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.

No comments: