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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Stories of busing

My last post, on bigotry and compulsory busing reminds me of stories that from my own family's history.

Story #1:  My siblings were born in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Denver.  There's a lot I don't know about their upbringing, and much of what I'm about to write is conjecture.  But here are some, to my mind, interesting points.

My two oldest siblings went to the local elementary public school, and then on to the local public junior high and high schools.  My next three siblings, who would have been born in the early 1960s, from around 1961 to 1965, went for a few years to the local elementary school, and then my parents transferred them to my mother's parish parochial school, a K through 8 school.

I don't know the specifics of when my parents transferred them.  But it would have been around the time of the implementation of court-ordered busing in Denver in 1974.  The idea of busing had been in the air already, though.  In 1969, according to this New York Times article, Denver voters elected a city council majority opposed to busing for the purposes of desegregation.  And although the article I just cited isn't completely clear, in 1969 or 1970, a federal court ordered busing to begin.  The late (1974) implementation seems to have resulted from something like massive resistance to the policy and the Supreme Court challenge.  All this is to say, that I wouldn't be surprised if the effort to shift my siblings to parochial school coincided with that busing debate.  But I'd have to know the years.

For the record, all my siblings went to the public high school.

Story #2:  I remember, perhaps sometime in the late 1990s though I don't remember now, my mother telling me that several years prior, probably before I was born, she had been at a protest at the local public elementary school.  I don't remember for sure if she said she carried signs, but the goal of the protest was--I think--against busing.

Story #3:  I was born in the early 1970s, and my parents sent me to a public elementary school, Kindergarten starting for me in the 1979-1980 school year.  It wasn't the same elementary school my siblings had gone to before the transfer to a parochial school.  It was a little farther away than that school, but still in walking distance.  However, it was in fact a shorter walk to that school than the walk to the parochial school would have been.   So, although it wasn't the neighborhood school, it was for many intents and purposes a neighborhood school.

Anyway, at the beginning of one school year year--I think it was 5th grade but I no longer remember--the class I had been assigned to was, apparently, overcrowded.  So I was moved to a different class with a different teacher.  Not a huge deal.  It happened in the first or second week of classes and wasn't a major disruption.  Still, it was interesting to know that I would now have a different teacher.  So I went home and told my dad that I was being "transferred."

He got very angry.  I didn't understand why.  After some explanation--either from myself or from my mother or, for all I know, from my school when (if) he called them--he calmed down.  At the time, I chalked it off as one of those apparently random expressions of anger he often indulged in and I was grateful when it ended.  But I now have an idea of what made him so angry.

Story #4:  Court-ordered busing ended in 1995, according to the articles I cited above.  Those who supported its end claimed that it had "worked" and had successfully integrated schools.  Those who wanted it continued claimed that it hadn't gone far enough, or feared a reversion to the more segregated system of the 1960s/1970s.

It is almost certain that the schools I attended were desegregated to some extent, although most of my students came from "sensible" areas given the location of the school.  I lived in southwest Denver and don't recall many students bused in from northeast Denver, for example.  I'm not sure if that was by design--if busing was done with the intent of keeping local schoolchildren as local as possible--if it was a sign of only a tepid implementation of busing, or if the fact that my own neighborhood had a large number of Latinos and, by the late 1980s, southeast Asians already made it more "diverse" than it would have been in the 1960s and 1970s.

In my last post, I identified some of the non-racist reasons a person might oppose busing.  I gave the impression that busing as a means for integration was a ham-handed effort.  I believe that in many ways it was.  But I ought to have discussed the issue a little further.  As ham-handed as it was, it probably had at least modest success, at least in some cases.  We hear the spectacular cases about the anti-busing riots in Boston--or about the arson attacks on Denver buses or the bomb threat against the chief proponent of busing in Denver--but we hear less about the more boring cases of it actually working.

I'd like to think my experiences in school introduced me to a modicum of diversity that I might not otherwise have had.  I think all the schools I did attend--which were all public--were either majority white or whites were the largest group if not a majority.  And there were very few black people in my classes, even though Denver has a sizeable African-American population and they tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the city, a fact that to my mind might make busing to integrate those areas an obvious to those who supported busing.

There could be tension.  I  remember being called "white boy" on several occasions, and it wasn't the type of label to make one feel safe.  To the extent that I had bullies, they tended to be Latino, though not all were.  I'm sure the reverse was true, and probably more true than what I recall or witnessed, that non-whites faced their own share of epithets and threats.  And it was probably true that being white helped me get away with certain things that I might not have gotten away with had I not been white.

