Like most Americans, I was raised to believe that racial segregation was bad, and that efforts to integrate schools were worthy moral crusades. The canonical story of the battles for integration is the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize, which I watched in public school history class.
Episode 13, The Keys to the Kingdom, covers school desegregation in Boston. I have long studied education policy and recently did a deep-dive on the history of busing in Boston. And I found that in the forgotten, back pages of the history books, the story is very different than what is portrayed in Eyes on the Prize. The PBS account is heavily slanted, it omits critical context, and ultimately leaves us with the wrong lessons.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m being too harsh? Read on.
The main sources for this blog post are books by respectable, liberal academics and journalists: The Pulitzer Prize winning Common Ground, written by Anthony Lukas who was a Harvard graduate and journalist for the New York Times; The Death of a Jewish Community, by Boston University professor Hillel Levine and Boston Globe journalist Lawrence Harmon; and Boston Against Busing by University of Kentucky professor Ron Formisano.
What we will see is that in the process of starting from the deep pages of the history books and producing a punchy summary documentary, the facts get selected in a way so that a complex story with folly and blame to go around, becomes a one-sided story of cartoon villains.
Quick Background of Desegregation in Boston
In the 1960s and early 1970s Boston did not have legally enforced segregation whereby all blacks must go to blacks school. But schools were are aligned by neighborhood, and neighborhoods tended to be one race or the other, and so de facto the schools are generally mostly white or mostly black. There were numerous battles in the mid-60s and early 70s between the Boston school committee, the state school board, local citizens, and activists about whether this “de facto” segregation was really a problem and about how district lines should be drawn. Finally in 1974 a federal judge ruled that the Boston’s school committees methods of drawing boundaries constituted intentional racial segregation, and therefore was illegal. He ordered black students from Roxbury to bussed into the white ethnic Irish high schools in Charlestown and Southie, and vice versa. These students were treated to a very hostile welcome. Conflict ensued for many years, before resistance fizzled out, and busing continued on for many decades.
A Quick Summary of Eyes on the Prize: Keys to the Kingdom
The narrative in Eyes on the Prize is a straight up morality play. Black parents wish for a better education for their kids and argue for more racial blance. They protest and rally, but the school board callously denies any problems. They agitate for years and even operate their own volunteer busing operations. Finally, they win a great judgment in the court and the schools are to be integrated via busing. Alas, when the black students arrive at the white school in South Boston, the students face horrible racism and attacks by white protesters. Mobs shout the n-word, pelt rocks at the bus windows, and even throw bananas. This violence begets more violence and the school day is filled with fighting all around.
Footage is shown of a newscaster interviewing a cute African-American child. She looks forlorn, and says, “When we go up there [to the white school] we’re going to be stoned. It’s not fair to me. Why is it the other way when they come here? When they come here, we don’t mess with them.” The film then changes to more optimistic music. We are told that in 1977 the biggest opponent of integration was voted off the school committee, and the first black committee member elected. The final word comes from a black politician who tells us, “I felt what took place absolutely had to happen. It may have not had to happen that way – if there had been a different leadership provided by white Bostonians of all classes, and all neighborhoods.”
So where is the slant in this story?
Slant #1: The assumption that integration is a magic cure
The first problem with the documentary is that it never questions the underlying assumption – that going to a mostly black school is inherently oppressive, and that integration is the crucial fix. But this assumption that integration is a key to better schools is supported by neither common sense nor evidence.
Despite what Eyes on the Prize implies, the school board was not ignorant of the problems existing in black schools, nor did they oppose all reform. But the board noticed that Irish went to schools that were almost entirely Irish, Italians went to schools that were Italian, Asians to schools that were mostly Asian, so why was it inherently a problem for blacks to go to schools that were mostly black? Boston did not have a Jim Crow system – if a black child lived in a white area, he could go to the local mostly white school. There were many racially mixed schools. But what was wrong with schools aligning with neighborhoods? What about having white kids in the same school would magically make black kids able to understand how to calculate the slope of a line? The school committee was willing to take steps to address grievances about the quality of schools, but it did not see any reason to make forced integration part of the fix.
To the extent that we have data, it seems to align with the view that integration does not matter for academic performance. Even as early as 1965, the famous Coleman Report showed that there was little correlation between classroom integration and test scores – any correlation was below the level of statistical noise.1 The Coleman report showed that the strongest correlation with academic achievement came from characteristics of the students’ parents. Even facilities and teacher characteristics had little correlation with anything.
More recently, NAEP scores show the same black-white achievement gap in schools regardless of racial composition. The NAEP scores show no differences or little difference in test scores for black students depending on racial composition.2
Prior to the court ordered busing of 1974, there was already a small program in Boston that bused select students into the suburbs (the METCO program). David Armor, a Harvard sociologist and liberal integrationist, wrote an article summarizing the research on six integration efforts and focused specifically on the METCO program in Boston. In 1972 Armor wrote:
None of the studies were able to demonstrate conclusively that integration has had an effect on academic achievement as measured by standardized tests." … In the case of [the METCO] high school students, the bused group scores somewhat higher than the control groups initially (but not significantly so). Nonetheless, the gain in scores presents no particular pattern. While the bused junior high students increased their grade-equivalent score from 7.5 to 7.7, the control group improved from 7.4 to 7.5; the bused gain is not significantly different from that for the control group. For senior high students the effect is reversed; the control students gain more than the bused students (9 percentile points compared to 4 points), but again the gains are not statistically significant for either group.
The results for reading achievement are substantially repeated in a test of arithmetic skills; the bused students showed no significant gains in arithmetic skills compared to the control group, and there were no particular patterns in evidence.
While none of these studies are flawless, their consistency is striking. Moreover, their results are not so different from the results of the massive cross-sectional studies. An extensive reanalysis of the Coleman data showed that even without controlling for social class factors, “naturally” integrated (i.e., non-bused) black sixth-grade groups were still one and one-half standard deviations behind white groups in the same schools, compared to a national gap of two standard deviations (Armor, 1972). This means that, assuming the Coleman data to be correct, the best that integration could do would be to move the average black group from the 2nd percentile to the 7th percentile (on the white scale, where the average white group is at the 50th percentile). But the social class differences of integrated black students in the Coleman study could easily explain a good deal of even this small gain. Other investigators, after examining a number of studies, have come to similar conclusions. (St. John, 1970)
Armor also reported that the METCO program did not improve long-term college achievement. More METCO students did start college (84 percent to 56 percent, in a small sample size). But the drop out rate was higher. Altogether, by sophomore year, the average METCO student was no more likely to be enrolled in full-time college than a student in the control group.
Armor was even more surprised to find that the METCO program made race relations worse:
One of the central sociological hypotheses in the integration policy model is that integration should reduce racial stereotypes, increase tolerance, and generally improve race relations. Needless to say, we were quite surprised when our data failed to verify this axiom. Our surprise was increased substantially when we discovered that, in fact, the converse appears to be true. The data suggest that, under the circumstances obtaining in these studies, integration heightens racial identity and consciousness, enhances ideologies that promote racial segregation, and reduces opportunities for actual contact between the races.
And keep in mind, that race relations worsened even though this was a voluntary program. According to surveys, students and families at the white suburban schools were initially very favorable toward the program. This was not a busing program that was forced upon them.
Overall, David Armor concludes:
The available evidence on busing, then, seems to lead to two clear policy conclusions. One is that massive mandatory busing for purposes of improving student achievement and interracial harmony is not effective and should not be adopted at this time. The other is that voluntary integration programs such as METCO, ABC, or Project Concern should be continued and positively encouraged by substantial federal and state grants. Such voluntary programs should be encouraged so that those parents and communities who believe in the symbolic and potential (but so far unconfirmed) long-run benefits of induced integration will have ample opportunity to send their children to integrated schools. Equally important, these voluntary programs will permit social scientists and others to improve and broaden our understanding of the longer-run and other consequences of induced school integration. With a more complete knowledge than we now possess of this complicated matter, we shall hopefully be in a better position to design effective public education policies that are known in advance to work to the benefit of all Americans, both black and white.
Thus, by 1972, the idea that integration was the fix for education had already been contradicted by the available evidence. If there was anything to the idea of integration, it would require more study to determine the circumstances where it might be a helpful policy.3
In a sane world, if you have a radical social policy idea, you try a small experiment first, and only enlarge it once you prove the experiment works.
In Boston, the experiment was tried and it did not work. Yet, two years later, a federal Judge would force the policy upon a half-million people.
The PBS documentary never tells us about the dismal results of METCO. It never tells us that integration-as-cure was not backed by evidence.
Slant #2: Exaggerating the difference between black schools and white schools; Exaggerating the school committee’s neglect of the problems
One of the traditional arguments for integration is that when a politically less powerful minority is relegated to same-race schools, they will inevitably receive worse facilities, textbooks, and teachers.
