Busing Redux: Misunderstanding Brown v. Board

Busing -- or rather, the debate over busing -- is back, and along with it, more misunderstanding of Brown v. Board of Education.

The Washington Post on January 12 published a long front-page article by reporter Stephanie McCrummen -- "Republican school board in N.C. backed by tea party abolishes integration policy” -- criticizing the new Republican majority on the Wake County, North Carolina, School Board for ending county-wide busing and, thus, turning its back on Brown. The next day the Post published a letter from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan criticizing the board for abandoning the “core value” of “diversity” and threatening an investigation.

Busing to achieve racial balance was initially foisted onto the nation by another North Carolina school system, courtesy of the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. In the 1990s, some parents filed a lawsuit challenging the exclusion of their children from magnet schools because they were white; in 1999 a federal district court judge declared that the district -- now 40% black -- had long since remedied its segregation, ordering the board to stop “assigning children to schools or allocating educational opportunities and benefits through race-based lotteries, preferences, or other means that deny students an equal opportunity based on race.” Shortly thereafter, “the local school board adopted a new assignment plan that combined neighborhood schools with parental choice within several large assignment zones.” Wake County, however, stuck to its old, county-wide busing program. But in an attempt to avoid legal challenge, the old busing system was now justified as necessary to promote economic, not racial, diversity.

Predictably, ending county-wide busing has been attacked by civil rights groups and their friends as “turning back the clock” by re-introducing “segregation.” William Barber of the local NAACP said that allowing children to choose to attend their neighborhood schools is “morally wrong … legally wrong … economically wrong,” and McCrummen’s WaPo article quotes NAACP president Benjamin Jealous blaming the Tea Party:

So far, all the chatter we heard from tea partyers has not manifested in actually putting in place retrograde policies. But this is one place where they have literally attempted to turn back the clock.

This quote from McCrummen’s article has itself been widely quoted, and Jealous may well have said it somewhere — it’s certainly the sort of thing he would say -- but it appears nowhere in the source McCrummen linked.

What is noteworthy about both the Post article and Secretary Duncan’s letter is their fundamental misunderstanding of Brown v. Board of Education, a misunderstanding that is now endemic to contemporary liberalism. Writing in the Post last fall McCrummen and Michael Birnbaum praised a new study touting the “benefits of economic integration” because

it lends fresh support to an idea as old as the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954: Segregated schools — in this case, separated by economics, not law — are rarely as good as diverse ones at educating low-income students.