Forced busing: How soon we forget

By Kent R. Kroeger (July 2, 2019)

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“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1150 a.d.)

The original intent behind federally-mandated desegregation busing was noble: ‘Separate but equal’ was not working for many African-American students in the 1950s and 60s. Busing policies were designed to improve the educational opportunities of African-American children by integrating them systematically into predominantly white school districts.

The desegregation busing concept was predicated upon research conducted in the 1960s, specifically the Coleman Report published in 1966. In that study, including more than 150,000 students, it was found that learning within mixed-race classrooms was more important to the academic achievement of socially disadvantaged African-American children than was per-pupil funding.

According to the researchers, it wasn’t enough to improve funding to schools in economically disadvantaged school districts. The students in these districts would achieve better educational outcomes if they were educated in predominantly white school districts.

But it took the 1971 Supreme Court ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education to provide the final impetus for desegregation busing to advance nationwide. In ruling in favor of Swann, the Supreme Court decided that for a school district to achieve racial balance it meant redrawing school boundaries and the use of busing in that aim was a legitimate legal tool.

So began the liberal project to integrate the American school system through federally-mandated (forced) busing. In the 1970s, busing designed to desegregate mostly urban school districts began. School districts in Boston (MA), Kansas City (MO), Las Vegas (NV), Los Angeles (CA), Nashville (TN), Prince George’s County (MD), Richmond (VA), and Wilmington (DE), among others, instituted mandatory busing where a select number of students were assigned and transported to racially segregated schools.

Reducing racial segregation in public schools became a federal requirement following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, but, for many reasons, mandatory busing did not achieve this goal.

From 1972 to 1980, despite desegregation busing in many urban school jurisdictions, the percentage of blacks attending mostly-black schools barely changed, moving from 63.6 percent to 63.3 percent, noted David Frum in his 2000 book, How We Got Here: The 1970s (The Decade That Brought You Modern Life — For Better Or Worse).

As to the impact of busing on academic achievement, a 1992 Harvard study found no discernable improvement among black and Hispanic students as a result of court-ordered busing.

Busing did, however, leave a political mark, especially on liberal Democrats who had championed the policy since its inception. Many white families whose children were bused to predominately African-American schools resented the government’s intrusion. For many families, the quality of local neighborhood schools was a major factor in deciding where to buy or rent a home. Children selected for busing programs often had to travel more than an hour to get to school, though, in many cases, their neighborhood school was within walking distance.

Public opinion data collected between 1972 and 1996 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) shows the level of discontent among whites with respect to busing was always high (see Figure 1).

In the 1970s, while African-Americans were evenly split in their support for busing, whites opposition to the policy never fell below 75 percent. Public opinion on busing has changed little since 1996 (the last year NORC asked a busing question on its General Social Survey [GSS]). A more recent 2007 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of Americans would prefer that students stay in their local schools, even if that meant most students would be of the same race.

Figure 1: Public attitudes over time regarding mandatory busing

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Source: NORC — General Social Survey

Amid other social issues that dominated politics in the 1970s (e.g., abortion, prayer in school, the Equal Rights Amendment, etc.), few were as potent as busing. In his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan told the Sacramento Press Club:

“Federal control of education has become a reality. If I am elected President it would be my intention to issue strict instructions to the Department of HEW and other federal departments to get off the back of state and local school systems, to leave the setting of policies and the administration of school affairs to local boards of education.”

When Reagan won the 1980 election, many attributed his victory, at least in part, to the public’s opposition to federal programs such as busing. And it was within this political environment that then U.S. Senator Joe Biden (DE) actively worked with some southern Democrats, including avowed segregationists, to end federally-mandated busing. At the time, Biden supported the concept of school desegregation, but not the use of federal directives to do so. Though not a southern state, Delaware’s electorate (while friendly to Democrats) shares some conservative attitudinal characteristics with many southern states, enough so that Biden’s political career might have derailed prematurely had he not publicly opposed federally-mandated busing.

A yes-vote on busing in the mid- to late-1970s might well have ended Biden’s Senate career with the 1978 Senate race — part of a national election where five Democratic incumbent Senators lost their seats: Floyd Haskell (Colorado), Dick Clark (Iowa), William Hathaway (Maine), Wendell Anderson (Minnesota), and Thomas McIntyre (New Hampshire).

To attack Biden in 2019 over a policy position he took in 1977 that was both defensible on merit and popular with his Delaware constituents is cynical by even modern political standards.

If we accept the polling numbers at face value, public support for busing trended upwards after the tumultuous 70s, particularly among young African-Americans and whites (see Figures 2 and 3). Support among African-Americans between 18 and 29 years old rose from 50 percent in the 1970s to 65 percent in the 1990s; among whites, support grew significantly in all age groups, though never exceeding 50 percent for any single group.

Figure 2: African-American attitudes regarding busing by age and decade

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Source: NORC — General Social Survey

Figure 3: White attitudes regarding busing by age and decade

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Source: NORC — General Social Survey

The positive trend in busing support even extended across ideological groups (see Figure 4). For ‘extremely liberal’ GSS respondents, which make up about two percent of the U.S. adult population, support for busing grew from 53 percent to 72 percent.

At the other end, ‘extremely conservative’ Americans, accounting for two to three percent of the U.S. adult population, support for busing increased from 23 percent to 30 percent between 1974 and 1996.

Among a more populous segment of the population, moderates, support for busing nearly doubled from 21 percent to 41 percent.

