Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation

The Myth of De Facto Segregation

“De facto segregation means Negroes are segregated, but nobody did it.”
—James Baldwin, 1965

In order to rethink the history of “busing” we have to to discard the myth that so-called de facto residential and school segregation in the North was innocent. The history of “busing” for school desegregation is crucial to understanding how “de facto” segregation developed as a cultural and political construct. While civil rights advocates initially promoted this distinction between “southern-style” and “northern-style” segregation to build a political consensus against Jim Crow laws in the South, the de jure–de facto dichotomy ultimately made it possible for public officials, judges, and citizens in both North and South to deny legal responsibility for the visible realities of racial segregation. As black writer James Baldwin observed in 1965, “De facto segregation means Negroes are segregated, but nobody did it.” Over the past two decades scholars have revealed the vast web of governmental policies that produced and maintained racially segregated neighborhoods and schools in the North, as well as highlighting the civil rights activists who fought against these structures of racial discrimination. These studies provide overwhelming evidence that, in every region of the country, neighborhood and school segregation flowed from intentional public policies, not from innocent private actions or free-market forces. Among the most important aspects of this body of scholarship is that it shows the distinction between de jure segregation and de facto segregation to be false.

In hearing school desegregation cases in the 1960s and 1970s, several federal and state court judges also cast a critical light on the de jure–de facto framework. In Taylor v. New Rochelle (1961), Judge Irving Kaufman found the New Rochelle school board’s “neighborhood school” plan had intentionally gerrymandered the attendance zone to maintain a black elementary school. “It is of no moment whether the segregation is labeled by the defendant as ‘de jure’ or ‘de facto,’ as long as the Board, by its conduct, is responsible for its maintenance,” Kaufman ruled. “Constitutional rights are determined by realities, not by labels or semantics.” In Los Angeles in 1970, Judge Alfred Gitelson found that the Los Angeles Unified School District “Board has, since at least May of 1963, by and through its actual affirmative policies, customs, usages and practices, doings and omissions, segregated, de jure, its students.” Gitelson continued, “The court finds that [the] Board’s separate but allegedly equal schools were not equal in fact, either as to plant or facilities or teachers and curriculum, and that Board has not made available to all its students equal educational opportunity.” In Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac (1970), Judge Damon Keith ruled, “Where a Board of Education has contributed and played a major role in the development and growth of a segregated situation, the Board is guilty of de jure segregation. The fact that such came slowly and surreptitiously rather than by legislative pronouncement makes the situation no less evil.” Similarly, Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s decision in Morgan v. Hennigan (1974) made it clear that the Boston School Committee and superintendent “took many actions in their official capacities with the purpose and intent to segregate the Boston public schools and that such actions caused current conditions of segregation in the Boston public schools.”

The “crisis” in Boston and in other cities that faced court-ordered school desegregation was about unconstitutional racial discrimination in the public schools, not about “busing.” Judges ordered “busing” as a remedy in northern school districts such as Boston, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Pontiac that were found guilty of intentional de jure segregation in violation of Brown v. Board and the Fourteenth Amendment. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare chief Leon Panetta, whose advocacy of investigating school segregation in the North got him fired from the Nixon administration, said in late 1969, “It has become clear to me that the old bugaboo of keeping federal hands off northern school systems because they are only de facto segregated, instead of de jure segregated as the result of some official act, is a fraud. . . . There are few if any pure de facto situations. Lift the rock of de facto and something ugly and discriminatory crawls out from under it.”

The challenge for civil rights lawyers and activists was that it was extraordinarily difficult to lift all of the rocks of “de facto” to expose the illegal discrimination underneath. Sixty years after the Brown decision, June Shagaloff, who led NAACP efforts to challenge school segregation outside the South, said, “I’ve never really come to terms with whether we made a mistake or not. The reason we called them de facto segregated schools was we didn’t have the manpower to examine the histories of so many individual school systems to prove intent. So we took the position that segregated schools were harmful educationally for all children psychologically, in every way, and that it was the responsibility of school officials, local and state, to reorganize public school systems to eliminate the existence of segregation in fact.” School desegregation lawsuits took months of research and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Obtaining evidence of discriminatory actions required first extracting information from often obstructionist school officials and then sifting through decades of meeting minutes, memos, and school board policies. Each lawsuit, moreover, risked alienating donors and politicians who supported school desegregation in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama, but not in New York, Illinois, or California. Civil rights lawyers and activists had to overcome enormous barriers to get a northern school district into the courtroom, much less persuade a judge to find a school district guilty of unconstitutional discrimination.

If the framework of “de facto” segregation placed a difficult evidentiary burden on civil rights advocates, it provided “antibusing” politicians and parents with material and psychic benefits. By upholding the myth of “de facto” segregation, residents of white neighborhoods could profit from public policies that funneled resources to their communities and pass on appreciating assets to future generations, while also claiming to be free from the ugly stain of racism. The battles over “busing” showed that this faith in white racial innocence with regard to residential and school segregation was largely immune to evidence. When courts found school boards in Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities guilty of intentional and unconstitutional racial discrimination, politicians and parents insisted that their cities could not possibly be segregated and decried the court-ordered desegregation remedies, such as “busing,” as unjust and inconvenient infringements on the rights of white families. The myth of “de facto” segregation has persisted for decades because for many people no amount of evidence to the contrary could upset the bedrock belief that unlawful segregation and racism were exclusively a southern phenomenon.

The national news media bears much of the responsibility for perpetuating the myth of “de facto” segregation and the idea that racism was unique to the South. In An American Dilemma (1944), Swedish social scientist Gunner Myrdal’s landmark study of race in the United States, Myrdal noted, “The Northerner does not have his social conscience and all his political thinking permeated with the Negro problem as the Southerner does. Rather, he succeeds in forgetting about it most of the time. The Northern newspapers help him by minimizing all Negro news, except crime news. The Northerners want to hear as little as possible about the Negroes. . . . The result is an astonishing ignorance about the Negro on the part of the white public in the North.” In the two decades after Myrdal’s work, black people continued to migrate to northern cities, and television became the nation’s dominant news source, but little changed in terms of media attention to racism outside the South. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, highlighted the media’s lack of attention to everyday black lives in cities like Chicago, Newark, or Watts. “The news media have failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States and, as a related matter, to meet the Negro’s legitimate expectations in journalism,” the Kerner Commission argued. “By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls ‘the white press’—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.” The Kerner Commission report went on to describe the “enforced confinement [of black people] in segregated housing and schools” as one of “the most bitter fruits of white racial attitudes.” Writing in 1970, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Nicholas Johnson noted that while media coverage of the civil rights struggle in the South “seared the nation’s conscience” and “opened up the ‘closed society’ in the Deep South . . . now the racial crisis has moved North and West, and the editors and producers may have lost some of their enthusiasm for pointing out the threadbare parts of the nation’s social fabric.” Referring to the Kerner Commission’s report on civil disorders, Johnson continued, “In my judgment, the extent of surprise in each community measured precisely the failure of its news media.” The news media played a crucial role in establishing white racial attitudes regarding segregated schools and neighborhoods as both unremarkable and incontestable. The maintenance of northern school segregation was premised on a willful ignorance of clear and consistent policies of racial discrimination, which the news media promoted daily and nightly.

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