Think Piece

“They’re Going to Be Bused, Whether You Like it or Not”: Urban Whites and the Surprising Origins of Metropolitan School Desegregation

by guest contributor Michael Savage

In the United States, segregated metropolitan areas are a national phenomenon, with heavily minority inner-cities typically ringed by much wealthier and predominantly white autonomous suburbs. According to 24/7 Wall St., America’s three most segregated cities are in the North. Cleveland possesses the dubious honor of being America’s most segregated metropolis, followed by Detroit and Milwaukee. Boston takes seventh place, just edging out Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose terroristic violence against African Americans once earned it the nickname “Bombingham.”

This segregation did not occur as the result of impersonal market forces. Significant discrimination – both public and private – produced today’s segregated metropolises. Federal policies instituted during the New Deal had the effect of guaranteeing mortgages for whites only, while the refusal of many whites to sell to African Americans and the considerable community violence that often greeted black “pioneers” who moved to all-white neighborhoods helped solidify metropolitan racial divisions. Historians have told these stories and told them well. This history, however, is incomplete.

For a deeper understanding of metropolitan segregation, historians need to examine the alternate visions of metropolitan desegregation articulated by a most surprising source – segregationist urban whites. In battles over urban school segregation in the American North, it was urban whites of clear segregationist leanings who most forcefully pushed for desegregated metropolitan areas, demanding that desegregation reach beyond the political boundaries of the central city. While this may seem counterintuitive, it was simple pragmatism. Segregationist urban whites proposed metropolitan desegregation to weaken suburban support for integration but also because successful metropolitan desegregation meant a dispersal of the black student population throughout the region, ensuring the maintenance of white majority schools. These metropolitan proposals had the potential of combatting metropolitan inequality. Their failure, in the years following the push for civil rights in the American South, helps explain the near total separation of city and suburb and why Northern metropolises top the list of the most segregated regions.

A fact sheet on the Freedom Stayout prepared by the suburban Brookline Committee for Civil Rights. Courtesy Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

Boston, most known for its vehement opposition to desegregation busing, witnessed the longest and most widespread consideration of metropolitan school desegregation. When faced with 1965 Racial Imbalance Act that declared any school with over 50 percent “nonwhite” students “racially imbalanced,” the Boston School Committee responded with a strategy designed to weaken suburban legislative support for integration by proposing that the suburbs participate in mandatory desegregation. This strategy is evident in School Committeeman Joseph Lee’s satirically titled “A Plan to End the Monopoly of Un-light-colored Pupils in Many Boston Schools.” Lee’s first suggestion was to “notify at least 11,958 Chinese and Negro Pupils not to come back to Boston schools this autumn.” These students, a majority of Boston’s minority student population, were to attend suburban schools in order to integrate the suburbs. The suburbs, home to three times Boston’s population, averaged less than one percent black students in their public school populations, which Lee called “racial imbalance, if ever there was.” Though clearly designed to undermine the law and certainly not indicative of any moral commitment to civil rights, Lee’s satirical plan nevertheless raised valid questions about segregation in the metropolitan context.

Lee’s plan bore similarities to the voluntary Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), which voluntarily bused black students from Boston schools to several suburban communities with available school seats. Jointly created by liberal suburbanites and Boston civil rights advocates in 1966, METCO offered city students access to superior suburban schools, provided a measure of socioeconomic integration, and made a contribution to lessening school segregation in the region. However, like the Racial Imbalance Act, METCO functioned at the farthest limits of suburban liberalism. It did not require that suburbanites send their children to black city schools, did not couple black school attendance with increased black residence in the suburbs, and its suburban founders, fearful of a loss of suburban support, downplayed their aims of full metropolitan desegregation.

The Boston School Committee faced several legal challenges to its segregation, none more important than the Morgan v. Hennigan case initiated by the Boston Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in March 1972. In its filing, the NAACP urged the “inclusion of suburban school systems as appropriate in the plan for desegregation, in order to achieve, now and hereafter, the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation.” In May the Boston School Committee voted four-to-one to ask the court to include 75 suburban communities as its co-defendants, seeking a metropolitan desegregation plan in the almost certain outcome of being found guilty.