But there were good things, too.  I had friends with Spanish, Hmong, Farsi, and Vietnamese surnames.  My introduction to their cultures was probably superficial, but I learned from them.  I had very few black friends, none of whom was a close friend, but I had some.  I learned a modicum of respect for others.  In high school, for example, I adopted the facile attitude that affirmative action was nothing more than "reverse discrimination," and I didn't change my mind by the time I left.  However, I knew that my friends benefited in some ways from this program I disliked, and I learned not to begrudge them their opportunities.  I also knew that most of them were less well-off than I was.  Some lived in housing projects, and some had experienced some pretty severe hardship in places like Laos or Vietnam before coming to the US.

Now, Lincoln High School in Denver in 1988 was not Little Rock Central High School in 1957.  And while Denver is much more diverse than a casual visitor, who sees only downtown and a select other neighborhoods might think, it is not nearly as diverse as larger cities, like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago are.  But I think my experience is worth noting if I'm going to be making statements critical of busing.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bigotry feels itself aggrieved, part 2: on compulsory busing

In my last post, I promised to offer an example of what I meant by "bigotry feels itself aggrieved."  Here is one.  And like most non-Godwinian examples I can think of, it's an imperfect one.

Consider the rhetoric of George Wallace, the southern segregationist who in 1968 ran a third-party campaign for president.  Among the many issues he took on, he criticized court-ordered and legislature-ordered busing, at one point saying the following [quoted from this post]:
Isn't it silly and ludicrous and asinine for a group of pin-head socialists [sic] theorists telling you that they are going to make you send your child out of a neighborhood school to satisfy the whim of some social engineer and say to parents, 'You don't have anything to do with it.' . . . It is freedom-of-choice only if you choose like they think you ought to choose.
Now there are a lot of ways to examine the sentiment to which Wallace was appealing.  One way is to focus on the inherent bigotry.  Busing was one mechanism to combat segregation in the public schools.  And Wallace was making the argument to his listeners that desegregation wasn't their responsibility.  The people really to be criticized were those who intruded themselves upon the parents' choice of where to send their children.  One could oppose desegregation and yet rest secure that one's opposition is based on the special grievance against the "social engineers" and "socialists theorists" who shuffled children around to make a larger political point.

In that case, the bigotry is the opposition to racial integration.  The terms "social engineers" and "socialists" were negative code words, designed to disguise racists beliefs.  In saying this I'm saying nothing new.  Because I have to cite something, I'll refer you to Micheal Omi and Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States (1986), which references the rise of "code words" that in the years after the civil rights movement that signaled racism.  The racism here that was part of George Wallace's appeal was expressed in those code words.  (I'm actually inclined to believe code words, or proto-code words, were in existence well before the civil rights movement.  I can imagine a promoter of Jim Crow segregation in the late 1800s saying something like, "I'm not racist.  I just think people need to stay among their own kind."  Or he could just cite the supreme court and say "things might be separate, but they're equal.")

I have to pause here, though, and point out something else.  The argument of the "code word" argument is not the only way to read opposition to busing.  I can think of non-racist reasons a parent might oppose court-ordered or legislature-ordered busing.  There are a lot of advantages, I imagine, to having one's child attend a school close to home.  The route to and from is shorter and more likely to have watchful neighbors who know the child and parents.  Buses can be missed if the schoolchild is running behind, and then might need a ride to school.  Parents can probably more easily attend parent-teacher nights or PTA conferences at a school close to home.  If an emergency happens, it might be easier for a parent, especially if one is already at home, to come to school.  Busing was at least occasionally met with violence (but I should note that the situation I link to concerns the implementation of a state law, and not court-ordered busing).  It's not excusing the violence of segregationists to say that parents might legitimately not want to put their children in such dangerous situations.  Finally, busing in isolation seems to have been a "if you build it they will come" tactic.  Just put children of different backgrounds together without doing anything else to help them learn how to respect each other, and in one generation's time racism won't even be an issue.

