Compromising with Racism
Over at Slate, Tanner Colby has a critique of liberal US school busing policies that’s well worth reading. Some historical context: in the wake of Brown v. Board’s 1954 mandate to integrate school districts, a pattern of ‘white flight’ emerged – white parents moving from city centers to the suburbs to avoid having to send their children to racially integrated schools. School busing was a court-enforced reaction to this movement, designed to force the children of those who had fled to the suburbs to integrate by busing students in the whiter suburbs to more minority-dominated schools and vice-versa. Busing has more recently been rolled back by various courts and local governments, much to the chagrin of liberals – but Colby argues the policy was actually a massive failure to begin with. He makes some important points concerning a central goal of integration (to get students of different races to truly socialize and interact, not merely sit in the same classrooms and cafeterias) that busing did not achieve, and towards the end offers a glimpse of an alternative Colby thinks is superior. This alternative essentially involves compromising with racism by having blacks be bused to predominantly white schools, but (acceding to the racially-motivated demands of white parents) not vice-versa. Yet despite the allegedly good consequences of the compromise, there are inherent problems with it. These problems, I submit, give us strong reason to reject compromising with racism in this instance.
One of the main failures of school busing was that it led to even more white flight. Just as parents previously moved to the suburbs to avoid having to send their children to integrated schools, busing led them to move even further or withdraw entirely from the public school system (opting for private education or homeschooling). This significantly weakened the financial and social support for public schools and thereby exacerbated existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in educational attainment that persist today. What’s more, those who didn’t exit the public system were nevertheless bitter over being forced onto buses and resisted becoming socially integrated in the new schools. School cafeterias would have more representative proportions of blacks and whites, but they wouldn’t eat together.
But Colby recalls an alternative outcome in Birmingham, Alabama. Like elsewhere, white parents in Birmingham strongly resisted busing policies and pressed the courts against it. The ruling was a compromise: black students would be bused to predominantly white schools, but white students would not be bused to predominantly black schools. This significantly dampened the motivation of whites to flee the school district, as they could keep their children in their old predominantly white schools and not have to bother with the hassle of long cross-district bus rides each day. The result, according to Colby, was at least somewhat more positive than elsewhere in the country: many whites stayed in the school district and there was greater social integration between blacks and whites.
It is difficult for me to evaluate Colby’s claims that Birmingham’s compromise was relatively successful compared with other areas of the country. Colby’s argument is anecdotal, based on his personal experiences in Birmingham. These may well not be representative of all students’ experiences in his school, and his school may not be representative of most Birmingham schools. But granting Colby the benefit of the doubt for the moment, it remains questionable whether the effects justify an evidently unfair and iniquitous compromise meant to accommodate parents’ racism.
The first flaw of the compromise is that it is unfair to blacks. Being reassigned via busing from a local school to one further away another is in itself burdensome. Students spend more of the day in transit. The relative distance hinders their ability to fully participate in after-school activities. They must leave an old institution, well-known teachers and established social networks behind. With the compromise, this burden is borne disproportionately by blacks – an already-disadvantaged group that had already been subjected to years of oppression under Jim Crowe laws. This seems to get things backwards; if anyone is to bear a disproportionate burden in order to right the wrongs of segregation, privileged whites (members of a group that bears responsibility for the harms to blacks under Jim Crowe) should be the ones to do so. But because of whites’ disproportionate political power (a further injustice), it was blacks who had to bear those burdens.
One could respond that it is perfectly fair for blacks to bear a disproportionate burden, because they disproportionately benefit from desegregation. Indeed, while integration may provide benefits to all sectors of society, the policy of busing does seem predominantly aimed at aiding blacks. And generally, it could be argued that those who stand to benefit more from a policy can fairly be asked to bear a greater proportion of the costs of that policy. However, the present case is exceptional because the policy of desegregation is one of righting the past wrongs of Jim Crowe perpetrated predominantly by whites upon blacks. Consider an analogy: a vandal smashes your mailbox, and it will cost some money to be repaired. You would benefit greatly from the repair, and the vandal would not. Would it be fair, on those grounds, to say that you should bear the brunt of the costs of the repair? Surely not – it is the vandal who should pay the costs. This is even more the case if the vandal is relatively wealthy, powerful and overall privileged than you. The same sort of thing is going on with desegregation – a relatively wealthy, powerful and overall privileged group caused significant harm by perpetuating segregation, and it is unfair if the group harmed is asked to bear a disproportionate burden of an attempt to remedy that harm.
The second flaw of the compromise is that it accommodates to the unreasonable racist proclivities of white parents. The compromise is supposed to be attractive because without it, white parents will pull their children out of the public school system in even greater numbers because they do not want their children to be bused to predominantly-black schools. To be sure, such inclinations are not necessarily racist – parents may well simply want to avoid the burdens of long bus rides to far-away schools mentioned above. But the cultural and historical context of white flight in Alabama suggests otherwise – the fact that the schools would be predominantly black is a significant, perhaps decisive basis for their opposition. Put another way: it is unlikely the negative reaction would be so strong if white students were merely bused between predominantly white districts (perhaps for logistical reasons). The compromise, then, accepts and accommodates such racist inclinations, rather than seeking a policy to overcome them. Accommodation of morally odious dispositions like racism is plausibly unacceptable (or at least should be avoided) in public policy – some positions are too repugnant to take seriously in negotiations.
What we have is a case of a classic tension in liberal governance: an unjust procedure (a compromise that unfairly places more burden on blacks and accommodates racists) begets good consequences (better integration, less white flight). Resolving such tensions is very difficult, and a general approach is far outside the scope of this post. But I would suggest that, in this case, we should err on the side of fair procedures and against the compromise. Recall that Colby’s account of the benefits of the compromise has not presently been verified by robust evidence. He has his experiences, but that’s just an n of 1 and not clearly representative. On the other hand, the unjust burdens imposed on blacks and the accommodation of racist attitudes intrinsic to the compromise are evident, more or less inherent to the nature of the compromise.
The actual situation, then, is an uncertain good consequence conflicting with a certainly unjust procedure. In such a case of a significant differential in the certainty of competing, similarly-strong considerations, we should err on the side of certainty and so reject such a compromise with racists. This is not to say that equally-applied school busing is necessarily an acceptable policy either – the bad consequences outlined by Colby may well make it untenable. But the compromise Colby floats is also one we should reject.