"VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN," demanded Kamala Harris in the climactic encounter of last Thursday's Democratic debate, "do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?"
Biden wasn't wrong. The forced busing of schoolchildren for purposes of racial desegregation was a wretched, wrongheaded policy that caused far more harm than good. As a young, liberal Democratic senator 45 years ago, Biden firmly opposed busing, and he was right to do so.
In the days following the debate, the liberal media chorus declared that of course opposition to forced busing was wrong, of course Biden had been on "the wrong side of history," and of course he should acknowledge the error of his ways. A visitor from Mars could be forgiven for assuming that racial busing had been wise and beneficial, and that no reasonable mind could deny it.
Perhaps some history is in order.
On June 21, 1974, US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity issued an order to desegregate Boston's public schools through massive crosstown busing of the city's schoolchildren. It was the first of what would add up to some 400 orders signed by Garrity over the next 11 years, and it had the staunch support of Boston's most important institutional voice of racially enlightened liberalism: The Boston Globe.
Twenty years later, the Globe's support had vanished.
"Busing has been a failure in Boston," the editorial board concluded bluntly in June 1994. "It achieved neither integration nor better schooling." Repudiating the "delusions and pretensions that drove the busing controversy," the Globe called for an end to the "obsessive, dead-end tinkering with racial proportions."
Garrity's orders had convulsed Boston and fueled the ugliest antibusing backlash in the nation. Photographer Stanley Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for The Soiling of Old Glory, a shocking photograph of a black man being assaulted by a white teenager with an American flag outside City Hall. But the damage caused by hoodlums was minimal compared to the damage inflicted on the city by the federal judge.
As scholars Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom wrote in America in Black and White, their sweeping 1997 survey of US race relations, Garrity's desegregation plan was deliberately punitive, meant to humble residents he and his advisers regarded as uneducated and bigoted. "The plan thus paired Roxbury High, in the heart of the ghetto, with South Boston High, in the toughest, most insular, working-class section of the city.... Both neighborhoods already had much more than their share of housing projects, gangs, and street violence. Adding racial friction to the mix did not seem likely to promote more tranquil race relations and a better atmosphere for learning."
No surprise, then, that busing was intensely resented. Some of that resentment manifested itself in racial epithets, riots, and the stoning of buses transporting black children. Gunshots were fired into the Globe's Dorchester newsroom. But by no means were all busing opponents racist, or white.
"Polls taken during the early days of busing show that only bare majorities of blacks favored the policy," Matthew Richer wrote in a 1998 Policy Review essay. Just days before Garrity's decision, black legislators had been pushing for more community control over the schools, not busing. By 1982, a Globe poll found that only 14 percent of black Boston parents still favored busing. The overwhelming majority preferred a free-choice plan, allowing parents to send their children to any public school in the city. In practice, that would have meant schools their kids could walk to.
Busing was disliked so intensely, wrote the Thernstroms in their 1997 volume, above all because parents resented their powerlessness "at the prospect of having their children bused to schools on the other side of town." They had been "accustomed to dealing with a school system that was democratically governed, one in which their opinions mattered. As a result of desegregation suits, basic decisions about how the schools operated were removed from officials responsive to majority opinion and put in the hands of just one person," a federal judge with no educational expertise.
All the turmoil and bitterness busing engendered might be forgivable if it had also produced success in the classroom. But it was a near-total failure. As the Globe conceded in its 20th-anniversary editorial, it achieved neither integration nor better schooling, and turned out to serve no educational purpose.
Busing made everything worse. Public school enrollment plummeted. In Boston, 78 school buildings were closed. In 1970, 62,000 white children had attended the city's public schools — 64 percent of the total. By 1994, only 11,000 white students remained. Before busing began, the average black child in Boston attended a school that was 24 percent white. By the mid-1990s, the proportion was 17 percent. Far from reducing racial isolation, busing had intensified it.
And all for the sake of a delusion — that racial composition makes a meaningful difference in student performance. What has always mattered most is the standards and culture of a school, not the color of the children in its classrooms.
Which is what Biden and other liberal opponents of busing were saying in the 1970s.
"Who the hell do we think we are," Biden fumed to a Delaware weekly in 1975, "that the only way a black [child] can learn is if they rub shoulders with my white child?"
He was right. Biden may have gotten many things wrong over the years, but busing wasn't one of them.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.