As similar events in Detroit demonstrated, the Boston’s School Committee’s courtroom calls for metropolitan desegregation had the very real possibility of implementation. When the Detroit Board of Education approved a modest integration plan in April 1970, anti-integrationist whites formed the Citizens’ Committee for Better Education (CCBE) and successfully recalled integrationist Board members. The rescission of the integration plan prompted a legal challenge from the NAACP. Faced with the likelihood that the Detroit schools would be found unconstitutionally segregated, the CCBE urged the adoption of a plan of metropolitan desegregation just one year after recalling integrationist Board members. It was the first party in the case call for a metropolitan solution, and was quickly joined by the NAACP. CCBE members supported plans of metropolitan desegregation for the same reason they opposed intra-city desegregation – both emanated from a desire to keep their white children in white majority schools. CCBE Attorney Alexander J. Ritchie persuaded CCBE members to change course, telling them that “Your kids are going to go to school, and they’re going to be bused, whether you like it or not… Now do you want your kids to go to school where they’re the minority in a basically black school system, or do you want them to go to school where you’re still the majority?” Divergent motivations produced similar results. So similar were metropolitan plans produced by the CCBE and the NAACP that Judge Stephen J. Roth called them “roughly approximate.”

While Judge Roth accepted the CCBE’s metropolitan arguments and ordered the implementation of a desegregation plan affecting 54 independent school districts, the Supreme Court did not. In a strictly partisan five-to-four decision, in July 1974 Justice Potter Stewart joined Republican President Richard Nixon’s four appointees in reaffirming the separation of city and suburb, ensuring the maintenance of separate and unequal education in American metropolitan areas. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his impassioned dissent, the Court’s decision would allow “our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities – one white, the other black.” Though this divide already existed, the Milliken decision exacerbated metropolitan segregation and helped codify metropolitan inequality.

As historian Matthew Lassiter’s analysis of desegregation in Richmond, Charlotte, and Atlanta demonstrates, school desegregation plans that incorporated the suburbs provided more lasting integration than plans limited to the central city alone. Affecting the entire region, metropolitan plans did not allow well-heeled whites to simply flee the desegregation mandate by leaving the city. In light of both cities’ re-segregated schools that are attended almost uniformly by the intersecting categories of poor and minority and their persistent residential segregation, it is worth revisiting these proposals. Undeniably conceived in white racism and prone to viewing black students as a problem population that needed to be dispersed, in such metropolitan plans also existed possibilities of meaningful racial and socio-economic integration.

Boston School Integration 1974
White Boston parents demonstrating outside Judge Arthur Garrity’s suburban Wellesley home. Though their protests primarily targeted arriving black students and buses, anti-busers frequently trekked to the suburbs to protest busing and decry elite busing supporters whose suburban residences placed them outside the desegregation mandate. Image courtesy WBUR FM.

The metropolitan proposals made in Boston and Detroit have been most influential in their failure. With mandatory metropolitan desegregation an impossibility, middle-class whites accelerated their flight from the central cities and the public schools. Suburbanites worked to ensure suburban autonomy from the central city. In Boston, a program proposed by 56 school districts before the busing decision that was designed to entirely eradicate segregation in the metropolitan area was hardest hit by the renewed push for suburban autonomy. In the program’s first and only year, 1976-77, a mere 210 students from three suburbs and Boston participated in its school pairing program. Suburbanites opposed participation in the program, fearing that it would lead to a metropolitan school district and mandatory busing. While the METCO program continued, it never experienced another period of growth and previously stalwart communities threatened to withdraw when the state planned to modestly trim the funds it provided to participating communities.

