Self-Segregation, School Pride, Classism: Sharing Your Memories of Busing

Busing is back in the news.

Busing students to integrate schools, some argue, is an effective tool in closing the achievement gap and building understanding across lines of race and class. And yet, many consider the policy a failure.

Race/Related recently asked readers to share their memories of busing. Hundreds of you responded. With the help of our intern, Hanah Jun, we sifted through those responses. Unsurprisingly, complicated feelings abound.

Natchitoches Central High School (Natchitoches, La.)

Joe Weinmunson grew up in rural Louisiana in an area where a busing decree was enforced in the 1980s. Mr. Weinmunson, who is white, wrote that busing “was one of the best things that could have happened for me.”

Mr. Weinmunson attended Natchitoches Central High School from 1983 to 1987. “Each community had its own small K through 12 school. I was a white city boy who moved to the country to help care for my aging grandparents and their land. My school did nothing to dispel the worst concepts of poor, rural whites: insular, conservative, friendly enough as long as you were one of them.”

One year later, he was glad when he started to attend more integrated schools, “especially when I went to the big parish high school with a great band program,” he wrote. “I spent far more time on the school bus than I ever wanted to, but the people and experiences I was exposed to were worth the dreary rides.”

Overbrook High School (West Philadelphia, Pa.)

Frederick Douglass Alcorn, is a 70-year-old veteran who lives in Renton, Wash. He wrote that he went to Overbrook High School from 1963 to 1966. The experience “did very little to advance the intention of integration,” wrote Mr. Alcorn, who is African-American. “The curriculum was Eurocentric and patriotic to an unexplained history of enslavement and conquest.”

Students self-segregated outside of the classroom, except for in sports, he added. They were also academically tracked to different floors of the school “which quietly promoted degrees of classism among black students.” The teachers were primarily white, and those students who were not considered college-bound were taught a curriculum that did not prepare them to go to college.

Mr. Alcorn wrote that he did not study geometry in his math class. He had been assigned to special education in elementary school because of his black English and southern accent. That decision “has impacted me until this day,” he wrote.

George Washington High School (Denver)

Peter Hornbein described the impact that busing had on his life as “profound.” He wrote: “I found and made friends from different races and backgrounds; yet I also observed acts of racism and nativism.”

The racism he witnessed was both covert and overt, but busing “opened my eyes to the impact of systemic racism,” added Mr. Hornbein, who is white and went to George Washington High School from 1968 to 1971.

Mr. Hornbein remembers a friend from elementary school who identified as Chicana. She “put me in my place in seventh grade when I boasted about how I was a third-generation Coloradan,” he wrote. “She noted that her family had been in Colorado since the time when Colorado was part of Mexico.” That same friend, he added, was taunted by other Chicano and Latin students who were bused in from other schools and who spoke Spanish when she did not.

“Through my interactions with my friends of color, I came to understand that, although we Jews had suffered because of racism, nativism, and anti-Semitism, we had become white,” Mr. Hornbein wrote. “We served an economic purpose in this country, but always had the ‘promise’ of assimilation. Other populations of color never had and still do not have the promise of assimilation; they are and will continue to be oppressed.”

Smith Elementary School (Denver)

Traci Hailpern, 47, attended Smith Elementary School from 1977 to 1980. She was a minority in her school, but not in the way one might think. For Ms. Hailpern, who is white, busing changed the way she saw the world. Here’s what she had to say:

“Despite the prevalence of nearby schools in my Denver neighborhood, I was bused across town for first through third grades. I remember overhearing my father complaining about this, but not understanding why. All I knew was that I loved my teachers and made a lot of new friends.

“It wasn’t until high school when I fully understood that I was a minority in my high school, and that’s what my father was so upset about. By this time, I was so fiercely loyal to the diverse set of friends I’d known since I was 6, that I found myself on defense, often arguing with my father about his misguided opinions. These racially-charged debates continued throughout my adult life until he passed, but I can’t help but think I made a difference in helping him see the world through the eyes of his blond-haired, blue-eyed minority daughter.

“Busing and attending desegregated schools fundamentally changed the way I view an unjust world, my privileged place in it, and my relationship to those who lack the empathy to see themselves as a minority.”

Wynne High School (Wynne, Ark.)

Anthony Hicks lives in Memphis and went to an all-black school in the early 1970s, when busing was taking hold across the country. The teachers there “were uniquely vested in our success because they knew the challenges that lay ahead for black children,” Mr. Hicks wrote. “Many people may think black schools were substandard. They were not.”

Mr. Hicks, who is African-American, added that alumni from black schools gather regularly for reunions to honor their school history and experience. “It is an amazing thing to be part of, to be compelled to honor school traditions more than 40 years after court-ordered busing, to understand if the majority of your education was formalized in black schools, black neighborhoods, networks, you were part of a village, a special place and time, where busing certainly was impactful, but in more fundamental ways, tangential to our overall educational experience,” he wrote.

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