This is personal for me. When you hear these words uttered by a political candidate, what do you expect will follow? If you are closer in age to Joe Biden than to Kamala Harris, you will likely expect a reasoned argument, or perhaps an anecdote intended to show that the candidate has hands-on experience with a certain issue. If you are closer in age to Harris, these same words will likely translate as, This my turf, not yours! You cannot possibly know anything about it, so get the hell off! And what follows will be a fierce proprietary claim, not just to a particular identity but to exclusive, authentic, unassailable, nontransferable knowledge of everything associated with that identity, whether or not the person actually possesses such knowledge.
Case in point: during the second presidential debate on June 27, Biden and Harris had a testy exchange about school busing, a topic that was a very hot potato half a century ago but has long since become a very cold spud. Why did Harris decide to re-heat it? Is she planning to make school busing a key proposal in her campaign? Or was that cold potato the only vegetable she could find to hurl at the white guy who served alongside America’s first African-American president? I suspect it was the latter, and there is no denying that it worked. For an entire news cycle (which now means about 15 minutes) the Twittersphere was deeply divided on the issue of whether school busing is an effective remedy for racial inequality.
For the record, I do not question Harris’s assertion that she benefited from Berkeley’s decision to bus students from the lower-middle-class neighborhood in the western flatlands to an upper-middle-class school in the eastern hills. Nor do I dispute her self-identification as African American, although it does strike me as odd that racial identity and sexual preference must now be regarded as inborn and indelible, while biological sex is celebrated as a matter of free choice.
As for Biden, I do not think it is entirely his fault that the media describe him as coming from a blue-collar background. After all, it took me almost five minutes on Google to learn that his father started out as a salesman, then worked his way up to executive, co-owner of a small airport, and sales manager for car dealerships and real-estate firms. By the time a reporter did that, the news cycle would be almost over.
But I do object to all the sloppy rhetoric that went flying around after the debate. And here’s why. School busing is personal for me, too.
A few decades ago, I conducted a natural experiment in what today might be called the intersection of race, class, and public education. I use the word experiment because it was in vogue at the time. My experiment was conducted in three stages, and in each, I learned a different lesson.
The first stage was a master’s program in urban education at the University of Pennsylvania, in which I enrolled after college—not because I had always dreamed of being a teacher but because I was obsessed with race. The word woke was not known to me at the time, though its African-American roots are deep. But woke is what I was trying to be, the only imaginable alternative being a white racist.
I chose the Penn program because it was “experimental,” meaning no formal courses in education. Instead, I and a dozen other well-meaning college grads were given sink-or-swim placements in a half-dozen “experimental” schools around Philadelphia. Mine was in the Free School, a mini high school housed in a Chestnut Street storefront near the Penn campus. All but one of the teachers were white, and all but two of the 50 students were black. The students were also quite motivated, their parents having sought out this alternative to the overcrowded chaos of West Philadelphia High. The head teachers, both white, had taught in “the system” and were committed to freeing the students from its rigid routines and cramped, irrelevant curriculum. I was in total agreement, having read Jonathan Kozol’s exposé of the Boston public schools, Death at an Early Age, and adopted its radical view that the system was deliberately destroying black youth.
My best friend in the program was Diane, a working-class Italian American from western Pennsylvania who taught math at a different school called Parkway. Diane considered the Free School a bit flaky, and it didn’t help when I sang the praises of “experimental” courses such as “Police-Community Relations,” “ESP and Parapsychology,” and “Making Sense of Your Senses.” To my defense of these courses as fun and relevant while also imparting basic skills, Diane looked dubious, and remarked that there were a lot of ways to teach math, but she had never found one that did not require more work than fun.
I might never have seen Diane’s point if the students in the Free School hadn’t staged a walkout. At ten o-clock on a sunny October morning, they rose from their seats en masse and marched out onto the sidewalk, where they declared their intention to picket the Free School until it started teaching “real” courses instead of “hippie” ones. This came as a shock to me, because my own memories of high school were singularly lacking in the vitality and din of the Free School, where great funky music was always playing somewhere, and every class was enlivened by the students’ quick wit and abundant street smarts.