While historians have noted an increase in white flight following intra-city desegregation, they have failed to connect this to declining support for metropolitan cooperation and governance in the 1970s. Conversely, the burgeoning literature on “metropolitics” neglects the long history of proposals for metropolitan school desegregation. This is a mistake. A focus on proposals for metropolitan desegregation made by ostensibly segregationist urban whites allows for a broadened understanding of the history of metropolitan reform, urban history, and civil rights. This focus helps explain the growth and persistence of extreme disparities between the central city and its suburbs in America’s metropolises, particularly those in the North, and can help account for the lack of metropolitan solutions to a wide array of metropolitan problems.

Michael Savage is a graduate student in American History at the University of Toronto whose dissertation focuses on metropolitan approaches to school and housing desegregation.

Think Piece

Solidarity, Fragmentation, and Welfare

By Daniel London

The capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century.

Stuart Hall

The problem of solidarity is shaping up to be the problem of the 21st century.

David Hollinger

Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. inaugurated the field of American urban history in 1940 with a sweeping declaration that most of what was most progressive about America originated in cities. This was a result, he believed, of the circumscribed conditions within cities which “forced attention to matters of common concern which could not be ignored even by a people individualistically inclined.” This forcing of attention, in turn, brought with it a “necessary concern with the general welfare” that “nourished a sense of social responsibility”, manifested in collective voluntary action and, ultimately, in the welfare state.

While this interpretation still finds its defenders 60 years later by some unreconstructed social democrats, more specialized scholars of the American welfare state have not echoed it, to put it lightly. Rather than the result of a bottom-up solidaristic consensus or pragmatically pluralist negotiations, the welfare state as described in the work of such luminaries as Michael Katz and Linda Gordon represents the triumph of particular and privileged social groups (white men, mostly), the operations of which were lodged in bureaucracies disconnected from the people they were meant to serve. There is no talk of ‘public good’ in these works, at least with a straight face; rather, the American welfare state is characterized by its uneven and private-sector oriented nature, and its cities permanently characterized by fragmentation and segregation.

Historian Thomas Bender

Both sets of interpretations, apparently irreconcilable, nonetheless rest on a similar set of over-drawn binaries between ‘public’ and ‘private’ as related to normative concepts (the public versus the private good), social groupings (civil society versus the state) and social provision (public sector versus the private sector). Here I would argue for a more open-ended, nuanced, and empirical research agenda as to the relations within and across these pairings, oriented around the concept of “public culture” articulated by Thomas Bender.

The welfare state was, for postwar social theorist and economist T.H. Marshall, the quintessential public good – an enrichment of the “universal status of citizenship” that both emerged from and ensured a “common culture and common experience” among the populace. Many urban historians sympathetic to this interpretation emphasize moments (and spaces) of communication and cooperation between social groups, tracking the rise of a progressive and redistributive Gemeinschaft that transcended, if not replaced, a more ethnos-oriented Gesellschaft.

Other historical works, however, argue that the idea of a “public good” was not only debilitating toward efforts at redistribution (usually via hegemonic interpretations), but that it overshadowed injustices oriented around what Nancy Fraser calls issues of recognition wherein gender and racial differences need to be stressed. Such battles over representation and multiculturalism, of course, are seen by social democrats as displacing attention from mal-distribution by failing to address its real causes, and undermining the solidarity that redistributive campaigns appear to require.

We need to move away from such zero-sum interpretations, and provide more historical accounts of how understandings of the public good were developed, articulated, and gained ideological and political purchase within and across different social groupings. To what extent do policies recognizing social differences (including those of class, race, and gender) inhibit trust, and empathy and cooperation between groups – and vice-versa? When, precisely, do languages and practices around solidarity – both in terms of cultural identifications and more abstract “interests” – weaken or strengthen the respective influence of different social institutions (civil society/state) and sectors (market/state) vis-à-vis one another?

T.H. Marshall also posited a unidirectional link between active “social responsibility” by citizens on the ground and the formations and operations of the Welfare State. Indeed, Marshall believed that at a certain point civil-society institutions such as unions would be unnecessary and distracting: it would be the State that ensured the common good free of any particularizing institutions. Conversely, Jürgen Habermas, believed that the welfare state actually destroyed the “public sphere” by making civil society seemingly unnecessary, thereby reducing citizens to State clients and eroding the zones of privacy – Nancy Fraser calls them “ ‘counter-publics’” – in which citizens can gain clearer and more participatory understanding of their interests.

