When I was four years old, my family moved out of the city of Boston proper and into the neighboring suburb of Dedham. There were a number of reasons for the move, but the Boston Busing Crisis - the wave of violence and protests that followed the court ordered integration of Boston’s public schools - being in full swing at the time certainly didn’t help.
Being Boston Irish, the version I was told growing up was that a bunch of (presumably well-off) people who didn’t live in Boston implemented a policy of integrating Boston’s public schools by forcing kids who weren’t theirs to go to schools they wouldn’t send their own kids to. It wasn’t about race, insomuch as it was about a policy that put the burden of equalizing the racial disparities within the Boston public school system on those who couldn’t afford to escape it.
That part is true. The overwhelming majority of people behind the plan to racially integrate Boston’s Public Schools were people who either didn’t live in the city or sent their children to private schools.
What is also true is that, when Judge Arthur Garrity ruled Boston Public Schools must integrate in 1974, it was after 10 years of the Boston School Committee failing to comply with the Racial Imbalance Act - a law passed by the Massachusetts State Legislature designed to rectify the racial disparities in the quality and funding of education in 44 of Boston’s schools. In this sense, the notion that the crisis was the result of social engineering being thrust upon an unwitting population was false.
This part of that story wasn’t filled in until I recorded this week’s edition of You Don’t Have to Yell with Jason Sokol, Professor of History and the University of New Hampshire and author of “All Eyes are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn” - a book which documents the Northeast United States complex history of racially progressive politics existing simultaneously alongside policies which encouraged segregation and shut African Americans out of opportunities afforded by whites (recording below).
While the discussion of the Civil Rights Movement often focuses on the South, where overt policies of segregation were easy to spot and to counter, the Northeast’s approach to racial segregation was far more subtle, but no less real. Unfair lending practices and housing discrimination confined the African American community in the Northeast to specific, predominantly urban, neighborhoods, while school districts were drawn and redrawn to create schools that were predominantly white or black.
Through these policies, the white population in the Northeast created an environment of plausible deniability, where they could consider themselves non-racist for lacking the institutional segregation of the South, but still shut African Americans out of opportunities such as home ownership and quality education in the neighborhoods they lived in. The Civil Rights struggle in Boston and other cities in the Northeast wasn’t against a legal structure that disenfranchised African Americans, but, as Ruth Batson, an activist who fought for the integration of Boston Public Schools put it, “refusing to admit that the situation exists.”(source)
In this sense, the struggle is far from over. While steps have been made to rectify issues of discriminatory housing practices and disparities in education, a generation of people shut out of the economic growth of the latter half of the 20th century have created a wealth gap between African American and White households that have made it difficult for the African American community as a whole to move from predominantly lower income neighborhoods.
With education funding coupled tightly with property taxes in this country, and with a trend of educational gerrymandering creating situations where wealthier enclaves separate from larger school districts in the interests of concentrating funding, the disparities in education continue.
None of the solutions will be easy. The first step is admitting the situation exists.