Yet even in 1965, that was not some iron rule. For example, while nationwide, the average pupils-per-classroom was 23 for whites and 26 for blacks, this varied by region. In some regions blacks actually had fewer classmates per classroom. Overall, the difference between races was smaller than differences from school district to school district, or region to region.4
The documentary tells us that the black schools in Boston were horribly neglected. Despite the protests of parents, the school committee denied any problems. Black children went to school with out-of-date textbooks and endured broken windows that let in cold drafts. Schools were overcrowded. In one testimonial, multiple classes were taught out of the same auditorium at the same time, as the teachers from either class shouted over each other in order to be heard.
The history here is murky and contradictory. We do not have good statistics, and we have conflicting accounts.
Activist Jonathan Kozol wrote about the problems he saw while substitute teaching, in his book Death at an Early Age:
The room in which I taught my Fourth Grade was not a room at all, but the corner of an auditorium. They had desks and a teacher, but they did not really have a class. What they had was about one quarter of the auditorium. Three or four blackboards, two of them broken, made them seem a little bit set apart. Over at the other end of the auditorium there was another Fourth Grade class. Not much was happening at the other side at that minute so that for the moment the noise did not seem so bad. But it became a real nightmare of conflicting noises a little later on. Generally it was not until ten o’clock that the bad crossfire started. By ten-thirty it would have attained such a crescendo that the children in the back rows of my section often couldn’t hear my questions and I could not hear their answers.
One day something happened to dramatize to me, even more powerfully than anything yet, just what a desperate situation we were really in. What happened was that a window whose frame had rotted was blown right out of its sashes by a strong gust of wind and began to fall into the auditorium, just above my children’s heads…After the window blew in on us that time, the janitor finally came up and hammered it shut with nails so that it would not fall in again but also so that it could not open. It was a month before anything was done about the large gap left by a missing pane. Children shivered a few feet away from it.
Statistics that I saw later pinpointed the discrepancies between amounts of money al- located to the white and Negro disticts. In-class expenditures for Boston as a whole averaged $275 per pupil. In the Nego schools: $213. It was apparent from this report that Negro areas also had the highest percentage of provisional teachers, those who were fill-ins, had no tenure, no seniority, no experience, and no obli- gation to remain (p. 52)
Kozol’s book runs 200 pages and condemns the schools for many other short-comings. But most of his complaints are not related to segregation. And in fact it seems that his school was 1/3 white, and had been a lot more white just a few years before. The problems mostly stem from either 1) the general problems of bureaucratized government schools (similar to the critiques of John Taylor Gatto) 2) problems not knowing how to deal with hard case students or 3) problems that would be worse with integrated schools (such as white teachers favoring white students over black students).
While Kozol’s account seems bad, it should be noted that some of these same problems of overcrowding and broken-down facilities also occurred at all-white schools. And these were the schools that blacks got bused to as part of the integration plan! Here is a description of Charlestown High School:
By 1968, the granite fortress on the hill was sixty years old, one of the oldest school buildings in the city. Designed for 450 students, it now held 600 (with 150 more in the Electrical Annex and the Charlestown Boys’ Club). With no cafeteria, no library, no athletic fields, its facilities were clearly inadequate for a modern urban high school. In 1964, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges had warned that unless these deficiencies were promptly corrected the school would lose its accreditation….
Paint peeled from ceilings and walls; windows were broken; linoleum was scraped and worn. When she asked to see the cafeteria, she was told that Charlestown had none, the only high school in the city without a hot-lunch program.
In 1974, after Judge Garrity ordered Charlestown High transformed from a three-year to a four-year institution, it was more grotesquely overcrowded than ever. Its enrollment— spread over three buildings— had ballooned to 1,150, with 800 of them in the obsolete main building alone. But fire laws permitted only 636 students in the building at one time, so they were shuttled in and out all day, an elaborate game of musical chairs which made serious education all but impossible. Teachers and students feared things could only get worse the following fall when the judge’s desegregation order embraced Charlestown. (Common Ground, p. 285, p. 281, p. 287)
Going beyond anecdotes and looking at statistics, again, we have conflicting accounts. Reform groups cited funding disparities:
As more voices began to call for change, CBPS prepared a study to describe the true state of Boston schools, but BPS refused to provide data. However, alarming statistics were found through the CBPS survey and other studies by the NAACP….Of the 13 schools in predominantly black neighborhoods, only one school had been built since 1933, two more built after 1913, ten built before 1913, two of which were almost 100 years old. Four had been recommended for renovation or condemnation. Compared to white districts in the BPS system, these schools had a 2–20% lag in instructional expenses and 11–27% lags in health services.
But funding is a tricky question and it is hard to evaluate without reviewing the calculations. For instance, the Washington DC school district had similar disparities. But the funding disparity was found to be an artifact of teacher pay being based purely on seniority – the white districts had older teachers. Thus the spending gap was not indicative of black districts being deprived of any real resources (there being no evidence that older teachers are better or worse than younger teachers).
Another report from the state government, looked at classroom vacancy rates (a measure of overcrowding) and the educational background of assigned teachers. It found no difference between black schools and white schools.
School committee member Joseph Lee, claimed that the existing situation actually benefited blacks, because the committee could funnel them special support:
Fifth, the Negro elementary school pupil, recently come from the South, if shifted to a mainly white school away from his home, would have to forfeit the special education now established (for his needs) in most of his neighborhood schools at the request of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Such instruction is designed to bridge the gap between such Negro children’s cultural background and the northern society into which they are going. These courses impose a 25.7% greater cost for a Negro child’s education on Boston than a white child’s. (The Negro child would lose this, if shifted to a mainly white school. Such courses in a school predominantly white do not exist, and would be useless, retardatory, and irrelevant, if they did.)
Lee also claimed that black parents did not wish to leave their neighborhood to go to white schools. Like all ethnic groups, they preferred to go to schools where they were the majority:
Time and again, when we tried to bus Afro-American children to white schools and sent them questionnaires for parental permission, the answers cam back 9 to 1 against busing. And this even though the questionnaires were loaded to invite a “yes” answer, in order to alleviate heavy overcrowding in their local schools….When the Boston School Committee has gone further than this willing 10 percent of Afro-American pupils and has compelled the busing to white schools of an entire black population in a school, it has had to face a storm of tearful telegrams from black parents, and heart-tearing hearings in protest.
So what can we conclude from this?
I am not sure if we’ll ever know what the real story was. Were Kozol’s claims of a 20-30% differential in resources accurate? Or was Lee correct that black students actually got more help, with the compensatory education? Were activists right when they said that access to the Open Enrollment plan was blocked in practice? Or was Lee correct that black parents did not wish to go to white schools, even when the black schools were overcrowded?
There is also some context to consider: most blacks were very new to the city (the population had grown from 30,000 to 100,000 in a couple decades), paid less in taxes, received more in welfare, and had more children. School spending in Boston was a net transfer from the white population to the black population. So even if there was a gap, this was hardly a case of white people oppressing black people.
Also consider that according to the biggest number cited, the spending gap was 30%. For comparison, the school spending gap between modern Utah and Washington D.C. is around 173%. Are the students of modern Utah oppressed compared to the students of Washington D.C.? In general, school spending has never been shown to matter for academic achievement.
I think a fair documentary should have given equal time to the school committee’s case. It should have acknowledged there were efforts such as the compensatory program, that white schools had problems too, and there were new schools being built to relieve overcrowding. Instead, the documentary only presents one side.
There was one particular episode that put the lie to the notion that racially unbalanced neighborhood schools were inherently worse. In the case of Lee and Marshall schools, the black community received beautiful, brand new schools – but integrationists at the state board wanted the lines redrawn so that the black students would go to further away, white schools.
But the committee’s key concessions involved the redistricting of four elementary schools in Dorchester. Two of them, the Joseph Lee and John Marshall schools, were spanking new schools built with 25 percent state aid on the promise that they would open balanced, and thus had been built in mixed neighborhoods. But the racial composition of the area had changed to virtually all black during construction, and the gleaming new Lee School would open imbalanced unless district lines were redrawn.
At first the school committee gave white parents at the nearby Fifield and O’Hearn schools the option of having their children attend the Lee, but under intense pressure from the state board, a shaky three to two majority of the committee agreed to redraw district lines. In May, at a committee meeting to discuss traffic and safety, parents packed the meeting and expressed fears that busing would be required and spoke out against it.
In July Deputy Superintendent Herbert Hambleton warned that any redrawing of district lines would fail because white and black parents “have told the school committee in unmistakable language on numerous occasions that they want to send their children to the local school.”
