Leavitt: The wheels on the bus roll over Joe Biden

By Irv Leavitt

Joe Biden

When Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are in the same room, the one who’s most old-fashioned is not necessarily 77-year-old Biden.

Anyone who wants to go back to the days before we knew that busing was a very weird way to try to achieve racial integration is probably more than a little old-fashioned. They may also be disingenuous.

Biden has been disingenuous too. He said that he has always been fine with voluntary busing, as well as forced busing, if it’s in a place where school boundary lines were proven to have been drawn up to preserve segregation. The truth is, if there’s a busing plan afoot, there was probably intentional segregation, whether it can be proven or not.

In 1973, when Biden went to the Senate, Harris was 9 years old and riding out of her neighborhood to a mostly white-attended Berkeley, California, school. A Gallup poll indicated then that only 5 percent of Americans of all races considered busing the best way to desegregate schools. Nine percent of blacks felt that way.

Blacks, in general, thought that, instead of busing, the schools should be made equal for everybody, and everybody should live where they wanted, even if that wasn’t a quick fix. So did a lot of the whites.

But the whites, more than the blacks, had a different reason to oppose busing, and it wasn’t always racism.

Their problem was that they had intentionally bought a house, or rented an apartment, where the schools were good. Now somebody was going to send their kids to a bad school.

They suspected that the new school would likely be one which not only provided a substandard education, but which would put their children in an environment likely to encourage negative behavior. And it would be a school where they, the parents, had no clout.

Lots of people used to think busing might be the way to go. They included Martin Luther King, Jr. They included me. We were very likely wrong.

Some parents were unopposed to busing of their children for unexpected reasons. My parents, perversely, moved themselves and their children from neighborhood to neighborhood, and each successive school was a little worse than the one before.

We discussed how we felt about busing when it came up. I was all for being bused to a school in a black neighborhood. I figured it would be an adventure. Maybe a step up.

I had a similar attitude when the Marine recruiter came by. I thought Vietnam was an experience I shouldn’t let slip away.

Both questionable opportunities didn’t pan out. And my attitude was extremely rare, even though my parents approved. That was odd. In general, who wants their kid’s world turned upside down?

Harris, the daughter of a scientist mother and a Stanford professor dad, was a smart kid. Her parents probably had confidence that if she were thrown into the pool of a more smarty-pants Berkeley school, she would likely swim, not sink.

Not all parents would feel that way about their kids. It may not always be a good idea for kids who have been deprived of a solid education to be whisked to a new, perhaps hostile, school where the standards are higher.

In the early 1990s, I reported on a Wheeling school district which had a chunk of Buffalo Grove in it. When one side of the district got too populated, the boundaries between schools needed shifting. I was surprised when a large cadre of parents balked at their kids being switched to a higher-rated school.

They said that they didn’t want their kids to lose friends, but I wondered if that was really the case, because the protesting parents were almost all Christian, and many of the kids in the new school were Jewish. I had seen that sort of thing before.

It took a while to suss out the real problem.

The reason, it seemed, was that the parents were afraid that their kids wouldn’t measure up scholastically alongside the “more competitive” students in the new school, and they worried it would cause them to have unhappy childhoods.

I know it sounds odd. But later, I covered a different district where both Christians and Jews didn’t want their kids forced into a new school. It turned out that this time, parents were wary of the grinding prowess of Asians. They feared the Tiger Moms.

I don’t know how everything turned out for all those parents and their kids. But there’s one truth that both cases demonstrate:  You can’t tell people how to feel.

Biden, like a lot of us, started out a fan of mandatory busing. He changed his mind, not because of the influence of segregationist senators, but because his Delaware constituents told him it didn’t make sense for them.

I think Biden meant it years ago when he said that mandatory busing was an “asinine concept.” I think he still thinks so. I don’t think he’s the kind of person who likes to say something like that more than once in a lifetime, and certainly not on national television, to a nice lady, who seemed to be saying, in a quavering voice, that busing had made her life better.

Busing was one of several government initiatives that, together, put the fear of God into some people who wouldn’t let their neighborhoods integrate. It showed that government was serious, and that was a good thing.

But for some people in the South, the real segregationists, busing was a “dog whistle,” and the last straw. Before Biden and a few others could stall it, it birthed the modern Republican Party.

Without busing, Richard Nixon might not have been able to initiate the Southern Strategy that gave racists the power to control American politics. And for what?

Busing, at least temporarily, desegregated some schools. I think it would be a stretch to say it desegregated people.