, to end discriminatory hiring practices, and to allocate funds to buy new materials for and repair schools in black neighborhoods. The politicians serving on the committee refused to acknowledge any form of segregation in Boston’s schools, and refused to meet with the NAACP over the issue.

Until the 1963 controversy erupted over the quality of schools in African-American neighborhoods, Hicks was a merely average member of the committee, which frequently served as a stepping-stone in Boston politics. She quickly rode the wave of the white backlash against the NAACP’s demands, which she claimed accused Bostonians of prejudice. The problem, Hicks argued, was in the pupils and their culture, not the schools. In the fall 1963 elections, Hicks garnered more than 80 percent of the votes from working class neighborhoods, while educational reformers lagged far behind. Latching on the issue of busing long before anyone suggested it, Hicks parleyed it into later terms on the Boston city council and the Unites States Congress.

Despite continued efforts to exert pressure on the school committee through 1964, the contest between integrationists and segregationists was not fully joined until Massachusetts Democrats pushed through the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965, which declared that districts with schools that were persistently more than 50 percent non-white could lose its state funding. Despite this, the law allowed parents to refuse busing for their children and gave local school committees a mechanism to ask for judicial review to prevent implementation of penalties. These clauses allowed the Boston School Committee to stave off desegregation for nine years after the law’s passage. The continued delays allowed Hicks and other anti-busing politicians to convince their supporters that busing would never come to Boston.

During the nine years between passage of the Racial Imbalance Act, and Judge Garrity’s ruling, the Boston School Committee consistently acted to maintain or increase segregation in Boston’s schools. Rather than locating new schools on the edges of neighborhoods to encourage integration, the committee persisted in locating them in the middle. Rather than send students from overcrowded white schools to under-utilized ones in black neighborhoods, the committee added portable classrooms to overcrowded schools. Old parochial schools were purchased rather than send black students to under-utilized schools in white areas. These and other tactics allowed integrationists to convince Judge Garrity that systemic and deliberate segregation existed in Boston’s schools, leading to his 1974 ruling.

Although the national media focused on the violent protests against busing in South Boston, other working and middle class neighborhoods displayed a variety of reactions. West Roxbury’s middle class residents relied on legal action and other largely peaceful forms of protest. East Boston residents threatened to block the tunnels to other parts of the city, but were also less violent in their opposition to Garrity’s busing orders. Formisano argues that the seeds of South Boston’s response lay in its conceptions of toughness and community. In contrast to the middle class whites’ and African Americans’ belief that education was inherently a source of mobility, South Boston’s working class viewed their neighborhood schools as a source of community identity and repository of community values. These beliefs combined with the economic threat posed by blacks led to South Boston’s relatively violent response to Garrity’s busing plans.

Formisano contends that South Boston’s particular culture and its animosity to outside influences made it a particularly problematic place to start busing to relieve racial imbalance in schools, particularly when paired with impoverished Roxbury. Residents of South Boston saw Garrity and other reformers as foreigners trying to breakup their neighborhood’s identity and, like other Bostonians, associated Roxbury with high crime rates, drug use, and sexual promiscuity that they wished to protect their children from. In relying on an integration created by the state rather than the Boston School Committee, which regularly stood in the way of proper planning efforts, Garrity unwittingly ran headlong into the area of the city most likely to see his action as punitive and to react violently in order to flout the court.

Despite detailed discussions of the activities of anti-busing groups such as Louise Day Hicks’ Restore Our Alienated Rights and the complex set of neighborhoods and antagonisms driving Bostonians’ anger at what they called “forced busing”, Formisano’s work has a few significant problems. The voices of African-Americans that engaged in both sides of the busing debate are generally missing. While spending large portions of the work depicting the trials of those he labels “moderates”, Formisano never clearly defines how he defines moderation. Many of Formisano’s moderates are simply people who believe that they need to keep their kids in school despite their opposition to busing, or who work to make a bad situation work despite threats to their lives. The broad range of activities and individuals Formisano labels “moderate” seems to negate its utility as an analytical tool. While providing many examples of blatant and explicit racism, Formisano seems to prefer to accept cynicism by ambitious politicians, issues of social class, and insularity of Boston’s neighborhoods as the primary causes of the city’s anti-busing violence.

While there are several extensive works dealing with the anti-busing movement, Formisano primarily sets himself against J. Brian Sheehan and Christine Rossell, who argue for a correlation between anti-busing sentiment and unemployment rates (16). Formisano also seeks to counter sociologists McKee J. McClendon and Bert Useem who argue for racism’s primary role in the conflict over busing (18). This leaves an array of scholarship that he fails to engage, including J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985), which follows three typical families through Boston’s anti-busing conflict. Despite the addition of a new Epilogue in 2004, Formisano ignores scholarship following his original work, including Steven J. L. Taylor’s Desegregation in Boston and Buffalo: The Influence of Local Leaders, which argues that the existence of locally elected black leaders positively affected the outcome of school integration in Buffalo. By bypassing Taylor’s work in the new Epilogue, Formisano misses an excellent opportunity to further illustrate the unique challenges Boston faced as the demagogues dominating its local politics.

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