The white parents protested:
That same night nearly two hundred white parents met in Dorchester and vowed not to send their kids out of the Fifield and O’Hearn schools into the Lee School. Their state legislator, Paul Murphy, Democratic whip in the House, offered to be their legal adviser, while Mrs. Hicks lashed the crowd into a frenzy by exclaiming that “our children are the innocent victims” and that parents should not send them to the “far-distant Lee school where we know the hazards that are presented to them … . Should we be forced to send our children into an area where we know what harm can come to them?— I say no, a thousand times no.” And the audience agreed with stomping, thunderous, visceral applause. (Boston Against Busing, p. 50)
And the black parents were equally irate:
But many black parents had also defied the reassignments because they were bitterly opposed to sending their children to the Fifield and O’Hearn, where they were not welcome. Besides, the Lee contained a modern gym, a pool, a theater, carpeted classrooms, and a curriculum described as “one of the finest in any elementary school.”
The black protesters lived across from the school in the run-down Franklin Field housing project, so close to the Lee that, as one black mother said, “Your mouth waters when you look at it.” Thus many black parents showed up at the Lee and gave false addresses. One black group demonstrated and threatened to “hold a class” in the lobby of the Lee until their demands were met, and some black parents joined Father Burke and white parents meeting at St. Matthews the night of September 9 to plan strategy. (Boston Against Busting p. 51)
At a meeting attended by hundreds of angry parents, the school committee caved to pressure, reversed ways, and redrew the school catchments to align with racial boundaries.
Slant #3: Omitting any discussion of violence instigated by black students
The impression we get from Eyes on the Prize, and the story we learn growing up, is that opposition to integration was based on bigotry, a phobia of the “other”, and an irrational desire to make divisions based on surface differences, such as the color of one’s skins.
In Eyes on the Prize, we witness numerous interviews with earnest black mothers and students who express a heartfelt desire for a better education. How could the whites in Boston be so hateful so as to deny that?
The documentary also implies that the failure of integration was due solely to bigotry of whites. The adorable little girl mourns that it is unfair that whites throw rocks, while black residents treat the whites well when they come into their neighborhood. The final quote of the segment blames the problems on “white leadership of all classes.”
But what the episode does not mention is that school and residential integration had already started before the 1974 court rulings. Integration happened due a combination of an open enrollment policy, voluntary busing, and the transitioning of neighborhoods as blacks moved into white neighborhoods using government subsidized loans. One of the primary places impacted by integration was the Lewenberg school in Dorchester. At the Lewenberg school there was little white bigotry, there were no mobs trying to prevent blacks from coming to school. Yet it still ended in disaster.
Here is a description of the school from Death of a Jewish Community:
The one notable exception to de facto segregation was the Lewenberg, touted not only for its academics but as a rare example of successful integration at work in Boston during the mid-1960s. Black parents in Roxbury knew their children might be greeted with taunts, fists, or worse in schools in South Boston, East Boston, and Charlestown, but in Mattapan they would be free to learn. Jews would not throw rocks at their children.
For decades “the Lewenberg” had been considered the premier district junior high school in the city. For decades the student body was composed primarily of Jewish youngsters who had not passed the competitive test for admittance to the seventh grade at the public Latin schools. The Latin school curriculum was so demanding, however, that almost 30 percent of seventh and eighth graders flunked out, resulting in another competitive exam for ninth graders. Lewenberg parents pushed their fourteen-year-old sons and daughters relentlessly in the hope that they would fill those seats ignominiously abandoned by youngsters sent back to the less demanding district high schools.
Since 1965 blacks had been bused to the Lewenberg under the city’s open enrollment policy, an early attempt to address issues of racial segregation in the Boston public school system. By 1967 the nine hundred-member student body was equally composed of blacks and whites. White parents perceived a rapid decline in academic standards. Relations between students were strained. Jewish parents suddenly saw their children growing more adept at wisecracking than at conjugating verbs.
During the late 1960s, young children whose homes abutted the Solomon Lewenberg Junior High School at the top of Wellington Hill collected tattered textbooks and smashed school supplies in the same manner that other kids collected charms or baseball cards. Pickings were always good on the coal tar schoolyard. Ripped-out textbook pages with pictures or details of colorful maps had trade value superior to broken rulers, pencil stubs, or other pieces of educational dross. The honor code among the little memento seekers dictated that any intact textbooks would be handed over to parents for return to one of the teachers monitoring student arrival on the next morning. Everything else was fair game. After school the little ones were always careful to wait until the middle school students were well out of range before picking over the battlefield.
As the school and neighborhood declined more Jewish families either moved out of the neighborhood or transferred their own children to schools in Hyde Park:
When teacher Allan Cohen returned from summer vacation for the start of the 1968-1969 school year, he was shocked both at the school’s new racial composition and the behavioral changes in the students he had known the year before. From the first day of school it was clear that the teachers had lost control. Veteran teachers stood in silent shock as young blacks raced through the corridors trying out the black power slogans they had learned over the summer. The overall student body had shrunk to 754 students, of whom 32 percent were white. It had seemed, over the summer, that the great Lewenberg promise of integration had shattered. Drugged students fell off their chairs and were carried to the nurse’s office. White students huddled together for protection against roving extortion rings; fifty cents was the going price to avoid a beating. The largely inexperienced faculty and its principal, Luke Petrocelli, were at a loss. Of fifty-eight teachers, thirty-nine, including Cohen, had not taught long enough to receive tenure from the Boston School Department; nine faculty members were in their first year of teaching. Throughout that winter an average of nine teachers called in sick each day. Without teachers, students often sat all day in the auditorium and watched movies. In one fifteen-day period alone, school administrators counted 718 tardy students; average absenteeism was 178 students each day, roughly one out of four. Like the panic selling in the center sections of Mattapan, these disruptions defied explanation.
Teacher Allan Cohen kept a diary of his experiences. Here is one entry:
Today is May 15, 1969, the end of a grueling day. Right before recess, at 10:25, a girl I didn’t know entered my class and “called out” one of my students, Melissa, for a fight. The girl jumped on Melissa. What seemed like a hundred other students gathered around. I separated the girls. A girl named Beverly kicked and punched me… Next period I substituted for an absent teacher in a low math class and heard the sounds of fighting next door. I got there just in time to take a bottle away from a boy who was about to swing it at Miss Sullivan… I went in to monitor lunch period. Miss Flynn was leaving with an injured hand… Students were standing on lunch tables, breaking plates, and fighting… The mechanical drawing teacher injured his hand trying to protect himself from a student… Today I broke up five fights. I asked the principal, Mr. Petrocelli, to call the police in. He told me to get back to my room.
On a Friday afternoon in late May, Cohen was lecturing an eighth grade civics class on the individual’s responsibilities in a civilized community when he heard shouts and cursing in the next classroom. Entering the corridor, he came upon a ninth grader with a vise-like grasp on the doorknob of a classroom. A woman teacher, who had clearly lost control of the class within, frantically pushed on the door in an effort to escape. Cohen demanded that the student release the door as the sobbing Latin teacher rushed from the classroom. “Report now to the principal’s office,” Cohen demanded. “Fuck you,” the student retorted. “Down to the office now or I’ll see you suspended,” said Cohen, holding his ground. “I’ll get your ass, Cohen,” the student threatened before sauntering off. The following day, Cohen confronted the student. “I’m pressing charges against you for assault,” Cohen told the student.
“Fuck you,” the student retorted.
“Down to the office now or I’ll see you suspended,” said Cohen, holding his ground.
“I’ll get your ass, Cohen,” the student threatened before sauntering off.
One wonders – did the student face any consequence for cursing at and threatening a teacher?
The book continues:
Throughout 1969 a school day rarely passed without violence or mayhem. City editors hungry to fill gaping holes in the newspaper knew that they could always pick up a story at the Lewenberg. On average, a reporter’s two-hour-long meandering in the Lewenberg revealed three fist-fights, a cafeteria food fight, a superficial injury to a teacher, and a host of exasperated quotes from shell-shocked administrators. None, however, ever reported that most rumored Lewenberg event: the sight of students hanging upside down from windows twenty feet above the schoolyard.
Among the visitors to the school that year was Rabbi Gerald Zelermyer, a young Mattapan rabbi who decided that he must see for himself if the Lewenberg horror stories told by his congregants were indeed true. Zelermyer had little trouble getting access to the school through his friend Allan Cohen. Zelermyer identified himself to one of the three police officers assigned to the junior high school. As he entered the building, he immediately heard sharp bursts of what he mistakenly thought was gunfire. “Only firecrackers,” said the impassive beat cop. Sensing the rabbi’s nervousness, the officer gave Zelermyer the guided tour. First was an overturned and shattered piano in the school auditorium, a fallen monument to music appreciation class. Close by the principal’s office a veteran teacher was calling a cab; only moments earlier he had entered his classroom to find his desk overturned and his chair smashed. Zelermyer then heard a woman unleash a storm of profanity that stung his ears. (The police officer explained that the woman was the mother of a female student who had been suspended two weeks earlier for assaulting an art teacher. The girl, who had interpreted criticism of her work as racist, had splattered her teacher with paint, torn her dress, and broken her glasses. On the day of Zelermyer’s visit the girl’s mother, accompanied by a lawyer, had come to demand an end to her daughter’s suspension.) At noontime Zelermyer stopped at the cafeteria. He had barely passed the first table of students when pandemonium ensued; groups of students hurled plates of food and sandwiches at each other.