More empirical work is needed investigating precisely when state organizations (and at what scale) are actually more open to inclusive and open participation than voluntary organizations. A more vexed problem, however, is examining degrees of overlap and connection between civil society organizations, communities, and state organizations. To what extent have diverse publics contributed to more general formation of public opinion on a scale sufficient to influence the state and other social institutions? How have transformations in the ownership and usage of communication – and the physical spaces where inter-group communication literally takes place – influenced their capacities to do so? How have ideas and policies around the ‘public value’ of redistribution and recognition been influenced by changing connections between, and degree of democracy within, these institutions? Finally, how have languages and practices around solidarity and conflict discussed earlier influenced participation within and across civil society and the state?

Finally, we must address the question of policies themselves. The entire point of Welfare, for Schlesinger and Marshall, was to ensure a certain equality of condition and opportunity for individuals that alternative mechanisms – the family, volunteer organizations, and especially the market – could not provide. America represents a “laggard” Welfare state, in the eyes of many historians, to the extent that these purportedly “private” institutions were responsible for sectors of social reproduction. Not only were such institutions insufficient in dealing with major economic crises, but they also discriminated on the basis of the recipients’ status or income in ways that universal, tax-financed policies (across class lines) do not. Other New Left and conservative critics argue that the State, by monopolizing social provision, erodes horizontal solidaristic ties within communities and civil society.

Recent scholarship into comparative welfare state formation, however, has overturned traditional understanding of the American State and welfare policy more generally. Most importantly for the purpose of this essay, they have demonstrated ‘public welfare’ activity always consists of a mixture of institutional players – many of them non-state – and policies at any given time. Under these conditions, how do individuals navigate changing configurations of welfare providers? How do differences in their funding structure (tax financed versus contributory), accessibility (means tested versus universal), and operation (via parochial organizations, civil-society, ‘community’ organizations, and so forth) both reflect and affect patterns of solidarity within and between groups?

As should be clear from this résumé, any simple characterization of the welfare state as either the embodiment or antithesis of solidarity rests on shaky foundations. The easy, unidirectional link between the “public” good”, the “public” sector, and “public” policies – as ultimately manifesting in the universal welfare state – does not seem born out by the evidence. However, both adherents of this position and its die-hard critics tended to state their cases in overly binary terms. This is partly an understandable reaction to the neoliberal valorization of the private sector since the 1970s. I also believe it stems, however, from the fact that so many historians tend to locate their areas of inquiry outside the realm of policy formation – preventing us from seeing in greater detail the actual inputs and effects of welfare policies on ideas, practices, and institutions as relating to solidarity.

Toward this end, I propose a research program scaffolded around the transformation and consequences of welfare policies (with “welfare” interpreted loosely), but whose locus of inquiry is what Thomas Bender calls the  making of public culture. Public culture encompasses the sites and processes whereby social groups interact and contest for the power to define legitimate social meanings – in my own work, around the meanings of “public” and “private” – for the polity.   This is not consensus or pluralist history, insofar as it critically examines how and why some groups and identities are not represented in these contests. It is, however, unapologetically built around interaction. Not as a way of avoiding questions of power and domination, but of more fully understanding and interrogating it: in Julian Zelizer’s words “how it was structured and changed, where it was contested what its impact was, and what assumptions shaped the discourse that framed it.” To this end, highlighting brief moments of social democratic deliberations or inter-group interactions is not enough: our study must also encompass the translation of (some) of these meanings into actual policies, along with their effects. If this entails a closer examination of institutional formations and interactions that many cultural historians have become accustomed to, so much the better.