I had noticed that when it came to doing the actual assignments, those same witty, street-smart students bubbled—indeed, effervesced—with excuses. But not until the frank discussions that followed the walkout did I begin to see the problem. The star students could handle the fun, relevant assignments, but because they were stars, they wanted a more serious curriculum. Meanwhile, the majority were bright and eager, but lacking in the necessary skills, and none of the teachers wanted to admit that what these students really needed was dull, boring remedial instruction. The Free School was supposed to be experimental, not remedial.
For me, the Free School was highly instructive in a subject the students did not need to study: soul. Soul had been part of African-American culture since Day One, but I had only discovered it in college, where I made my first black friends and gained my first exposure to the music called by that name. Soul was style, crackling energy, spiritual electricity—the quintessence of blackness and the opposite of everything stolid and repressed about my own upbringing in an affluent WASP suburb of Boston. I knew I would never have soul in a true sense, but I wanted to tap into just enough of it to jolt other white people out of their racist stupor.
I soon got the chance. After my year at the Free School, I was hired as one of four teachers in an even more experimental program called Sidetrack, an outgrowth of a Boston-based program called METCO (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity), which since 1966 had been busing students from Roxbury and other black neighborhoods out to white suburban schools—on a purely voluntary basis. By 1971 METCO was spending nearly $2 million to bus 1,600 black students to 30 suburban schools and had a waiting list of 1,300.
The next step, according to a group of educators in the wealthy town of Lincoln, was to obtain a grant under Title III of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 1965. Title III was devoted to “innovative projects,” and that was just what the Lincoln folks had in mind. As argued in their proposal, METCO did not go far enough, because it failed to address the “major environmental imbalance [that] results from insulated urban and suburban ghettos where racial prejudices are left unchallenged and unchanged.” As a remedy, Sidetrack would bus black students from Roxbury out to Lincoln, while at the same time busing white students from Lincoln into Roxbury.
This plan had a marvelous symmetry. There would be two classrooms, one in the Lewis Middle School in Roxbury, and the other in the Brooks Middle School in Lincoln. Each classroom would have two teachers, one of each race, and 30 students, 15 of whom would be bused from the other school. Halfway through the year, the two classes would switch locations, and the students who had been attending Sidetrack in their home school would now get bused to the alien one. One reason why the plan struck a responsive chord in me was that Lincoln bordered on Weston, the town where I grew up. I looked forward to the day when the Sidetrack soul train would pull into Lincoln with me riding shotgun.
It did not work out that way. The story is long, and I am not the heroine. Suffice it to say that I began the year in Lincoln, attempting with my co-teacher, a charismatic math teacher named Morris, to cope with the daunting challenge of reconciling Sidetrack’s contradictory goals. The first goal, set forth in the proposal and emphasized by the Lincoln sponsors (who controlled the money) was to foster “positive cross-cultural changes” and help suburban kids “relate to every variety of humankind in myriad situations.” The second goal, emphasized the Roxbury sponsors, was to give the urban kids a high-octane academic boost.
It was unclear how we were supposed to pull this off, because most of the Roxbury students were one or two full grades behind their Lincoln counterparts. What we did, messily but not unsuccessfully, was individualize the lessons, so that on any given day, the two nerdiest boys from Lincoln would spend an hour doing their schoolwork and the rest of the time building catapults out of pipe cleaners; while the four hippest Roxbury students would solve ten math problems in exchange for permission to play music and teach each other the latest dance step. This approach did not produce instant racial harmony. On the contrary, the students quite often made pungent comments about each other that got everyone so riled up, Morris and I would take them all outside for a quick game of soccer.
By December we were making progress, but the optics were not good. Our classroom and activities were being monitored by the Lincoln sponsors, and they did not like what they saw. Warnings were issued, and on the eve of Christmas vacation, I was summoned to the superintendent’s office and fired. It seemed obvious why the Lincoln sponsors fired me and not Morris. He had more leverage, by virtue of his sex and color, and I was just another white liberal who for reasons of her own treated other white people as soul-deficient. That made me eminently dispensable.
