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.

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