Boston and Nashville: The perils of a policy of force

By Andrew Coffman-Smith

Conjuring the spectre of America’s Civil War and racial divide, US President Barack Obama in his Belfast speech Monday called for an end to sectarian division within Northern Ireland.

Despite the commitment of the Good Friday Agreement to integrated education and mixed housing, 15 years onward, only 6 % of Northern Ireland’s schoolchildren attend explicitly non-denominational “integrated” schools while almost half continue to be taught in schools where 95% or more of their pupils are of the same religion.

The sheer logistics of how to integrate, or merely “share” school buildings, classes and activities; raises many questions of how to accomplish this if Northern Ireland starts to take steps to do so.

The experiences of integrating the school children of racially-divided Boston, Massachusetts and Nashville, Tennessee; favoured destinations for Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant emigrants respectfully, each offer a glimpse of how accelerated integration can play out – and how even the best-intentioned plans can have unintended consequences.

Forcing integration

Two decades after the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 1954 “separate but equal” racially segregated education to be unconstitutional, it was clear that little progress had been made in integrating America’s public schools.

Nashville, for instance, had adopted a bare minimum, gradual plan where each grade was desegregated one year at a time starting with the 1st grade in 1957 and finishing with the 12th in 1968. It also included a transfer policy to appease white segregationists if their children were scheduled to attend a school with a black majority.

Schools remained overwhelmingly segregated as blacks and whites lived in separate neighbourhoods and attended the closest school. The pressure to integrate black and white children wasn’t just about promoting racial harmony. The big driving force for change was the inferior state of education in black schools which had long suffered as a result of unfair treatment by the statement and local governments.

In 1971, the Supreme Court made a radical ruling with profound implications for the whole integrationist movement: it ruled forced “cross-town” busing of students could be used to achieve desired racial balances in public schools. Complying with similar forced federal mandates imposed by judges, Nashville adopted busing that year and Boston followed suit three years later.

In Boston, up to 25,000 of the total 87,000 students were to be bused, ranging from a few blocks to several miles, in order to rebalance schools with 50% or more black student enrolment. In Nashville for the next 12 years, more than half of its 88,500 students were bused from the inner city to the suburbs and vice versa to create a desired 15 to 35 per cent black student enrolments in each district. Thirty-three schools from the outer rim of the county were excluded as it would be too costly for efficient busing.

White and black parents were both reluctant and many protested against sending their children, who might already live across from a school, clear across the city to attend a distant school often perceived as physically unsafe or educationally inferior. Alongside with racial tensions, both races foresaw that busing would mean the closure of some neighbourhood schools and the weakening or loss of community.

The most extreme backlash came from the working class, Irish Catholic neighbourhood of South Boston between 1975 and 1979. National Guardsmen were called in to control riots and for those three years, state troopers escorted black high school students as their buses were pelted with stones on a daily basis during their commute. The worst of the racial violence included the paralysing of a 15 year old black football player by a sniper’s bullet during a game and the beating of a white man into a permanent coma after he was dragged from his crashed car by a mob of 100 youths.

There was also a pronounced class dimension to events, with vehement resentment featuring early on among the territorial" “Townies” of the working-class white neighbourhoods against wealthier, liberal whites who were not affected by busing.

White flight

Boston’s poor whites virtually all dropped out in protest of busing in 1974 and only 13 of the 650 South Boston High juniors ordered to attend the black school of Roxbury High actually showed up. White and black students who did attend South Boston, had to enter through different doors. Already a working class neighbourhood, South Boston was devastated and the community torn asunder by forced integration. Many locals continue claim busing is the reason the neighbourhood became the highest concentration of white poverty in the US by 1994 as a generation of dropouts drifted into crime, drugs and poverty.

In both Boston and Nashville, wealthier whites chose to flee rather than fight busing and sought refuge in the increasing number of non-state funded private schools, “racially isolated” schools and suburbs outside the cities’ limits.

During the first 11 years of busing, Boston’s student population significantly dropped from 94,000 to 57,000 and its white students went from a 57% majority to just 27%. Nowhere was the failure of busing more clearly visible than the 78 schools that had to close, including Roxbury High. In comparison, during the 1970s in Nashville, black enrolment steadily remained the same while white enrolment had dropped by 35,000 from 75,000– a 46 % decrease.

To combat “white flight” in Nashville, a federal judge in 1983 ordered countywide busing (with the exception of kindergartners). The new plan, which would be in place for the next 16 years, saw inner city students bused for elementary school and grades 7 and 8; and suburban students for grades 5 and 6. Racially-balanced, higher achieving “magnet schools” were established in the most segregated inner cities and districts ordered to have the enrolment of between 18 % and 48 % black students. At the time, only a third of districts had acceptable racial quotas – helped ironically by white flight.

In Nashville, a common sight during busing was of children waiting for the school bus hours before classes started, on the same block of a school they had previously attended and bus commutes that lasted up to 45 minutes. On top of this, there was continuous rezoning of neighbourhoods that constantly moved schoolchildren each year and even separated siblings from attending the same school as this writer’s family directly witnessed.

In 1986, federal authorities ordered two largely white high schools in the outer rim of Nashville to close after they were deemed too costly to rebalance. My family’s own subdivision was in one of those school zones and, with constant rezoning, my older brother would have been sent to four different schools by 8th grade including one 20 miles away but my parents intervened. My brother instead was sent to a private Christian academy for elementary until the family moved to a neighbouring county where both of us attended public school.

Re-segregation – back to the future

In the end, busing proved too costly and inefficient; and both cities – Nashville in 2008 and Boston in 2013 – have now returned to closer, neighbourhood-zoned schools albeit with some changes. Parents now have a greater choice to where their children are sent including non-zoned “charter” schools.

A US federal district judge ruled this year that the ending of busing in Nashville is not an intentional form of “re-segregation” against poor blacks even though the rezoning does have a “segregative effect.” Even Nashville’s balanced “magnet schools” located in inner city neighbourhoods academically enticed students and whose enrolments were based on a racial lottery drawing, have since become overwhelmingly single race. Fourteen of the 17 magnet schools now reflect their neighbourhoods’ demographics.

Another factor has also come into play over the past generation: a new immigrant population which has skewed the racial-make-up in schools. While creating more ethnic diversity, the huge influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants has partially masked the failure of busing of integrating blacks and whites together in Boston and Nashville.

In total, Nashville lost 50,000 white students over a period of 40 years and middle class whites are continuing to leave. Whites, who make up 66% of the population of Metro Nashville, now only consist 33.3 % of its student population. Boston’s student population is now only 13 % white in an otherwise 47% white city and the school board has lowered its acceptable racial balance for schools from 50 % white to just 9 % white.

It’s not just in racial percentages, that the segregating impact of white flight can be seen: nearly 75% of students in both Boston and Nashville now qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. It appears that parents’ demands for quality of education has once again taken priority over integration.

If Northern Ireland ever does take any real and meaningful actions towards integration, it should remember Boston and Nashville’s experiences as cautionary tales of what could happen if integration is forced onto communities without their consent. In both cases, it took intervention by the national government to initiate integration but the backlash it provoked sadly burned many potential bridges and reinforced racial and class divisions.

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