What happened next was remarkable. Morris refused to accept the decision, and immediately launched a letter-writing campaign among the students—and, more important, among the Roxbury sponsors. It would be nice to report that the black parents and educators of Boston were outraged at losing me, but that was not really the point. The point, which Morris kept alive throughout the holidays, was that the Roxbury sponsors had not been consulted. In January they met and decided to flex some political muscle. Lincoln may control the purse strings, they said, but the right to hire and fire resided equally with them. To drive home the point, they voted to reinstate me.
But Sidetrack never recovered. The federal grant called for a second year, but that spring, plans were made to downsize it to a six-week “student swap,” and the ambitious language about “positive cross-cultural exchanges” got deleted. As for academic achievement, that sore topic was postponed till the summer, when all 60 students were tested. As it turned out, neither Roxbury’s hopes nor Lincoln’s fears were realized. In each school, the scores of the Sidetrack students were roughly the same as those of their non-Sidetrack peers. It was too late to argue that the students had learned valuable lessons not included in the tests. The program was kaput.
A couple years later, Morris took a graduate course for which he wrote a paper about Sidetrack. In that paper, with no ill intention, he held a mirror up to me. I will never forget what that mirror revealed:
Martha came from a setting very similar to Lincoln and was anxious to demonstrate to Lincoln people that her allegiance was not with them but elsewhere. She was much more outspoken than I against the values and attitudes Lincolnites brought to the program. In large measure, she was rejecting all that Lincoln stood for. Nonetheless, the question remains as to whether she realized that, in so completely rejecting Lincoln, she was also rejecting much of who she was. That unfortunate detail did not escape the attention of all of us even at the time; it certainly did not escape the attention of all of the students. That, however, would be another study in itself.
The third stage of my experiment was a two-year stint in the Achievement School, a remedial program for underachieving middle-school boys, housed in Rindge Tech, an all-male vocational high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few years later Rindge would merge with Cambridge Latin, the city’s academic high school. But when I taught there, it was a demoralized and demoralizing place, with poor attendance and shabby facilities, known mostly for the prowess of its basketball team.
This was the first time I taught students who were not in my classroom voluntarily, and the differences were palpable. It was not unusual to walk down the corridors of Rindge and see a student, or occasionally a teacher, being forcibly ejected from a classroom. The constant fighting, cursing, and yelling assaulted my ears, and I grew to hate the sound of my own shrill voice trying to make itself heard. Rindge is only a few blocks from Harvard, but the tough, often troubled youth filling its halls were not the sons of academics but of blue-collar and welfare families in what was still then a working-class city.
All of this was new, but what struck me most forcefully was the presence of whites. Along with the African Americans I was used to, there were West Indians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cape Verdeans—as well as Irish, Italians, Greeks, and other white ethnics, many from fatherless families in the East Cambridge housing projects. And the most unruly and unreachable ones came in all colors.
This is where I found myself in the strained atmosphere leading up to the Boston busing crisis. In 1965, the state had passed a bill, the Racial Imbalance Act, which classified as “racially imbalanced” any public school that was more than 50 percent non-white. The bill had been pushed through the legislature by a coalition of black and white citizens concerned about discrimination in the Boston public schools. But as noted by its many critics, the vast majority of whites who supported the bill lived in the surrounding suburbs and adjacent cities like Brookline and Cambridge, where its provisions did not apply. Instead, the bill applied to Irish and Italian enclaves like Charlestown, Dorchester, and South Boston, where the memory of class and religious discrimination by Boston’s Brahmin elite had not faded.
The same was true of the June 1974 court order handed down by Federal District Judge W. Arthur Garrity. Like the Racial Imbalance Act, this court order focused exclusively on the legal municipality of Boston, as opposed to the larger and generally more affluent metropolitan area. This meant that the buses would carry students from the city’s poor and predominantly black neighborhoods into its poor and predominantly white neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, this opened deep fault lines, not just between black and white but between white and white.
I felt this acutely, because most of my white liberal friends were so supportive of the court order, they could scarcely contain themselves. Indeed, every discussion of the topic turned into a contest over who could most strenuously denounce the anti-busing groups. I was no fan of those groups—for example, I was disgusted by the way ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) copied the tactics of the civil rights movement while carrying picket signs saying “NIGGERS SUCK.” But I was repelled by my peers’ flamboyant loathing. And as for the radicals still active in Boston and Cambridge, they had long since gone off the deep end: Maoists and anti-Maoists squabbling over whether to mount an armed invasion of South Boston. (I’m not making this up.)
