Opinions, Column

A Persistent Inequality

A black man is torn out of his car and beaten. He is chased down the streets by a mob of five hundred yelling “Lynch him!” Black schoolchildren in yellow school buses are pelted by grey rocks thrown by a white mob. An NAACP office is firebombed. David Duke, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, holds a racist rally against school integration where he says that the real issue isn’t school integration, it’s black people. Five hundred people attended. The media does not report on it.

This didn’t happen in the ’30s or even the ’50s. The year was 1974, and these events didn’t take place in Montgomery or Birmingham—they happened right here in Boston. You can read The Battle of Boston by John Hillson if you don’t believe me. For a city proud of its strong support for social justice, where people proudly state “Don’t blame me, I’m from Boston,” this seems utterly ironic.

On June 21, 1974, Judge Arthur Garrity ordered Boston schools to be integrated. While there was no explicit legal ordinance to be torn down, many laws were apathetic to integration. The problem was that Boston was a city of neighborhoods. Communities such as Southie, Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Roxbury are culturally segregated. Each neighborhood had its own schools and, while all the schools were equal in theory, in reality, black schools were worse. This inequality was the basis for Garrity’s decision to integrate Boston schools.

Integration would require that the city begin bussing students from black neighborhoods to white schools, and from white neighborhoods to black schools. This type of forced integration had already occurred in southern cities as well. Most Americans are familiar with the Little Rock Nine, famous because the Governor of Arkansas dispatched the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending a white public school. Integration also occurred in Washington D.C., Houston, and many other cities across the country.

Boston’s forced bussing was particularly violent. Young black children were pelted daily with rocks while trying to enter school, a number of busses were damaged, and bus drivers were injured as well. James Richardson was a school bus driver who drove through an angry mob on his first day of work. His bus was pelted with bricks by a mob shouting racial slurs at him and the students on the bus. According to  The Boston Globe, his bus eventually found refuge at an MBTA station, where many other busses escaped the mobs.

While rocks were being thrown and buildings firebombed, many white city dwellers made the decision to simply leave. This is a phenomenon called “white flight.” Between 1960 and 1980, the white population in Boston dropped by over 200,000 people, which was about 30 percent of the city’s overall population. It is disputed whether this was caused by racism or the glorification of suburban life. Nevertheless, it is true that during this period, the declining rate of private school enrollment suddenly reversed direction, which would indicate that the population was inclined to leave public schools. This inclination was most likely a result of increased racial tension and integration.

Regardless of whether or not white flight was caused by racism, the diaspora to the suburbs hurt school integration efforts. The 1974 Milliken v. Bradley Supreme Court decision specifically exempted suburbs from forced school integration. Moreover, new infrastructure and highway projects helped whites to move out of the city. Joseph Cronin, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education from 1971 to 1975, writes in his book Reforming Boston Schools 1930-2006, “Government subsidies helped whites flee the city and confined blacks to ghetto housing, low-income projects, and aging schools.” White flight was an effective method for de facto school segregation. Whether those that fled were racist or not, the movement to the suburbs resulted in greater segregation.

I went to a segregated school myself, and I didn’t even know it. My family simply lived in a white town. Plymouth, Mass. is 90 percent white. Newton is 80 percent white. Weymouth, Scituate, Cohasset, Hingham, and Winthrop are all over 90 percent white. In contrast, Boston is 54 percent white. The white flight that occurred during this time period contributed to this modern segregation.

The same problems that led to court-ordered bussing are still around today. White schools, mostly in the suburbs, outperform black schools considerably. In fact, students of color make up more than 85 percent of the combined student population in Massachusetts’ 40 lowest-performing schools. Today, even if we have made major progress in terms of social toleration and civil liberties, we still face the same difficulties regarding educational equality as we have in the past. White schools still generally outperform black schools, and this is a distinction line still very easily drawn.

The city of Boston has created programs to try and tackle this pressing issue. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, founded in 1966, busses non-white students from city schools to suburban schools and the performance of these students is twice that of their counterparts in urban schools. Unfortunately, the program is extremely underfunded, and a student’s chances of being admitted to the program are depressingly slim.

Forced bussing in Boston was a failure. Schools are still considerably segregated because of white flight and the Milliken v. Bradley Supreme Court decision preventing suburban integration. A UCLA study conducted last year found that segregation today is even worse than it was in the ’60s.

Integration and diversity are extremely important in the educational world. It is important that different groups of people are able to interact with each other so that they can share their experiences and develop mutual understanding. Many cultural divides that exist in the United States today can be attributed to misunderstandings between different groups of people. Looking back, it is not so surprising that so much violence occurred in Boston, a city of neighborhoods. When people are divided, misunderstandings, and even hatred, are allowed to consume their minds and hearts. In this respect, Boston is a disappointment.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

February 22, 2017