What does all of this, finally, have to do with the city? We cannot naively assume that urban areas are, either historically or theoretically, the most generative space for social politics. However, they remain unparalleled as a site for investigating and comparing interactions at their most complex, heterogeneous, and dense. And in our investigations, we will need to deploy the methodologies of intellectual history in order to fully understand the contexts and complexes around the meaning of those keywords – public, private, solidarity, fragmentation – that are all-too-often unreflexively deployed by well-meaning commentators and chroniclers alike.

Think Piece

Coming to Agreement: The State of Urban Public Life in American History

By Daniel London

We live, Daniel Rogers tells us, in an Age of Fracture – and judging by the headlines and your Twitter feed, it is easy to agree. Our debates seem to be characterized by an incapacity, and often an unwillingness, to find common ground across economic, cultural, and political lines. We are faced with a classic question of political theory: under what conditions and to what extent can a community defined by deep pluralism agree on the forms, functions, and outcomes of public life? Intellectual historians can open our public sphere to more open-ended deliberations by examining societies faced with similar dilemmas, contextualizing and de-naturalizing our often rigid assumptions about what constitutes our interest and who belongs within the circle of ‘we’. Unfortunately, an overview of extant research into one relevant terrain for such inquiries –the late 19th and early 20th century American city – reveals how much work is needed before such ground can be fruitfully explored for our own purposes.

Why should we look to the turn of the last century for historical insights, when our dilemmas seem so clearly a product of the Post-War era – of the decline of the New Deal order and the rise of conservatism? Books such as The Origins of the Urban Crises and Running Steel, Running America have been invaluable for explaining the racially-riven metropolitan landscapes we have inherited. Intellectual historians have helped us better understand the varied strands which shape so much of contemporary thinking, from Chicago-School economics to Evangelical Christianity to Geertzian anthropology. However, we should not be too quick to exclusively rely upon the recent past for historical insights. A growing number of historians argue that the post-war era was an exceptional period in global history in which economic growth, full employment, redistributive policies, and decreasing inequality went hand in hand. As these conditions fade in our lifetimes, the New Deal (or in the European case, the Social-Democratic consensus) increasingly appears as a mere interruption of a longer Gilded Age. As we return to the conditions of the 1880s, the historiographical value of the late 19th and early 20th centuries begins to change – not as mere preludes to “modern” conditions, but as modernity itself.

This insight applies to the social characteristics of the fin de siècle, as well as its economic dimensions. Many of the issues cities faced in those decades – growing inequality, immigration, multiculturalism –are in many ways more akin to those facing our own urban centers than those of the 1950s or even the 1970s. Concerns over inter-group cooperation and trust in trying economic conditions, so much the focus of contemporary social theorists and cultural critics, are prefigured by the conceptions of self, community, and political economy developed in the works of Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and George Hebert Meade. And the way new forms of communication and reportage influenced how urbanites defined public problems and solutions should be of great interest to those concerned with the effects of the Internet on reinforcing or loosening our prejudices.

It is for all these reasons that understanding and explaining the public life of cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries holds so much promise for gaining insight around contemporary deliberative challenges. Unfortunately, while the operation and development of the public sphere has been extensively theorized, the state of historical research into this sphere’s urban iterations remains relatively uneven and unsystematic. You can get a sense of this by a quick overview of three major interpretive schools that have addressed this subject, all of which hold vastly different conclusions as to the origins and outcomes of urban deliberations during this time.

Works in the first school argue that major elements of Progressive-era statecraft (at least its most Social-Democratic elements) derived from successful cross-class mobilizations to uncover a ‘common good’ through public-sphere deliberations. Class-bridging dialogues in settlement houses, the socializing effects of newspaper publicity, the efforts by public intellectuals to break down divisions between the academy and the polis, and shared exposure to negative social consequences within the dense confines of the city all helped formerly divided groups uncover and clarify shared problems, interest, and goals. At its best, urban life appears in these works as a fluid sphere in which class, ethnic, and religious identities were overlapping and in flux. John T. Fairfield’s The Public and its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City and David P. Thelen’s The New Citizenship; Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin, 1885-1900 embody this perspective.

