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Friday, February 10, 2006

The Mockingbird Returns

Last week over on One Good Thing, Flea published an essay that recalls both the fictional Atticus Finch, from the 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird, and a real-life "man in grey" with the courage to run a gauntlet of religious and racial bigots to bring his child into an integrated school in New Orleans.

The man in grey was not the father of any black children, but of a white student, and the gauntlet of ignorance reserved special hate and bile for him, as this white man, a Christian minister, was betraying the members of that shameful gauntlet.  They could understand blacks trying to rise above their proper station.  But to have a white man, a minister of their own professed faith, willingly put his own child into that school, with the black child, was a betrayal that could not be allowed to pass unvoiced.

We recently lost a beacon in the area of civil rights, Coretta Scott King, and that, combined with Flea's post, reminded me of the past of my own natal city.  And reminded me as well that discrimination and segregation are still alive and well, but the driving impetus now is economic, rather than ethnic or racial.  Sadly the result is often the same as what was seen 42 years ago.

I'm from Boston, sometimes called the "Athens of the New World" for its diversity and educational access of higher learning, and as well known as "a city of neighborhoods," where common racial, ethnic, religious, economic and national backgrounds worked to sustain that diversity, but also a balkanization of the population and their interests, where different groups tended to their own geography, and there was little drift between areas, a geographical stability that bred insularity in one of the cities that was seen externally as one of the most cosmopolitan and "European" in the United States.

In a city with Boston's stability and insularity, any change to the status of the neighborhoods' “integrity” was viewed, at the least, with suspicion, and at worst, with outright hostility.  In a "City of Neighborhoods"  the segregation of black from white may have been more complete than in the American South, as there were "white neighborhoods" and "black neighborhoods," and that physical separations also meant that there was precious little interaction in day-to-day life, economic growth in one enclave was distinct from all but the adjacent areas and the prevalence of blue-collar professions and attitudes prevailed against even the acquaintance of people from “outside” in the role as domestics.   In the case of Boston, the most prevalent awareness of the black population in the city was from news reports, that sensationalized reports of crime and violence in the black community.

The insularity of the city meant that the elementary and secondary schools were truly neighborhood schools, and the student population was truly parochial, where even the public schools tended to fill based on the same criteria of the elementary schools run by the Roman Catholic religious orders, and clustered by church parish (one of the jokes used to define many in Boston is the question "where are you from" isn't answered by a geographic landmark such as "Ronan Park" or "Meeting House Hill" but by church parish, such as "St. Peter's" or "St. Margaret's").  And because there was no meaningful interaction at a family level, the prevailing attitude was truly “out of sight, out of mind” for most of the population.

Part of that “out of mind” was that infrastructure in the city’s less affluent neighborhoods was crumbling, and the physical plant and teachers were woefully under funded and overstressed.  This occurred in both black and white neighborhoods, but it was more noticeable in the black neighborhoods because the available homes and apartments themselves were more rundown, with much higher percentage of both renters and absentee landlords than elsewhere, and a corresponding lowering of civic pride in evidence by those absent owners.  The dynamics of educational access meant that, as residents became better educated themselves, they wanted better educational opportunities for their families, and would leave the area.  But with the flight of the educated members of the society the financial capital, the educational example and educational experience fled as well.

The perception by black families that the white schools were better and had higher success rates than the schools with primarily black attendees.  For some of the city’s other schools this was true, but for others the rates of per-pupil spending and educational success were on a par with the schools that the black families saw were failing.

These conditions held true in the two city areas that were to gain the most press and reflect most poorly on the city; South Boston and Charlestown, both solidly blue-collar and ethnic monocultures.

Viewed from some perspectives, South Boston, Charlestown and Roxbury (the region of Boston where black families were predominant) were very similar, insular, economically low-to-middle economic strata, educationally disadvantaged and all woefully ignorant of what the people in the other parts of the city were really like, because there was no interaction except on the most superficial level.

Boston’s neighborhood schools were not subject to specific legislation to force separation of enrollment along racial lines, so the usual definition of de jure segregation was not met.  There was no question that the city’s schools were subject to de facto segregation, but the school committee, which controlled allotments of funds and set policies for enrollment, consistently allocated more funds to the affluent areas of the city, and resisted all attempts to allow for more than token cross-enrollment, even between the city’s “white” areas but most emphatically discouraged cross-enrollment between Roxbury and any of the city’s white, Hispanic or Asian neighborhoods.  Curiously, it was this power of the school committee to set enrollment policies that was the basis for the federal courts, in response to a lawsuit brought by a small number of black families, to determine that the segregation of the Boston school system was not enforced by simple neighborhood pressures, but was actually a planned pattern of segregation and discrimination by elected officials, which raised the issue back to a status of de jure segregation.

When the federal judge involved, W. Arthur Garrity, ruled that the schools would be forcibly desegregated by busing students between the neighborhood schools, it was already June of 1974, and with only three months before school reopened, he relied on interim plans drawn up by an academic at the Boston University School of Education, Charles Glenn, for the Massachusetts State Board of Education.. This was the so-called “Master Plan.”

Glenn’s plan called for the first years targets to include South Boston, a predominantly white section of the city that was regaled by the media as one of the bedrocks of anti-integration hostility in the city, and easily one of the two most volatile areas in the city about this issue.  At the time, the “cooler heads” in the city decried the choice for including “Southie” as one of the first neighborhoods, because of the fear involved between both sites, and the outright racism in some quarters, in both the white and black student populations.  But there was also the reluctance of other city neighborhood to be among the first trial in the experiment.  The mixture was explosive.  It would later be revealed that Garrity had not even read the State Board’s “Master Plan” before he ordered it implemented.