Yet neither was there refuge in the mainstream. The Boston Globe insisted on treating court-ordered busing as a public works project similar to cleaning up the Harbor, duly voted upon by a majority of citizens and guaranteed to create a more pleasant and healthful environment for future generations. Given the obvious class dimension of the conflict, this bland managerial optimism struck me as the height of hypocrisy. In this respect, if not others, I empathized with the angry working-class whites whose expressed political will was being circumvented by an unaffected, hypocritical elite.
I also doubted whether the educational problems of the poor were best addressed by starting a race war. The slogan “racial balance” stuck in my craw every time I walked into Rindge Tech: there was plenty of racial balance there, but what difference did it make? I did not buy the proposition that black children could not learn unless they went to school with whites. On the contrary, my Sidetrack experience had made me sympathize with, if not fully support, the black separatist impulse to educate black children in a setting that keeps the mostly hostile, sometimes patronizing white world at a distance.
My friend Morris acknowledged these anti-busing points but insisted that the issue was political. The schools had to be integrated, he said, not for integration’s sake but to force the Boston School Committee to equalize resources. “Green follows white” was his motto, and in Boston there was plenty of evidence to back it up. The system was one of patent inequality, clearly evident in the conditions we had seen in the Lewis Middle School. A recipient of federal funds under Title I, the Lewis School that has served as a partner in Sidetrack was better off than most of the predominantly black schools in Boston. But that wasn’t saying much.
All of this left me pro-busing, but not for the usual reasons. If the court order was basically a bludgeon to crush the power of the school committee, then perhaps the federal court should call it by its right name and get the crushing over with? The only white person I could share this blunt opinion with was my new boyfriend Peter. I had met Peter through my Philadelphia friend Diane, and like her, he was from a blue-collar background. And while he was “political” in the sense of having protested the Vietnam War, worked with a Catholic youth group in rural Mexico, and done community organizing in Dorchester, he was not “political” in the sense of force-feeding his radical opinions to every human being he met. It is hard to convey how refreshing this was.
Peter lived in a group house in Cambridge, and one of his housemates was a recent graduate of Haverford, pursuing a joint degree in law and education at Harvard. Marc was keenly interested in the busing issue, but as I soon discovered, his chief concern was the narrowly legalistic one of whether city officials would in fact enforce “the law of the land.” I tried to engage Marc on what I saw as the larger political questions, but our conversations, while initially good-natured and leavened by Peter’s friendly ribbing of Marc as a bookworm lacking real-life experience, soon became tense. Marc’s big project at the time was drafting a “Bill of Rights for Public School Students” at the Harvard Center for Law and Education (where the busing litigation was also underway).
One evening while having dinner with Peter and his housemates, I asked Marc how he expected such a measure to get through the myriad of legislatures governing the nation’s public schools. He replied that it would not go through the legislatures, it would go through the courts. Then he explained that, in his view, the resulting policy would be implemented by placing a legal advocate in every school to litigate student complaints. I had consumed a fair amount of wine at that point, and at this prospect I felt a subversive ripple of mirth. A lawyer in every principal’s office? Envisioning how this scenario would play out in the Achievement School, I commented sarcastically how grateful my fellow teachers and I would be to have every rowdy kid and his brother represented by counsel.
Ignoring my sarcasm, Marc proceeded to make it clear that he was not about to compromise lofty principle for something as mundane as school discipline. From there the conversation degenerated. The more elevated Marc’s defense of my students’ constitutional rights, the more deliberately outrageous my assessment of their character—until I heard myself, say, in the deadpan absurdist style I had picked up from other teachers in Rindge, “Look, Marc. Here’s what you don’t realize. The only way to keep the little buggers in line is with a baseball bat!”
Peter laughed. His housemates did not. And it came to me in a flash: I was not a racist, but neither was I a guilty white liberal, much less the type of aggressive anti-racist that today is called “woke.” What I was, had no name. It still doesn’t. But in today’s insanely polarized environment, perhaps we should give it one.