The mayhem was not confined to school grounds. At the end of the school day, the Lewenberg open-enrollment students burst down Wellington Hill toward Blue Hill Avenue. Nothing, it seemed, was safe along their path — tricycles were smashed and carefully planted rows of flowers were tramped upon; those unlucky enough to get caught in their path were fortunate to escape with just a shower of verbal abuse. Along the Avenue, vendors scurried to remove their goods from sidewalk stalls and dropped their iron grates before the Lewenberg wave broke over them. Those who moved too slow could expect to spend the next few hours salvaging fruit from overturned carts or trying to match left shoes with right.
The mayhem in the schools and in the streets were a major reason why Jews fled Dorchester. I wrote more about this in another blog post, but in a matter of a few years the Jewish population went from 40,000 to non-existent. The result of integration was a school and community destroyed.
Now imagine you live in Irish Charlestown or South Boston. You’ve seen the news reports of madness in these schools. You’ve seen this community destroyed. You notice that black students never transferred to Charlestown because the Irish are a tougher lot, and would not let another tribe take over their turf.
Then in 1974 a federal judge announces a plan to force integration among all Boston schools. Kids in black Roxbury will be bused to Charlestown and South Boston. Kids in Charlestown will be bused to Roxbury.
Naturally, the whites in Charlestown and South Boston hate this plan. They might think, we’re not just going to roll-over like the Jews in Dorchester, we’re going to stand our ground and fight. The whites then behave very badly. The low elements among the population take out their anger on the kids being bused in, even though most had never done anything wrong. The whites in Southie throw rocks, yelling slurs, starting fights. Surely some of the motivation was the pure savage thrill of aggression. But part of their hope was that if they made life difficult for the incoming black students, they would give up, stick to their own schools, and the whole plan would be tossed out.
The disaster of the Lewenberg school and what happened to the Jews in Dorchester is absolutely critical to understanding the violent reaction to forced busing. But this context is left out of the PBS narrative. The film spends an entire 10 seconds on violence by blacks against whites and describes any violence against whites only happening after whites first started being violent towards blacks. The film makes it seem that the whites woke up one day and just decided to be hateful for no reason. That narrative is simply false.
Furthermore, the Lewenberg school episode gives lie to the central take away of the PBS narrative. The take away is that if only white people had not resisted so violently, that integration could have been successful. But in this Jewish school, in that Jewish neighborhood, there was no violent resistance to integration. And the result? The total destruction of the Jewish community.
The Lewenberg School is not the only example of failed integration prior to the 1974 crisis. Six years before the forced busing, there were already stories of whites fleeing an integrated school due to a series of riots of the black students:
Black teachers at the severely overcrowded Gibson School took a group of students out of the school with them and started their own “liberation school.” The school committee immediately suspended the teachers, and as the controversy simmered, a black student at English High was suspended for wearing a dashiki. Black students there went on a rampage, which quickly spread to other schools. Teachers in Roxbury were assaulted, firemen trying to put out a brush fire behind Brighton High School were stoned, and disturbances, looting, and clashes between police and black youths lasted for days. A September 25 rally of five hundred students at Franklin Park led by adult militants demanded the right to wear African dress, recognition of black student unions, and a curriculum dealing with black history and culture.
The incidents raised the temperature of race relations in Boston several years before Garrity’s court order and also contributed to the white flight developing during these years from other causes. The Jeremiah Burke High School, for example, up to 1966 was an integrated all-girls school, 20–25 percent black, about 5–8 percent Chinese, and the rest white, with a substantial representation of students of Jewish, Irish, and Italian background. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr.’ s assassination sparked a riot and in the aftermath, said a veteran teacher, “many, many of the white kids left the school.” Then in October the English High dress code incidents provoked “a major confrontation outside the school … . Then all of the white students left except for the seniors who graduated the following June in ’69.” After that, the Burke was virtually all black.
Whites also opposed integration because it meant that their children would have to travel through dangerous neighborhoods in order to attend school. Professor Formisano tells us:
However exaggerated the perception, many whites, not only South Bostonians, saw black Roxbury as crime infested, and some who had lived on its borders or fled from districts engulfed by the ghetto had been mugged or terrorized by poor black youths. One parent told lone Malloy that his boy was scheduled to be bused to Roxbury the following year: “I worked nine years in Roxbury as a street cleaner, and I’ll never let him go there.”
Police, firefighters, cab drivers, and public service workers, of which there were so many in Southie, often had seen the worst side of ghetto culture.
Were these fears justified or irrational? Well, in more recent years, I personally was walking through one of these same neighborhoods. A police officer stopped me and told me I should take the next bus out because it was “the murder capital of Boston” and “I didn’t look like I fit in.” So if a police officer tells me to get the hell out of the hood, I can imagine the same dangers existing forty years ago, and can imagine why a mother would not send her kid walking through such neighborhoods. Every shred of evidence, from both statistics, memoirs, and ethnography, tells us that the black ghettos in Roxbury and Dorchester were and are quite dangerous places.
Professor Formisano continues and explains that a few high profile murders had fueled fears of crime, escalated racial tensions, and made rumors and imaginations run wild:
In 1973 white perceptions of black crime had intensified considerably in Boston because of two particularly brutal murders committed by black teenagers. In October, twenty-four-year-old Rene Wagler, living in Roxbury in a women’s integrated collective, had run out of gas a few blocks from her apartment. Returning along Blue Hill Avenue shortly after 9 P.M. with a two-gallon can of gas, six young blacks set on her, dragged her into a vacant lot, doused her with the gasoline, and set her ablaze. Four hours later, with virtually no skin surface left, she died at Boston City Hospital. Two days earlier, ABC-TV had shown the film “Fuzz,” which included scenes of white delinquents on the Boston waterfront torching homeless tramps for kicks.
Two days later, Louis Barba, a sixty-five-year-old retired contractor and lifelong Boston resident, was fishing at the Pleasure Bay Pond behind the Columbia Point housing project. A large gang of black youths began to stone him, then stabbed him to death with his own fishing knife. Shortly after, a twenty-year-old white cab driver, working to raise college tuition, was found stabbed to death in a vacant lot in Roxbury. These murders shocked white Bostonians just as the decade-long desegregation controversy approached a climax. To make matters worse, black leaders expressed no regrets but rather anger at the disparity they saw in the attention given by the police and media to white and black deaths.
The Wagler-Barba murders formed part of the background of the Southie “Declaration” on black crime. Three black teenagers were arrested in the Barba case, none in the Wagler. At a meeting in Southie in December 1974, as parents voiced a long litany of concerns, one asked: “What about the white woman who was burned to death in Roxbury? The murderers haven’t been caught yet. How do we know they aren’t right here with our kids?”
In Charlestown white youths reacted immediately to the Wagler murder by attacking the few blacks who lived there. Black aggression against whites in Charlestown was as rare as white aggression in Roxbury— it did not happen. Yet Alice McGoff’s daughter Lisa revealed to Lukas the nightmarish fears that haunted her in anticipation of black students’ arrival in Charlestown. Rumors ran about that blacks would come riding into town shooting anyone they saw. “A few kids went down to the bridges to serve as lookouts, and for nearly a week many project families … slept with baseball bats by their beds.” No carloads of blacks showed up, but Lisa and most of her friends believed that “when the buses came, the black kids would step off armed to the teeth and ready to rumble. She believed that most black boys were out to molest and rape white girls, that black girls would attack white girls in the ladies’ room, and that blacks of both sexes carried knives, razors, scissors, stickpins, and other weapons.” (Boston Against Busing, p. 186)
When busing went into full effect, many parents wrote to Judge Garrity telling of the assaults that the white students received when attending black schools:
Many parents, and a few students, also wrote to Judge Garrity telling him of assaults or harassment: the fifteen-year-old junior on her own attending classes at Roslindale and South Boston who found it difficult to pay attention because of constant tension, who did not regard herself as prejudiced, and who found it trying “when I’m told (in exact words) ‘I’m gonna’ kick your ass, bitch,’ when I’m just minding my own business” and racially motivated harassment kept on; the Roslindale father who described the Philbrick School as racially imbalanced with more blacks than whites, with blacks given preferred treatment (“ let’s keep peace”) while white children were unsafe going to restrooms and in the school yard, with blacks not allowing whites to participate in games, white children ganged up on, in his view the “school totally taken over by blacks”; the Hyde Park antibusers and parents who lamented the racial attack on seven “of the outstanding 10th graders” at Rogers Hyde Park Annex who had now left the school; the West Roxbury mother of a fourteen-year-old boy beaten by two blacks wanting a quarter, the day after he missed school because the bus did not show up, “no explanation, therefore no school”; the Hyde Park mother whose daughter’s bus was stoned by blacks and who now suffered from nightmares and other emotional upsets; the West Roxbury parent whose five children had already attended the Shaw School, now majority black, whose sixth, an eleven-year-old, had known many anxious mornings and had now been assaulted twice; the Dorchester father whose boy was attending Dorchester High, which instead of being 52 percent white was 65 percent black, and which would soon be 70 to 80 percent black, where a black “in jest” pulled a knife on his son and was told to put it away by a black aide, where his son and two others had their pockets emptied by blacks during a fire drill; and the Boston father whose daughter came home needing three stitches in the back of her head.