The first year’s busing involved 17,000 students, out of a 94,000 student body.   Most of that first year’s schools integrated successfully, with minimal incidents.  South Boston was not one of those areas.

From the start there was trouble, with attacks between blacks and whites in the middle and high school in South Boston, and some of the buses being stoned as they were returning the students home to Roxbury.

There were school boycotts, an alleged plot to intercept, roll-over and burn the busses, and large-scale withdrawal from the public school system, with more parents transferring their children into the parochial school system, the start of home-schooling for some and a number of new “private academies” being formed, many with teachers who were either moonlighting from their positions with the public schools or who had quit the public schools entirely.  And there was the first of the exodus known as “white flight,” where thopse who were affluent enough to either buy or rent homes in the outlying suburbs simply left the city.  And the consensus now is that the majority of those who left in those first years did not do so out of racism or bigotry, but out of simple fear of the unrest that they saw daily in the schools.

After the first turbulent months the hot-spots cooled somewhat, but never completely, and there were persistent rumors of violence in the Roxbury schools as well, but positive confirmation, or convincing proof otherwise, was never documented.  Which fed rumors of cover-ups by the state and city governments.  Which fed further unrest and distrust.

Judge Garrity had worked, all year long, with court-appointed “masters,” to craft a “Phase II” plan to implement the desegregation order.  The masters’ plan originally had reduced the number of students who would be bussed from the high of 17,000 to less than 15,000, and would rely on a process where students would be exchanged on the borders of Roxbury and the surrounding communities, and only students from the core of Roxbury would be bussed to other communities, and the number of students being exchanged with these schools would gradually be increased, so as to minimize the disruption.  The integration model used was also one that paid particular attention to the makeup of the local neighborhoods, rather than trying to build a population citywide that mimicked the racial representation of the city as a whole, and afforded choice of a more local school, or attending a “magnet school” that would have an enrollment makeup that mimicked the city’s population percentages.

Judge Garrity, with the endorsement of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, decided that the student population in all the city’s public schools should reflect the racial makeup of the city as a whole, and altered the plan devised by his own court-appointed “masters” to increase the number of students subject to forced busing to 25,000.  This revision, and others that Garrity engaged in, set a pattern of obsessive oversight and micromanagement, and of ignoring the opinions and pleas of the citizens as a whole, who, by some estimates, were 80% against the scheme.  The original aim, that of bringing the educational opportunities available to the youth of the city up to a higher standard was lost in the structural changes required by the court orders.

Even though students would, again, be bussed into South Boston, the degree of unrest was not expected to be as great, in some measure because the number of white students attending the public schools in South Boston had dropped so much.  However, the 1975/1976 school year would bring another working-class part of the city into the fray – Charlestown.

Charlestown, like South Boston, was an ethnic monoculture, with fierce pride in its institutions, flawed as they might have been.  After the observed violence and unrest from the prior year, the pump for trouble was primed, and neither side, nor Judge Garrity, seemed willing to do anything to defuse the situation.  When black students, created their own “Minority Student Council” they were resistant to allowing representation by latinos, who were also being bussed into Charlestown.   When the school administration tried to accommodate the Minority Student Council, many of the white students saw it as preferential treatment of blacks over concerns of white students.  

Over the course of the school year, some tension wore away, but, as in South Boston, trouble still was waiting under the surface.    In South Boston, during the first week of school a white student was stabbed, and the black students were bussed to a Dorchester mall for their safety.   In Charlestown, a black student at the Bunker Hill Community College was attacked by a gang of local white youths.   Some black politicians called for the closures of the schools entirely if the safety of black students could not be guaranteed.  Which brought countering proclamations from some white politicians asking about the lack of concern for the safety of white students.

During the next school year Garrity implemented a further fine-tuning of his orders, with results such that, because the forced bussing had not achieved the desired degree of desegregation in some of the city’s schools, those schools would be closed and the students distributed among Boston’s other schools.  And now another of Boston’s insular blue-collar neighborhoods, Hyde Park, is brought more fully into the desegregation plan, with outbreaks of unrest that reflect what happened in South Boston and Charlestown in the prior two years.  And the white student population in the city’s public schools continues to drop.

Again, much of the resistance to the forced desegregation was just that – it was forced, not of a voluntary choice, and the media-driven perception, among many white families, that Roxbury was a hotbed of crime and violence.

After the first few years of forced bussing, the tensions dropped off, but at the same time the racial makeup of the city as a whole changed, with more white families leaving, and the tax base of the city was being further eroded by the deterioration of the housing stock, especially in areas with the high percentage of absentee landlords.  When court-ordered busing was first implemented, the city’s public schools reflected an enrollment that was approximately 50% white.  By the late 1990s the percentage of Caucasian students in Boston’s public schools had dropped to less than 10%.

And the quality of public education accessible to the minority students in Boston has lagged far behind advances made in other cities in the Commonwealth, even in cities that are neither suburban nor affluent.

Would a more gradual approach to desegregation been more appropriate, or would it simply have perpetuated the problems, while substituting a sham of “separate but equal” schools?  We will never know.

What we do know is that voluntary and community-directed efforts at school desegregation have been successful in other cities.  But we still do not know if a city the size of Boston would have been able to overcome the institutional and  cultural inertia that caused the misperceptions and hostility in the early years of the effort.

And should we view this grand, and ultimately failed, experiment on a wider scale – will the externally-imposed changes that are being implemented in Afghanistan and Iraq fare any better, over a population that has less in common with those doing the imposition than Boston’s neighborhoods had with the federal judge who imposed his will on the city’s schools?



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