Figure 4: Change in Attitudes Towards Busing by Ideological Group (1974 to 1996)

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Source: NORC — General Social Survey

Granted, 1996 is over 20 years ago. A lot can change; but as pointed out, a 2007 Pew Research found similar attitudes regarding busing. A majority of Americans prefer children going to their neighborhood schools, even if that means they will not experience as much ethnic and racial diversity during their education. This finding is not controversial. Most parents prefer their children to go to their neighborhood schools — even as there are parents that are willing to bus their children to schools that offer opportunities their neighborhood school may not offer (e.g., music, sports, advanced math/science, cultural diversity, etc.).

As many mandated busing programs either being discontinued or transitioned to voluntary programs through the 1990s, the visceral component to the public’s opposition to federally-mandated busing waned. Moreover, by the 1990s, fewer and fewer Americans had personal experiences with the busing controversies of the 1970s. Temporal distance does make the heart grow fonder in this case.

Yet, the residual effects of the 1970s are still evident in the polling data from the 1990s. Using the numbers from Figures 2 and 3 (above), the change in the proportion of respondents supporting busing from the 1970s to 1990s is reported in the first two columns in Figure 5. Again, the biggest increases in support for busing occurred among white and younger Americans — demographic groups in the 1990s least likely to have firsthand experience with the controversies surrounding busing in the 1970s.

However, if we observe the age and race cohorts, we see indications that those memories lingered with those who most likely experienced — directly or indirectly — busing in the 1970s, particularly among African-Americans. For example, the cohort of African-Americans who were 30 to 39 years old in the 1970s — an age most likely to have small children in a public school system — were 50 to 59 years old in the 1990s. This cohort’s support for busing increased one percentage point from the 1970s to 1990s (not statistically significant). Among the cohort of African-Americans between 40 to 49 years years old in the 1970s — an age segment most likely to have older children in a public school system — support for busing actually declined six percentage points by the 1990s.

Figure 5: Change in Attitudes Towards Busing by Age/Race Cohorts (1974 to 1996)

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Federally-mandated busing was a traumatic experience for many parents and children, black and white, even if there are cases such as entrepreneur Robert F. Smith where the experience brought positive results to their lives (Note: Senator Kamala Harris participated in a voluntary busing program in Berkeley, California — a policy Joe Biden does not oppose).

More pointedly, federally-mandated busing didn’t work. In the aggregate, it didn’t improve the academic performance of African-American children bused to mainly white schools, nor did it lead to a significant drop in school segregation. But it did create massive amounts of resentment towards the federal government.

As a federally-mandated program, the entire enterprise failed.

But that hasn’t stopped political opportunists today from casting judgment on those that lived through busing controversy in the 1970s.

The Nation’s Jonathan Kozol offers an ahistorical rebuke of Joe Biden’s political positioning on busing in the 1970s, using the very real plight of African-American parents that know their children will not get the education they deserve if they can only attend an inner city school, suggesting to his readers that Biden was nothing less than a closet sympathizer with racists:

“As the mainstream media repeatedly reminds us, Biden is a likable man in many ways. Even his critics often speak about his graciousness. But his likability will not help Julia Walker’s grandkids and her great-grandchildren and the children of her neighbors go to schools where they can get an equal shot at a first-rate education and where their young white classmates have a chance to get to know and value them and learn from them, as children do in ordinary ways when we take away the structures that divide them.”

Kozol’s admirable tenure teaching fifth grade for two years in Boston’s suburban interdistrict program, the longest-lasting voluntary integration effort in the nation, turns out to be further evidence that experience does not equate to knowledge or wisdom.

The Los Angeles Time’s Howard Blume is no more charitable towards Biden:

“Regardless of Biden’s intent, he was among the politicians who successfully surfed the surge of anti-busing populism. This wave included parents who were horrified by overt racism, but who opposed putting their children on buses. And this wave also included avowed racists and opportunists who, in their opposition to busing, hid behind self-righteous platitudes.”

Biden wasn’t representing his constituents, he was cynically ‘surfing’ the issue so as to not anger overt and closet racists, implies Blume.

Only Chairman Mao has achieved such moral and ideological purity as Messrs. Kozol and Blume, whose unexamined platitudes on race and segregation offer little substance to build an actual policy around. That federally-mandated busing hurt the cause of ending school segregation is beside the point to today’s social justice vanguard. That voluntary busing programs achieve better results than federally-mandated programs ever did is also inadmissible. Uncle Joe must be shame-punished, sans evidence or reason.

To Biden’s credit, he hasn’t backed down on how he explains his busing position in 1977. But he will. It is only a matter of time before he apologizes for not being properly enlightened back in the day. He’ll come to Jesus and all will be good until he again says something racially insensitive or awkward [Note: The Biden campaign speechwriter(s) responsible for Biden’s most recent ‘kid wearing a hoodie’ comment need(s) to be fired. If the writer is Biden, himself, well…]

Very few political writers and Democratic party operatives were alive during the 1970s, much less experienced the social upheaval federally-mandated busing caused. They would well-advised to talk to people that lived through it from all perspectives — positive and negative. Their own perspective might change as a result.

But if a new federally-mandated busing initiative to integrate America’s public schools is what they want, good luck to any 2020 Democratic candidate willing to run on that idea. They’ll need it.

  • K.R.K.

I am a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion (You can contact me at:

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