Several parents repeated the theme that “it’s common knowledge that the lavatories in some of these schools are manned by young toughs who demand money from kids that have to use them.” “I don’t care what color my kid is sitting next to,” wrote one Roslindale mother, “as long as he gets the education … . I’m willing to work at living together in peace and harmony but I don’t want my kids hurt in the process.”
White parents often complained too of the “foul language” to which desegregation exposed their children. One Hyde Park mother wrote to Judge Garrity sarcastically thanking him for her daughter’s quick maturing: “If it were not for busing she would not learn such phrases and words (to mention a few) as FUCK YOU, YOUR MOTHER SUCKS, YOU HAVE A BLACK CUNT/ DICK.” The mother had tried to keep her daughter relatively innocent, “But I guess nine years is quite old enough.” (Boston Against Busing p. 207)
Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the feeling of powerlessness was a letter to Judge Garrity from a distraught parent who never used the word. The man simply told in meticulous detail, in capital letters, of an assault on his son by three black youths in a lavatory at Madison Park High School resulting in the fifteen-year-old white youth running home with an injured left eye. The father told of his visits to hospital, school, police station, federal building downtown, and elsewhere, of lack of redress, and of his request for a transfer. Denied, he would keep the boy home. The father said he represented no group and had written on his own. His letter constituted a hymn of rage, resulting from an inability to do anything, or even to get anyone to listen. (Boston Against Busing, p. 192)
Other Bostonians wrote in about the dangers of the black ghetto, explaining why they did not want their kids sent to those neighborhoods:
I was borned [sic] in Roxbury on Blue Hill Avenue 40 years ago. A person would either happen to be insane or want to commit suicide to travel in that area today. I moved to Mission Hill… when I started High School. To me, that was God’s little acre until the projects, two (2) behind the church and one (1) in Jamaica Plain, became non-white. When I was living there, there was no such thing as locked doors or being afraid to walk the streets at night … . Now the priests are warning the old people not to come to daily mass because of rampant crime … i.e., muggings, stabbings, etc. My parents still live in fear with double and triple locks on their doors. (Boston Against Busing, p. 184)
Two years earlier, this letter writer told Judge Garrity, his brother had been knifed by two blacks who tried to rob him while in his car stopped at a traffic light. The brother died a year later. “What the real problem is [sic] a tremendous clash in cultures, economics, etc.” Not all white Bostonians victimized by black crime, or feeling vulnerable to it, were able to muster that degree of dispassionate analysis. (Boston Against Busing, p. 184)
Fear of black crime ran through many of the letters written to Judge Garrity during 1974– 77, particularly in those sent by many elderly persons. They told of being mugged, beaten, hospitalized, or of witnessing beatings, and also of the sad process of neighborhood change. “They (the colored people) made a hell-hole of Mission Hill so let them stay there.” They wrote of the even sadder mutation of acquiring hatred and prejudice: “I liked them at first but when I saw their savagery I had no use for them.”
For fairness, we should point out that not all the integrated schools suffered from these problems:
In January 1975, white parents connected with the Massachusetts Experimental School, whose children commuted to Roxbury from several neighborhoods, issued a statement declaring that their children had been attending schools in Roxbury for five years and more, and that the whites had been safe and “welcomed in the community and in its schools.” The Experimental School parents said they were distressed by all the talk about the dangers of sending white children into black areas: “These stories are frightening and we know they are not true.”
If you were a parent would you want your kids bused into neighborhoods and schools that were full of the stories above? Or would you do anything to avoid it? What would you do? If we want to understand the history of what happened, we must understand the real cause and effect and the real human motivations.
Slant #4: Never telling us that desegregation failed in its own terms
Because of the disorder and violence in the schools, white families of means fled the district and moved to the suburbs. Thus the result was the schools were even more racially imbalanced than ever. The Boston Globe recently reported:
Today, Boston’s schools are even more segregated than they were before busing began: 86 percent of its students are nonwhite and, as of the 2014-15 school year, 78 percent are low income.
Even if you believe that integration is good, at best, this story should be a cautionary tale about the limits of hubristic, unelected judges who want to make children to plans of grandiose social engineering plans. Parents simply aren’t willing to take big risks with their kids. Even if they agree that integration is good in theory, if they have to choose between enduring disorder to make integration work, and fleeing to more orderly school districts, most will choose to flee. Their kids only have one childhood. Good parents are not going to risk their children’s childhood for some abstract, theoretical, societal benefit. Any sane leader should recognize this. But Judge Garrity did not.
Slant #5: A cartoonish view of the nature of “Racism”
One argument for integration is that it will produce more racial harmony. People argue: Yes, integration will be hard at first, but living and learning together is an essential part of our national healing process, part of overcoming the bigotry of the past. Only when we live, work, and go to school together can we see each other as human beings and all get along. The thesis is that stereotyping and bigotry is caused from a lack of understanding. By bringing people together, we can form friendships and common bonds.
This entire line of thinking is mostly nonsense. As a prescription, it is a recipe for racial discord, not harmony.
People – and most viciously men – fight over resources, turf, status, and women. In a fight, the larger more organized group trounces a disorganized group. Thus, people form into tribes for both protection and predation.
Peace occurs when tribes exist in a stable equilibrium. Peace exists when boundaries are clear, ownership of turf is clear, and when violating boundaries will result in swift and sure tit-for-tat, thus making conflict unprofitable.
War exists when there is conflict over turf and resources. Vitriol and tribal hatred exist as part of the war-making process. It is not hatred that causes war, it is disputed boundaries that cause conflict, and conflict causes hatred.
When the white, Irish Southie tribe thought of their school, they thought of it as more than just a place to learn reading and writing. It was a cornerstone of their tribal community:
As woeful as many Boston schools may have been by middle-class standards, the fact is that their localist, working-class clientele cherished them, especially the neighborhood high schools. These old, often dilapidated but beloved buildings served less as educational institutions providing upward mobility and more as community socializing agents. For the working-class kids of Southie, Charlestown, or East Boston, high school days were often the best times of their lives, after which many moved on to unexciting, dreary jobs or became mothers and fathers soon after bringing their youth to a close well before middle-class youths who attended college. One Southie young woman told me that while growing up she was “just dying to go to Southie High,” and “thought it would be the greatest thing in the world to go to the senior prom.” The sports teams of these schools commanded deep affection and passionate loyalty. Young men grew into middle age wearing their high school letter sweaters or team jackets.
Now imagine growing up and looking forward to playing on the same football team as your elders in front a cheering hometown crowd. And then that dream is taken away from you by some unelected judge. At his order, another tribe invades, takes your spot on the football team and dates the girl you were wooing. You are not going to like that very much. You might want to join with your tribal brothers and brawl with this opposing tribe in the lunch room. And of course the other tribe is going to fight back.
And thus we have the myth and reality of racism and segregation.
The myth, that we learn in school, is that “racism” is some malady of the heart, caused by ignorance of the other, and that it can be overcome by mixing and integrating people together, and showing people that we really have more in common on the inside.
The reality, is that tribes coexist peacefully when they have clear boundaries and don’t interfere with each other’s lives. The competition for resources comes first, the demonization of the other comes second, as part of mobilizing to fight a war.
Think of World War II. In the early 1930s, the average American never gave the Japanese a second thought. Then in the 1940s they were evil Japs, the target of the most noxious propaganda. In one news report, FDR received a letter-opener made out of the arm of a Japanese soldier and said, “this is the sort of gift I like to get, there’ll be plenty more such gifts.” Now, many decades since the war, Americans have overall a positive opinion of Japan and the two nations are friendly. The competition over turf and resources in the South Pacific, and the ensuing war, created the racism, not vice versa.
