A. What's in the Black Community is Not Good Enough for White Children: How the Burden of Busing Was Placed on Blacks and Latinos

As other school desegregation scholars and observers have noted, usually the historically black or Latino public schools were closed once districts were forced, either by judges, the federal government, or other political pressure, to desegregate their schools. This meant that black and Latino students were more likely to be riding buses longer distances at younger ages than most white students in desegregating school districts.

In five of the six school districts that we studied, at least one historically black school was eventually closed. Furthermore, in five of the six districts, black students, parents, and activists felt that their communities bore the burden of achieving racial balance in the schools. We learned from our data that this burden did not merely relate to the issue of inconvenience, such as black students having to get up early and get home late. Rather, the closing of black schools that required students of color to bear the brunt of busing dealt a blow to these communities' pride and dignity. It was as if white society were saying that there was nothing of value in the black or Latino communities.

In Austin, Texas, the first phase of school desegregation entailed the closing of black schools on the east side of town and transferring students out of those neighborhoods to other schools, many with large Latino populations. One school that was closed early on was Anderson High School, a historically black high school with a long tradition and strong ties to the African-American community. Prior to closing Anderson, the federal judge overseeing desegregation in the Austin case made an attempt to reassign nearby white students to the school. As one long-time district administrator recalled, however, when the judge ordered that white students be assigned to Anderson:

[Y]ou know, people [at the school] got revved up for that . . . the black kids did a lot of work on trying to get ready for these [white] kids. And, of course, the [white] kids didn't come. So, there was like total flight, you know. Well, that was a downer as well. That was another unfortunate situation that helped solidify an adversarial deal because feelings were hurt. In other words, despite the pride members of the black community had in Anderson High School and their attempts to fix it up for the reassigned white students, the white families chose not to abide by the court order. After this act of resistance, the judge rescinded the plan that reassigned white students and ordered a new plan that resulted in the closing of the black schools, including Anderson High School, and the one-way busing of black students out of their community.

The same Austin administrator noted that the alteration to the desegregation plan was both a good and a bad step. The new plan was good in that it was more effective in creating racially balanced schools, but it was bad in that it reinforced the idea that what the black community had to offer was not worthwhile and that black schools were inferior. He said, "Well, when you tell people that their schools are inferior to some degree you're telling them they're inferior."

Many others spoke of the sense of shame and loss felt by members of the black community when white students refused to attend black schools. The manner in which Anderson High School was shut down was particularly insulting. At the time of Anderson's closing, the Austin school board committed to building a new "Anderson" high school in the northwest and mostly white section of the city. Members of the black community thought that the new Anderson should house the memorabilia of its namesake school. But they soon learned that such memories of the old, all-black Anderson High School were not welcome in the new, predominantly white school. As one African-American community leader explained, the people leading the new Anderson High School said that they did not want the trophies or anything else from the old Anderson school. He noted that the "new" Anderson was related to the "old" Anderson in name only, which "insulted and infuriated the Afro-American community, justifiably so."

In the 1970s, Austin also implemented majority-to-minority transfers, a voluntary desegregation plan through which students of any race could transfer from a school in which they were in the racial majority to a school in which they would be a racial minority. This program did not succeed in fully desegregating the district, however, because no white students opted to transfer to historically black or Latino schools. As one local Latino politician noted, "The majority-to-minority transfer rule did not meet the test of integration because all [of] the burden for moving was on the minorities. No white guy would say, 'I want to go into a minority school."'

Given the history of racial discrimination in cities such as Austin, it is not surprising that white families did not want to send their children to historically black and Latino schools. Most of these schools were inferior to the white schools in terms of resources and facilities. Furthermore, the communities in which these schools existed were more likely to be poor and unfamiliar to whites, particularly the more affluent whites. Still, we know from school desegregation history that such schools, with a great deal of extra support and funding, can be made more appealing to white families.

Other sites in our study were similar to Austin in not making such an investment in black schools and thus closing the schools in black neighborhoods, and putting black children on buses in larger numbers and at younger ages than white students. For instance, in Pasadena, the school desegregation plan paired black, Latino, and white elementary schools so that all the students--black and white--from the two schools went to one building for kindergarten through third grade and then to the other school for grades four through six. But all of the kindergarten-through-third-grade schools were in the previously predominantly white schools in the white neighborhoods, which meant the youngest students of color were always sent the farthest. By fourth grade, many white parents had enrolled their children in private schools to avoid sending them to schools in black or Latino communities. As several people we interviewed noted, private schools flourished in Pasadena.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the most comprehensive school desegregation plans in the country was implemented three years after the 1971 United States Supreme Court decided Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. The Court held that, if necessary to achieve racial balance, school districts should reassign students to schools outside their neighborhoods and bus the students to these schools. Thousands of Charlotte students were bused every day to schools across town, but it was the African-American students from the west side of town who were bused in greater percentages, at younger ages, and for many more years on average than most of the white students. This was partly because of the demographics of the district and the high concentration of black students in certain neighborhoods, but it was also the result of deliberate choices made by the judge, lawyers, and school board to appease white parents and stave off white flight.

According to one of the lawyers who represented the black plaintiffs in Swann, the biggest problem with the plan was that those in charge "compromise[d] and plac[ed] a greater burden on black parents than we did on others." He said the federal judge in charge of the case purposely decided to close the kindergarten through third grade schools in the black neighborhoods and put all such grade schools in the suburban areas of the county. This plan was implemented, the lawyer argued, "so that white kids wouldn't have to go to school in the inner city and that supposedly made it easier for white parents to send their kids to school."

When asked if he would proceed differently if he had a chance to negotiate the plan again, this particular civil rights attorney said he was not sure, in the long run, that insisting on having elementary schools in the inner city would have been the answer. Such a plan may well have increased the rate of white flight. The attorney noted that by leaving the white students in their own neighborhoods and sending the black students out to the suburbs, the architects of the plan gained broader acceptance of the court order. He noted, however, "we still had white flight, and we may or may not have had as much white flight if we had sent the white kids in to the elementary schools in the inner city."

Thus, in Charlotte, as well as in Pasadena, Austin, Englewood, and eventually Shaker Heights and Topeka, African-American and Latino children were more likely to bear the logistical burdens of integration. Meanwhile, black communities lost neighborhood schools in the name of appeasing white parents who would otherwise flee the public system. Often these white parents pulled their children out of the public schools anyway, leaving African-American parents, educators, and activists angry, hurt, and frustrated.

Ironically, the high school in Charlotte that we chose to study, West Charlotte High School, is one of the few historically black schools that survived the implementation of school desegregation by enrolling large numbers of white students. Nevertheless, the story of West Charlotte--the extra resources it received in order to attract the white students as well as changes the school went through once the white teachers and students arrived--provides some of the most solid evidence that white privilege can assert itself even within the context of a historically black school.