Another body of scholarship argues that the Progressive era was marked by the kind of fragmentation and divisions that seem to characterize our own time. Phillip Ethington makes this contention in his study of San Francisco politics in the second half of the 19th century. He claims that while antebellum San Franciscan civil society divided along class, ethnic, and racial lines, the Republican norm dominating public sphere deliberations delegitimized political claims made upon these bases. In his reading, the language of populism – of ‘the people’ or even the “common good” more generally – worked against social politics. By the post-war era, however, political entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on growing social divisions within the polity began to appeal more directly to different segments of the polity on the basis of group identity. Under this emergent pluralist paradigm, political interventions on the basis of group-needs, along with cultural tolerance for ethnic minorities, was justified. However, such a paradigm ensured that the public good was a lowest-common-denominator, zero-sum aggregation of interest groups that left out radical ideas and segments of the population whose demanded them (like labor unions, racial minorities, etc). This pragmatic, consensus-driven school of the American polity dates back, of course, to Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform.

A final school believes that deliberations over a shared “public good” during this time were stymied from the outset by the interference of middle-class reformers, whose hegemonic impulses hobbled the kind of fundamental reforms that might otherwise have resulted from such discussions. In the view of David Huyssen and Shelton Stromquist, these reformers preached a vision of social reconciliation that made no allowances for political mobilization based on what we would today call ‘identity politics’ – particularly race and class. However, these reformers ignored how their own actions and beliefs were decisively implicated in the maintenance of racism, inequality and exploitation. They refused to see the world around them in class terms or pursue policies that would more fundamentally alter class power, such as breaking apart monopolies or encouraging union growth. Furthermore, their emphasis on ‘civic virtue’ as a requirement for civic inclusion provided them with ample justification for race and ethnic-based exclusions. Suspicious of a discourse of “common good” or even broad-based populist mobilizations, these authors seem to advocate for a confrontational and partisan political culture.

It should be clear from this overview that these three schools differ on a number of fundamental points. The public sphere is alternatively shaped by bottom-up civil-society interactions, top-down machinations, or middle-out mobilization. The results of these interactions vary from altruistic mobilizations of citizens whose private identities and interests have been sublimated into a transcendent ‘public good,’ pragmatic assemblages of groups motivated around material interests, or a stifling period of bourgeoisie hegemony. Furthermore, contending schools often draw upon similar policy points to make their case! Utility regulation is seen by some as a triumph of popular consensus, others as an example of pluralist compromise. Some see charter reform as a triumph of pluralistic mobilization or civic uplift, others as a class conspiracy to marginalize working-class neighborhoods. Of course, it is quite possible that these three paradigms of inter-group communication were occurring simultaneously within the city. But until a more systematic and comparative lens is applied to the historic public sphere, we will not be able to tease out how and whether different deliberative patterns – pluralist, populist, militant, consensus – led to fundamentally different consequences. And without these insights, our ability to assess our own patterns of political dialogue is hampered.

Where role can intellectual historians play in this revised study of the urban public sphere? Up until now, many works in this vein focus on a Benderian play of ideas in public, tracing the conversations through which the meaning of a concept was transformed over time. This is important work, but I also think a dash of conceptual history directly targeting three constitutive elements of public life itself – communication, commonality, and community – is needed. How were these terms theorized and practiced by different actors in different contexts? How did their meaning and usage correlate with different patterns of self-identification, affiliation, group relations, and mobilizations? And how did these concepts reflect and shape broader dynamics in American social, political and economic life?

The study of the public sphere is too important to remain locked in a zero-sum battle between ideal-type Habermasian rationality and Fraser-esque swarms of militant counter-publics. We need open-ended, systematic, and above all historical insights if we are to learn whether and how, in the words of Craig Calhoun, “public communication can be something different than the mirror of mere power politics, the mere expression of personal experience, or mere reproduction of cultural traditions.” Perhaps this is impossible: but I’d rather hear that from a historian’s monograph than a social-theorist’s manifesto any day.

Featured Image: George Bellows, “New York,” 1911. Courtesy of Wikimedia.