We think of South Boston High as being full of dark-hearted racists. We see the videos of students throwing rocks and bananas at buses. But before forced busing, that kind of racism was not evident:
South Bostonians often pointed to the fact that blacks before busing had come often into Southie without incident. Adrienne Weston, an independent, tough woman originally from the West Indies, was one of two black teachers at Southie High in 1973. As Phase 1 began, she feared for her life, but during 1973-74 she said “it was good to teach here. The students did their work and no one called me ‘nigger.’” Of the mobs outside the school, she commented, “Those people out there are crazy, because they don’t like this being shoved down their throats.” (Boston Against Busing, p.118)
In Boston generally, before the forced busing, there was a voluntary program for integration that up to 600 black students participated in. A survey of parents reported:“their children have more white friends, that there is not a lot of prejudice or discrimination encountered at the new schools. With respect to this last distribution, only seven (or 10%) of the respondents felt that their children encountered a lot of prejudice, fifteen percent thought their children encountered some, while 70 percent thought their children encountered litttle or no prejudice or discrimination.”
Thus the entire liberal cure for racism, at least in Boston, was actually the cause of the most virulent racism. By forcing these groups together, and putting people in conflict over girls, basketball courts, spots on varsity, etc, the busing created friction and animosity.
The Power of the Media to Frame an Issue
One of the amazing things about journalism, is just how easy it is to tell two completely different and opposing stories using the same facts. The framing of an issue is the whole ball game.
Consider – what if I told you a story whereby:
1) An unelected magistrate orders the children of a community to be removed from their own neighborhood, and sent to detention centers where “it’s common knowledge that the lavatories in some of these buildings are manned by young toughs who demand money from kids that have to use them.” And where students of the minority race are ”huddled together for protection against roving extortion rings; fifty cents was the going price to avoid a beating."
2) The community, on paper a democracy, is overwhelmingly against this plan. But the unelected magistrate cruelly overrules the elected officials.
3) Agents of state of the state brutally enforce the edict. They bash the skulls of resisters:
The next night, the Tactical Police Force returned en masse and, after removing their badges, went in to even the score. In a matter of minutes they reduced the cigarette machine and jukebox to twisted rubble, demolished several shelves of bottles and glasses, and sent twelve customers to the hospital with assorted head injuries.
Police with vicious dogs accost the mothers who agitate against the plan:
One night, as she was coming home from the Powder Keg office, the Tactical Police Force charged up Bunker Hill Street, enforcing a 10: 00 p.m. curfew. Alice ran for home, but two officers of the canine squad cornered her and several other women in a project courtyard. She didn’t know which were more frightening, the German shepherds baring their fangs or the leather-jacketed cops growling obscenities. Even after the women ducked into a friend’s apartment, the police kept their dogs at the door, potent reminders of their determination to control the streets.
The police even go so far as to beat children who are singing God Bless America during a peaceful school sit-in.
When students again occupied the front stairs on November 21, the headmaster lost his patience. Turning to Captain MacDonald, he said, “We’ve lost control of this situation, Bill. I think it’s time for the police.” MacDonald addressed the students, warning them to go to class, leave the building, or face arrest. The demonstrators’ only response was a chorus of “God Bless America.” What happened next surprised even the headmaster. The front door burst open and in charged a platoon of the Tactical Patrol Force in their leather jackets, boots, and Plexiglas visors. Wading into the students, they heaved them down the staircase. Girls screamed. Boys who resisted got a billy club on the arm or shoulder. Sitting halfway up the stairs, Lisa McGoff was spared the initial charge, but soon cringing with fear, she permitted herself to be herded out the front door. The students huddled in small groups on the sidewalk, still dazed from the TPF assault and shaking with indignation. What right did the police have to violate their sanctuary? It was their school, wasn’t it? Didn’t they have a right to sit on their own steps?
This sounds horrible. What an evil magistrate! What vile people to steal money from kids using the bathroom!
The scenario I described above seems like it would make perfect material for an episode of Eyes on the Prize, about some of the abuses black people faced at the hands of evil conservative white people. It is not. It is the exact reverse. It is the story of conservative white people being abused by liberal whites and lower-class blacks. And my story above all comes entirely from excerpts from the history books about what happened to white families in Boston.
With a selective telling of the facts, what I have done is created an equal and opposite version of the PBS documentary. We are in a parallel universe, where the good guys are pure good, are the bad guys are pure bad, but is the exact opposite good guys and bad guys of the original documentary! And I created this opposite narrative entirely by using the sources of liberal journalists and academics.
The point of this exercise is that the media has incredible power to make either side look good or evil.
How Bad History Happens
Hopefully, by now I have convinced you that Eyes on the Prize is bad history. Let us now try to trace how such bad history becomes the official history.
The process starts with the “prestige media.” What is “prestige media”? Well, the pithy answer is that it is any media that has been assimilated into the Georgetown-Harvard axis. In Boston, in the 1970s, that meant the Boston Globe.
Any profitable and popular media enterprise becomes a target for ambitious, socially conscious young adults. Thus fresh Ivy League students seek to join such enterprises. Simultaneously, the owners of such enterprises, having achieved financial success, seek to fulfill the basic human need for status and acclaim. Thus, the leaders of such media outlets have a natural instinct to both mingle with the Harvard/Georgetown intelligentsia, and seek their acclaim.
In the 1970s, the Boston Globe was the most popular and influential paper. Even Southie residents who hated its politics had to buy it because they could not live without its sports section:
Yet the Globe’s sports page kept the paper popular in the antibusing neighborhoods, and the antibusers found themselves prisoners of the Globe’s hold on Boston’s consciousness. As one astute observer of the Boston scene put it, “The antibusers’ focus on the Globe was entirely rational. If it [an event] wasn’t mentioned in the Globe, it didn’t happen.” (Boston Against Busing, p. 156)
And it became even more popular when the FCC brought the hammer down on in its competitor, the Boston Globe:
The Globe had opened an impressive lead in circulation when in March 1972 came the decisive stroke it had sought for so long: completing fifteen years of litigation, the FCC found the Herald guilty of improper lobbying, revoked its license for Channel 5, and awarded it to a competitor. Stripped of its principal revenue producer, the Herald stumbled on for three more months, then sold out to Hearst, which merged the empty shell with its own daily to create the Boston Herald American. This left the Globe virtually unchallenged as New England’s dominant newspaper. (p. 494)
The editor of Boston Globe liked to hob-knob with the liberal elite at Harvard and he recruited Ivy League students heavily:
The capital of that world was across the river in Cambridge, whose dinner parties and salons Tom [Winship, editor of the Boston Globe] now frequented, forging friendships with John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and others. Cambridge was the Massachusetts equivalent of Georgetown, where, ever since his days on the Post, Tom had hobnobbed with journalists like Ben Bradlee and Mary McGrory. All through the Kennedy and Johnson years, liberal intellectuals, politicians, and newsmen shuttled along the Cambridge-Georgetown axis and, increasingly, it was to those red brick enclaves that Tom Winship looked for his closest friends, his social values, his political commitments. Whatever he collected on that circuit was scrupulously recorded on a reminder pad, then scattered through the newsroom in a blizzard of story suggestions.
Tom was determined to inject some of this youthful iconoclasm into his own staff. For decades the Globe had been like a pudding, with a thin crust of Yankee editors, a thick custard of veteran Irish subeditors and reporters, and here and there a few raisins— an Italian, an Armenian, a Jew or two. Many of the reporters were sons of printers and mailers, for the Globe was a benevolent institution: the Taylors never fired anyone, and although they had fended off the Newspaper Guild, they always paid above Guild scale, with usually “a little something extra” at Christmas.
Seeking a different breed, he recruited young reporters at the Harvard Crimson and Yale Daily News. Soon the newsroom was filling up with earnest young men and women, bristling with mid-sixties visions.
The Sunday magazine produced an issue on the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet Revolution (with contributions from Communist writers),
But boldest of all was the Globe’s decision to give its first political endorsement in seventy-two years. The occasion: the daunting prospect of Louise Day Hicks as mayor of Boston. Davis Taylor and many of his Yankee editors were New England “abolitionists,” quick to support the Southern civil rights movement. Although slow to act on the same principles in Boston, the Globe soon threw its full weight behind the struggle for school desegregation, fair housing, and equal employment practices. But its reaction to Mrs. Hicks’s 1967 candidacy grew from something more than a passion for racial justice. In part it was a matter of class. The huge marshmallow of a woman in her tentlike dresses was patently from a different social order— the frumpy world of the Irish middle class that the Globe had only recently left behind. Her election would make Boston look like a goofy city. Ben Bradlee would say, “Hey, who’s that idiot mayor you’ve got up there.” The Globe, at last on its way to national recognition, would be just another bush newspaper in a bush town. (Common Ground, p. 492-494)
It is also noteworthy that the people running the Globe were not of the same tribe as the ethnics in South Boston and Charlestown. Nor were they impacted by the busing:
Moderates and militants alike saw Globe editors and reporters as advocating a social policy with which they did not want to live, since most of them lived in the suburbs. Those who lived in the city, if they had school-age children, did not send them to public schools. Indeed, of the paper’s top twenty editors, all but two did reside outside of Boston, as did most reporters. Antibusers loved Billy Bulger’s crack that to telephone the Globe’s “urban team” after 5 P.M. you had to dial “1” first. (Boston Against Busing, p. 156)
The young liberals at the Globe had grown up watching the Civil Rights movement on TV. They had been conditioned to see black people as the good guys and a certain type of white person as the racist villain. They believed that progressive university graduates had a social mission to help eradicate this racism.