But if, as I believe, opposition to busing wasn't reducible to racism, it was implicated with racism in a very messy way that is difficult to disentangle.  But trying to disentangle it--trying to identify which strands were racist, or bigoted, and which were non-racist--is also difficult and can take us dangerously close to the judgment on others' internal states I talked about in my last post.  We can of course identify specifically racist things anti-busing activists may have said, but doing so gets us only so far.  By the late 1960s,. it was already becoming unacceptable--and therefore less common--to take stridently pro-segregationist stances or to adopt language that today we would recognize as the reserve only of white supremacist groups.  That's why Wallace--who had once proclaimed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!"--now started to frame his rhetoric against "social engineers" (and also "anarchists," aka antiwar activists and other activists).*

My hypothesis is that in anti-busing campaigns, non-racist reasons and racist/bigoted reasons intermingled.  And the problem at hand--education systems that tended to channel more resources to whites than to blacks or Latinos--was the overarching reference and ought to be considered in how we assess reaction to attempts to solve it.  (I'll note in passing that I'm focusing here on whites.  The people whom busing was meant to help had varied and nuanced views of the matter, too.)

So I'm left with a problem.  I have stated that "bigotry feels itself aggrieved."  And I believe it.  But I can't prove it by this example.  I can, however, use this example to inquire into what about one's opposition to busing is bigoted and what is not, and perhaps to ask for introspection.  I offer this example not to accuse, but to call for introspection.  If one feels a particular grievance, and that grievance is cited in defense of something that is otherwise wrong, then maybe one is indulging in bigotry, in the self-seduction I mention in my prior post.

Calling out Wallace supporters is low-hanging fruit.  He pretty much represented the last time explicit (and even in 1968, the explicitness was going underground through the code words) pro-segregationist politics was considered legitimate.  It's much harder to examine our own assumptions.

*He later in fact experienced something like an anti-racist rebirth.  He apologized for his earlier stances and re-ran for governor and won, supposedly with some significant support from black voters.  I'll leave it to people who know more about him to assess the evidence for and against how sincere that turning of the third stair was.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bigotry feels itself aggrieved, part 1

I have a working rule about bigotry and in particular about those who try to justify willful injustices.  I believe such people convince themselves that they are victims of the very victims against whom the injustices are perpetrated.  They feel themselves aggrieved by the victims and use that sense of grievance in a process of self-seduction to support something they might not otherwise believe justifiable.

By "willful injustice" I mean an injustice that someone chooses to do when they could have chosen otherwise.  I do not mean an instance where someone weighs all options, finds them all unjust, but must make a decision and tries to choose the least unjust option possible.

By "seduction," I mean making an argument to convince the will to accept something otherwise unacceptable.  By "self-seduction," I mean the person bears some fault both for succumbing to the argument and for engaging in it.  It is not necessarily the fault of the person alone.  Wider discourses about why "those people" need to be segregated, or why "those people" need to be disfranchised or why "we" need to expropriate (the word "steal" is not used) "their" land--they aid in the process.  But the person is an active participant.  The person sees the apple and knows that it is bad and yet convinces him-/herself that it would be nice to play god and to make themselves the final arbiter of what is just.

The feeling of grievance cum bigotry can manifest itself in many ways, and in future posts I shall explore my idea further and provide examples to illustrate.  But there are two challenges to what I've written so far that I should acknowledge even though I can't fully resolve them.

First, I haven't actually defined "bigotry" here.  The dictionary definition of a bigot goes something like this: "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance."  The problem with that defintion, as with many dictionary definitions, is that it doesn't really explore the qualifiers, especially the adverbs and adverbial phrases:  obstinately, intolerantly, with hatred, with...intolerance.  I submit that most people whom we can accurately describe as bigots either do not see themselves as obstinate, intolerant, etc. or delude themselves into thinking that they are not.  Indeed, that's another way of summing up what I'm arguing in this post, that bigotry feels itself aggrieved.  Still, I realize that my framing is circular.  I'm stating it is because it is.  I'm not proving it.

Second, and somewhat related, my hypothesis presumes something about the internal states of others.  It can therefore be construed as a judgment upon those others of the sort theNew Testament warned against:
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Now, whatever my actual practice, I do not in theory really think it's acceptable to impose moral judgments on others' souls.  (That doesn't, by the way, mean I believe all "judgment" is necessarily wrong, just that certain kinds of judgment are off-limits for mere mortals.)  But by introducing the ideas of "self-seduction" and "willful injustice," I am edging toward something that looks like a judgment.

My response to those two points--that I define "bigotry," if at all, in a circular way and that I am judging the internal states of others--is to partially concede the point but also to redirect how I want to use this concept.  I think we need to look at bigotry not as an isolated phenomenon, but as a way to measure our actions.  The goal, then, becomes not which of our actions is bigoted, or who is bigoted, but rather in what ways our (or others') actions are bigoted.  People who feel themselves especially aggrieved or victimized by others do, in my opinion, really believe at some level that they are aggrieved, even though I also argue that feeling or belief is partially a product of self-delusion.  We lie to ourselves and we are responsible for the act of lying, but we do on some level believe the lies.

As I provide further examples in later posts, I hope my general statements here become clearer.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

We have always been at war with Westasia UPDATED

Deep down, I really don't know what the right thing to do with the emerging "ISIS" or "ISIL" or whatever it is that's forming parts of Iraq and Syria.

But I'll say this.  Apparently, ISIS is the worst enemy we've had ever, except for all the other worst enemies we've had.  I remember when the War on Terror was just a twinkle in Mr. Bush's eye, announced about the same time that he gave his "courageous" speech at ground zero.  (An interesting phenomenon, that.  As head of state, he's supposed to give speeches at the time of national tragedy, and he could've said almost anything and gained accolades.  But above all let's not forget the courage it required to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear.)  Al-Qaeda was the worst thing ever because unlike our prior rivals, it didn't have the courtesy of being an actual state, with boundaries and sham parliaments.  Instead it was a decentralized terrorist network or movement and couldn't be pinned down or really declared war on.  It also engaged in beheadings of American journalists.

Now exit Al-Q and enter ISIS.  ISIS is even worse, because instead of being a decentralized terrorist network, it is forming a geographically delimited state.  It apparently is staking out boundaries and has found a way to fund itself and even claim something we can recognize as subjects who, if they don't give their enthusiastic support, at least seem to acquiesce in the way that subjects almost always have:  reluctantly, maybe with everyday acts of resistance, but not challenging the overall structures.  Even worse than Al-Qaeda, it engages in beheadings of American journalists.

Obama wants to destroy it.  Good for him.  Maybe it will work, with only a few airstrikes.  As James Hanley notes in a comment at Ordinary Times,
Aa much as I despise our neo-colonial kingmaking in the Middle East, and as much as ISIS is a product of our meddling and as such an object lesson in the nearly inevitable suboptimal results of such meddling, I think we have to act against them.
These guys are not merely internationally irritating and domestically brutal dictators. Their goal is the destruction of all infidels, which to them also includes most Muslims. They will provide a harbor for terrorists, or purposely promote/export terrorism on their own. They are, through our own stupid doing, a national security threat.
We should not intervene to the extent of trying to control the territory or pick the winners in these civil wars. We should just pick one loser, ISIS, destroy them, ruthlessly, and leave the battlefield to the other contestants.
It’s not going to give us a great outcome. It’s just going to prevent our worst outcome.
If he's right that "we" can do that, then maybe "we" should.  (Not me, of course, but younger people.) I'm suspicious that any plan to do so will fail unless the US makes an extraordinary on-the-ground commitment.  Others at that OT thread seem to think a minimal commitment is possible.  (And still others seem edging toward the Muslim-baiting that we saw post 9/11.  At least they're still using qualifiers, like "some Muslims" or the "Jihadists" among them, or "the Jacobins of Islam," sometimes coming from people who elsewhere have expressed support for the French Revolution.)

But the case is not so clear to me.  And the US has a bad track record when it comes to waging non-cold wars that aren't against Nazis or its own slaveowners.

I'm not a pacifist, not even a "technical pacifist" who would devise rules for justified violence so stringent as to never in practice justify war.  Sometimes armed intervention is the least bad of a whole bunch of bad options in a situation where something can and must be done.  And if these bad options are on the table because of the United States' meddling, as James suggests, and if the threat is a real one that can be expeditiously dispatched, then maybe the US should.  At any rate, Obama is going to do whatever he is going to do regardless of what I write here.  So I might as well register my reservations now before the forces have been deployed.  Because criticism once the fighting starts is "unpatriotic."  I can already hear the analogies to America First.

UPDATE 9-12-14:  I should add two points.  First, James Hanley is not an Islamophobe.  In fact, he has by my understanding gone out of his way to combat Islamophobia.  Second, he is not a neocon war monger nor is he naive about how military interventions work or what they can/cannot do.  In fact, he may be right in terms of what he thinks a good policy might be.  I do think--I am not certain--that I disagree with what he suggests should be done, and I do believe that one consequence of what Mr. Obama is doing is foster more anti-Muslim sentiment.