And thus, the Globe consistently supported integration, and underplayed the real concerns whites would have:
For more than a decade its coverage of Boston’s racial turmoil had been skewed toward the black community. When a black child was confined in a school cloakroom with tape over her mouth, the Globe kept the story alive for more than a week, using it to dramatize the plight of minority pupils in a white system. But when young Negroes disrupted a School Committee meeting, black leaders objected to the front-page coverage and the paper beat a hasty retreat. Unlike many papers which strictly separated news and editorial page operations, the Globe kept them united under Tom Winship. “We were pretty shameless in using the news columns to show how we felt,” recalls one reporter. “The Globe was on the side of the angels then, and all the angels were black.”
Television stations also faced political pressure to slant their coverage:
Meanwhile, black demands were reinforced by pressure from Mayor White, who had both institutional and political reasons to play down any violence that might develop in the autumn. In two meetings with media representatives and two more with “on-air talent” — none of which was publicly reported — White and his aides urged the press to handle racial incidents judiciously, avoid any language or pictures which might exacerbate tensions, and put the best possible face on desegregation.
These proposals found their readiest acceptance among radio and television executives, who viewed the committee as a convenient means of satisfying FCC requirements that they respond to community needs.
There could be little doubt that some institutions temporarily abandoned objectivity. The Herald American’s lead story on the morning school opened read like a sermon: “The safety of 94,000 children and the salvation of Boston’s historic standing as a community of reasonable and law-abiding families are at stake today as the city reopens its public schools.” Lovell Dyett, operations manager of the NBC outlet, put it most explicitly when he said, “We are going to use television to create an atmosphere of compliance with Judge Garrity’s order.”
And now Globe editorials were hammering relentlessly at the resisting white parents, warning them that their anti-busing position was not only illegal but immoral.
We think that just because there are no laws limiting speech, that speech will be free. But social pressure can be just as powerful as government pressure. And speech guidelines arrived at by a societal consensus, and enforced by social pressure, can be just as restrictive, perhaps more restrictive, as a guideline issued by a King and enforced by officials. And furthermore, while there are no direct laws in the United States controlling speech, in this instance we see government controlling speech through the back door, via subjective FCC requirements about responding to community needs.
Guilt by Association and Evaporative Insanity
When forced busing was first an issue, many respectable leaders, such as Mayor Kevin White or the famous Congressman Tip O’Neill, publicly expressed skepticism or opposition.
But then the interaction of the press and the resistance movement created a feedback loop.
When busing was forced down the throats of South Boston, some of those opposing busing behaved very badly. They threw rocks at buses full of children, they yelled nasty names, they threw bananas.
With the press being on the side of busing and of black people, the press was filled with images of these nasty and terrible resisters. Meanwhile incidents of black violence in integrated schools would be downplayed. Thus, people would come to associate opposition to busing with horrible, noxious behavior. With this association building, people like Tip O’Neill or Mayor White tried to disassociate from the anti-busing group. When the public perception is that only a vile person could oppose busing, only shameless and vulgar people will be willing to oppose busing. Thus the best people leave the movement, and the face of the movement becomes men like school committee man John Kerrigan:
More revealing of the posture of the committee was the emergence of John Kerrigan as its dominant figure in the late 1960s….his importance in the early and mid-1970s was a sign of how much uglier the resistance to the Racial Imbalance Act had become.
With Kerrigan, the macho style was as important as any substantive position on issues. He often went out of his way to be vulgar and obscene and especially delighted in shocking liberals with uninhibited racial derogation of blacks. His vituperation of journalists as “snakes” and “maggots” was almost comically opéra bouffe by comparison, as were his continual references to his own and others’ sexuality (he often wore a bowling jacket with the nickname “Bigga,” a reference to part of his anatomy). In December 1974, during a break at a hearing in Garrity’s courtroom, Kerrigan allegedly mocked a black TV reporter, Lem Tucker, by imitating a chimpanzee and saying: “You know Tucker? He’s one generation away from swinging in the trees. I bet he loves bananas.”
Hicks and Kerrigan fed off one another, but Kerrigan did differ from Hicks in the sheer opportunism of his antibusing career. He once said that the worst thing that could happen to him politically was to have Garrity reverse himself: “That would put me out of business.” During his run for district attorney a group of radical Progressive Labor party demonstrators came to Kerrigan’s house on primary day. The candidate himself came out smiling: “Oh boy, a demonstration … . You’re gonna win me this election. Why didn’t you come yesterday when we could’ve gotten more coverage?” A reporter for the Boston Phoenix observed the scene and wrote: “The Progressive Laborites were genuinely nonplused. Not in their wildest fantasies about capitalist politicians could they have imagined someone as profoundly cynical as John Kerrigan. Here was a man who took nothing seriously except his vote totals, and he freely admitted as much. He wasn’t a racist— black, white didn’t even enter his mind outside of politics— just a demagogue who said and did what he had to in order to win.
We get a feedback loop. We get an evaporative effect where all the good people slink away and only the crazy people are left openly resisting. Opposition to desegregation becomes indelibly associated with terrible people who throw rocks and call black news reporters monkeys. And the good people are now more and more prone to speak in euphemism or hide their thoughts, because they do not want to be considered horrible bigots. This desire, the desire to not be seen as a bigot, thus impacts everyone going forward who writes about the subject.
The Political Correctness Game of Telephone
So we see that respectable people desire to be very cautious when making criticisms of segregation, as they do not want to be seen as a bigot. Nor does a person want to offend others and land in hot water. Respectable people try to be “politically correct.” And this fear is not irrational paranoia – see this long list of people who have gotten harassed or fired for saying the wrong thing about race. Furthermore, both academia and journalists are overwhelmingly liberal. They have been immersed in a narrative whereby racism against black people has been the great historical problem of America, and they feel an obligation to frame issues in a way that won’t lead to more racism toward black people.
The combination of these factors means that in selecting facts to form a narrative, academics and journalists tend to downplay instances of black violence and overplay the fault of non-liberal whites.
When successive writers repeat and summarize a story, the effect of this slanting can be transformational. The entire real cause of the problem can be lost completely.
Consider the story of the flight of the Dorchester Jews, as told in Death of Jewish Community.
- Deep in the book, in the late chapters, we read an onslaught of evidence that makes it clear that what caused the Jews to leave was violence. We hear stories of muggings, children being beaten on the way home of school, elderly Jewish men arming themselves while walking to the community center, a dentist who reports that he has treated dozen of patients with smashed teeth.
- In the preface and conclusions, we see this spun as statements that take the form of, “The community was destroyed by the collusion of callous bankers and real estate agents who played on the fears of resident, made worse by the reality that this violence was sometimes real.” Making the real estates agents or the lenders a prime mover is insane. Banks lend to neighborhoods all the time and it does not cause the ruin of a neighborhood; the cause was the violence of the people moving in. An accurate summary would read: “The Jews were driven out of Dorchester when government planners enabled the moving in of a rival ethnic tribe. The worst members of this tribe delt an astonishing and appalling amount of violence upon everyone ranging from children to elderly men.” That is simply the most accurate description of the primary force driving Jewish people away.
- In a longer piece on an NPR affiliate, crime is mentioned only in passing. Multiple paragraphs are spent denouncing the scare tactics of real estate agents. But what is left unsaid is that the scare tactics worked because they were grounded in reality. The Jews who remained did in fact face high levels of violence.
- In shorter summaries, such as a paragraph on Wikipedia talking about Dorchester’s demographic change, there are the catch-words “red lining” and “white flight” but zero mention of violence by the people moving in and taking over the neighborhood. And this summary is how most people will hear the story.
Thus in going from the full history to a summary, the primary motive for white flight is completely removed! The game of PC telephone has performed censorship to a degree that would impress a Soviet commissar.
We see the same progression in the story of busing.
- Deep in the academic history books it is obvious that mass forced busing failed because it either a) smashed together two groups prone to violence (ghetto blacks and lower-class whites) and made them fight over the same turf or b) smashed together ghetto blacks with passive middle class kids thus driving away the middle class kids due to the violence and low class behavior. It is also obvious that busing had no redeeming value on any level – it did not make people less racist, did not help blacks academic achievement, nor did not actually even achieve integration.
- In the summary and conclusion of the book, there is mention of the above dynamic, but it is mixed in with blame for many other actors. There is praise for the good intentions of the pro-integration factor, praise for the ideal of integration, and blame for the school committee for being so intransigent for cynical political reasons. (But wait – since integration turned out so disastrous, they were correct to be so stubborn. And isn’t “cynical political reasons” just another way of saying “they were doing what their constituency wanted”? Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?)
- And then when we get the PBS version of the story, nary a mention is made of the violence faced by white kids going to black schools. No mention is made of black violence in the schools during prior integration attempts, which is why white parents were so wary of integration.
The game of PC telephone strips away the true dynamics of the conflict, and turns the story into a simple good versus evil morality play.
Concluding thoughts and takeaways
1) Beware the power of framing. By highlighting different facts and interpretations, it is very easy to frame either side of an event as being good or bad. Thus, to really understand an event, you need to read intellectually honest sources.
2) Beware of the game of PC Telephone. Academia and prestige media sources – PBS, NPR, New York Times, etc – are full of writers who believe in the progressive vision. When reducing a complex issue to a shorter summary, they will generally choose facts in a way that fits the progressive narrative, either consciously or unconsciously. But this means that on issues where people worry about being politically correct, on any issue of race or sex, you simply cannot trust these sources. Time and time again, I find that as I compare the original sources to the popular summary, the full dynamic of the conflict has been stripped out by successive iterations of politically correct sanitization.
3) Beware the dangers of judges making policy. The original role of a judge in the American tradition was to be a neutral arbiter and interpreter of existing law and precedent. Over time that has changed. In the words of Justice Sotomayor, “the judiciary is where policy has been made.” With the cases that followed Brown vs the Board of Education and the succeeding cases, the Court was in the business of making policy. But it turns out that policy is complex, every situation is very different. The fashionable social science theories upon which the early desegregation decisions were based had already turned out to be incorrect by the time Garrity was ruling on busing in Boston. Yet Garrity felt himself bound by the precedent of the courts, and ruled accordingly.
4) It is crazy to believe both in coerced integration and mass immigration. In the original Massachusetts racial balance laws, any school with more than 50% minority enrollment was considered imbalanced. The only theory for the benefit of integration that makes sense is that by mixing a small number of minorities into a middle class white population, the minorities can assimilate into a wealthier culture and gain more opportunities in life. This does not work when mixing large numbers though, as each race and social class will then just associate with each other. Now, in 2016, thanks to mass immigration, the entire school population is approaching majority minority. Thus, even if there was perfect distribution of students, every school would be racially imbalanced by the standards of the 1960s.
5) We need to end our obsession with integration. While busing is less of an issue today, it still happens in many cities. The old laws and court rulings are still in effect. De jure segregation is forbidden, and any sort of de facto segregation is legally perilous.
And this last one is a big problem.
Think about it – what constitutes a good school for your own child? A good school is a school that is orderly and safe. A good school is where your child’s peers will be of similar intellectual abilities and maturity levels, so that slower kids are not left in the dust, and bright students are not held back. A good school provides a teaching style appropriate to the student. Slower students often need more back-to-the-basics or drill-and-kill style teaching. Bright students simply need to be freed to let their natural curiosity and nerdiness go wild. If you have good peers, the rest will follow. Good teachers will come to the school because it simply nicer to teach at such a place. The facilities will be better because the students won’t be destroying it, and the fellow middle class parents might even pitch in via fundraisers to fix any problems.
However, in the big, diverse cities, where both blacks and whites live, the whites and blacks are on two different planes. In New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC, etc, the white average on standardized tests ranges from two to five grade levels ahead of the black average.
That means, if you group students of similar achievement levels together, even if you are color-blind with regards to your process, you will get racially imbalanced classrooms.
The entire art of raising children in a diverse urban area is the art of finding a backdoor way of joining an ability and class filtered school. Parents either pay extortionary sums for private schools, endure long commutes from the suburbs, take out large mortgages for more expensive neighborhoods, cross their fingers for a magnet school lottery, or design charter schools with subtle methods of screening out lower-class kids.
In San Francisco – which is suffering an epidemic of childlessness – children are routinely forced to go to kindegarten miles away from home all in the interests of demographic balance. This is insane. Making a kindegartener travel miles across a big city in the hopes that putting that child next to a minority will somehow solve the racials problems is totally nutty. And of course it doesn’t work in creating integration. The system is so insane that upper-class couples move out of the city, go to private school, or don’t have kids at all.
If we were simply honest about what makes for a good school, honest about the idea that mixing lower-class kids and middle-class kids of two different races is not a moral imperative, is not necessary, is not even beneficial, then we could create affordable quality schools for everybody. But until we admit this, we are going to continue committing these follies.
UPDATE 2016/1/16: I made some updates to this post based on comments in this Hacker News thread.
Here is how an article from Education Next describes the Coleman report: A passionate believer in racial equality (he and his wife had been arrested for participating in civil rights protests in Baltimore), Coleman was convinced that he would find the impact to be dramatic. He told one reporter that “the study will show the difference in the quality of schools that the average Negro child and the average white child are exposed to. You know yourself that the difference is going to be striking. And even though everybody knows there is a lot of difference between suburban and inner-city schools, once the statistics are there in black and white, they will have a lot more impact.” When Coleman and his colleagues set their then state-of-the-art computers to work, however, they were surprised to discover that none of the most obvious aspects of educational inequality (class size, teacher experience and pay, age of buildings, library and laboratory facilities) seemed to explain the black-white gap in schooling outcomes.
When you open the report and look at the datatables, you basically don't see any trend that really stands out with regards to integration and test scores. While overall there is a tiny positive correlation, this correlation is different based on the region, for example: "In the Northeast, blacks at all-black schools scored 46, at half and half schools 44.5, and at more than half schools 47.5. In the Midwest, blacks scored 46 at all-black schools and 45.1 at more than half white schools." This is basically just statistical noise.↩
After controlling for socioeconomic status, black students scored the same at mostly white schools and schools that were 50%-80% black. Black females scored the same at all levels of school integration. Black men scored slightly worse at schools that were 80%+ black. But of course, correlation does not prove causation. Any number of factors could cause this gap. For example, if a school was poorly managed and disorderly, it could cause both the white students to leave and the black students to do worse. Thus, overall the NAEP data is consistent with there being no impact of ingregation, a small impact, or a medium impact but only in limited circumstances. Because of confounding variables we cannot say anything more precise than that. What we can rule out is the idea that segregation is the primary reason for the achievement gap.
If we go beyond the NAEP data, and look at the other studies, the issue still remains cloudy and contentious.
There have been a couple of randomized control studies, such as this one. But even these are not actually perfectly controlled tests of integration itself. The students in that particular case also recieved supplemental help and remial teaching: "Each school day city children were transported to Suburbia by bus, accompanied by a teacher aide. Depending on weather and traffic conditions, the trip took 35-45 minutes each way. When the children arrived in Suburbia, they were met by a supplemental teacher whose task it was to help them make a smooth transition into suburban classrooms. The supplemental teacher was also Negro, and her duties consisted of giving remedial help to those children needing it and, in general, working on a cooperative basis with suburban teachers...In Suburbia, for grade one only, the schedule provided for reading instruction with a reduced pupil to teacher ratio of 11:1, but in Center City, teachers had two or three times as many pupils for reading. Contemporary mathematics was presented in Suburbia, while traditional mathematics was taught in the Center City school. Approximately 40 Suburbia families volunteered to serve as "host families" for the city children. Under this plan, each of the city 'children had lunch at the home of one of his suburban classmates during the school day."
And even with this study the data was contradictory. Among transported children who were volunteers, first-graders significantly outperformed their counterparts in each of the measured achievement areas of reading, mathematics, and listening skills. "The present design, however, does not permit us to attribute these gains to specified aspects of the treatment. At the second-grade level, the average achievement gains of transported children were not significantly greater than those of their counterparts."
If we look at the entire literature, we get some studies showing a small boost, some studies showing a small negative impact. Nothing stands out either way. Overall, the any link between integration and test scores is at the level of "chocolate causes/prevents cancer" type studies, and not "smoking causes cancer" type studies.↩
There are some reports that while METCO did not increase test scores, it did give the black students a leg up in finding jobs and raising their socio-economic status. This would be a success for the program. But it if this is the best success of the program, it does not follow that integration should be scaled up. If you bus in small numbers of lower-class kids, they will have to make friends with higher class students. If you bus in large numbers, then they will just make friends with each other, and the benefits of busing will go away.↩
According to the Coleman Report, in the South, for blacks in secondary school the students-per-classroom ratio was 30, while for whites it was 34. In the West it was 31 for blacks, 30 for whites. Measures of teacher quality were slightly worse -- but this is an inherent tension as black teaching graduates scored lower on knowledge exams than white graduates. And naturally, black teachers are going to be more likely to be teaching in black schools, for reasons of geography and culture, and because that is what people in the black community often demanded.↩