It’s not about the bus

Six ways to write smarter stories about busing, integration, and racial equality.

Despite what you’ve heard, busing is not controversial.

My wife, born in South Carolina in 1972, was bused to school from her rural community to the county’s capital. Her most pressing problem on the ride was handsy boys and gossipy girls.

I didn’t ride the bus. The elementary school was just across the street from my house, the middle school just around the block, and high school extracurricular activities meant I needed to drive myself or catch a ride with equally busy friends.

But my kids, like more than 25 million other students, are bused to school. Sometimes my kids remain on the bus for up to 45 minutes traveling to a school less than 3 miles away. But I hear few complaints, except when my daughter has to transport her cello – she says it’s too bulky and doesn’t fit snugly on her seat – or my son wants to ride home in his girlfriend’s car instead.

Why the annoyingly innocuous description of a contentious issue that has generated countless headlines since former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris clashed on the Democratic presidential debate stage two weeks ago?

It’s important for journalists to cleanse the palate before diving into complex issues of race. It’s often the only way to ensure that the resulting reporting and writing will begin from a place of neutrality instead of inadvertently reinforcing popular racial rhetoric that obscures more than illuminates. That’s why during the anti-bias training workshops I lead, I don’t dive directly into specific racial issues. I initially show how seemingly benign and common brain processes can lead us astray if we aren’t careful and steps we must take to not be fooled by our own eyes.

The past two weeks of school integration coverage was kicked off by the Harris-Biden confrontation at the Democratic debate in Miami (above).

Here are some other things to keep in mind when reporting on busing, school integration, and efforts to improve racial equality in schools.

Lesson #1: Avoid the “busing” term as much as possible, or at least know what it means.

It’s vital that education reporters not get caught up in word and political games. How we frame the issue today is just as important today as it was four decades ago, because it sets the table for what’s possible – and right – for students still struggling.

Talk of “busing” makes it more difficult to remind our readers the various ways racial equity efforts have succeeded, and where, when those involved commit to it. “Busing” convinces journalists to begin our inquiries in the wrong place, with a focus on a means of transportation – as though the fight was between those who love long yellow vehicles and those afraid of an army of scary buses traipsing through their peaceful neighborhoods.

A better frame for what you’re writing about: “efforts to achieve racial equity in schools.”

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Several news outlets including the LA Times and New York Times revisited the experiences of districts including Berkeley with school integration efforts during the 1970s.

Lesson #2: Know your history — and be sure to share it with your readers.

Busing – real busing, not the rhetorical sleight of hand “busing” used to obscure anti-integration efforts – began in the 1920s, without incident. It allowed us to transition from the rural, one-room schoolhouses to larger, more comprehensive schools. That use of school buses was never a controversial issue,” according to Matthew Delmont, a Dartmouth University history professor.

In other settings, white parents and administrators used busing to maintain segregated schools. Redlining, zoning laws, and even modern-day lending practices have helped stymie desegregation efforts. And seemingly non-education related factors, such as how banks target black borrowers for the worst loan terms, also affect housing patterns and attendance zones.

It’s never been one thing – in the 1970s or today – that made desegregation efforts so difficult.

The Washington Post’s coverage has emphasized the seeming unpopularity of bus-based school integration efforts, despite their benefits for students.

Lesson #3: Don’t confuse the means (buses, school integration, eliminating gifted and talented tracks) with the goal (racial equality in schools).

It’s also important to keep in mind that integration was not the ultimate goal of Brown v. Board of Education; it was to ensure that black and other vulnerable kids would have a chance at a good education. Journalists trying to make sense of this must understand that buses and integration were only tools, so opposing those things meant opposing equal education for black students.

That’s the cold, hard reality not many want to admit. It cuts across political and regional lines, as white parents in the North and South and in both major political parties participated in the opposition, even though they all didn’t literally stand in the schoolhouse door to prevent integration like George Wallace. (Busing, like every other tool, was imperfect, as the LA Times’ Sandy Banks has reminded us.) We must not forget that these federal mandates were issued because a couple of decades had passed and racial equity in education was still not a reality.

And, despite drawbacks and massive resistance, efforts to use integration to improve educational access to black students worked and worked well — until those efforts were curtailed, New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones found in her ground-breaking ProPublica series.

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A handful of stories like this New York Times piece have attempted to distinguish between transportation-based school integration efforts and other approaches to addressing racial inequality in schools.

Lesson #4: Focus on educated Northern whites rather than poor Southern whites.

It’s easy to get focused on the images and descriptions of Southern opposition to court-ordered desegregation mandates, but doing so leaves reporters and their readers off the hook. The most perplexing part of the opposition to integration came (and comes) from white people who, in theory at least, would not mind seeing black children receive a quality formal education – as long as it would not disturb their own lives.

It’s this group that seems to be tripping up journalists the most and is the one Biden was speaking for. It’s likely because that group still exists, according to this Gallup poll, and voices its concerns any time efforts to further integrate schools begin to gain traction.

The uncomfortable truth is that the non-racist members of that group have one foot in the white segregationist camp – unintentional or not – but don’t want anyone to notice, which is why they are fond of terms such as “busing” or “lowering standards” or “I’m only fighting for what’s best for my child.”

That’s why Biden insisted he was only against federally mandated busing, even though his language in a 1975 interview made it clear that integration was also in his crosshairs: “The real problem with busing,” Biden said, was that “you take people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school … and you’re going to fill them with hatred.”

That’s why it was disheartening to see The Associated Press recently flatten this complex issue into whether Harris flip-flopped after her debate performance. It included little of the complexity laid out above. Neither did it consider the differences between the 1970s and 2019.

This Washington Post story suggests that the debate over school integration will continue to challenge districts whether or not the issue remains prominent in the 2020 primary campaign process. 

Lesson #5: Remind readers that there are several routes to racial equality in schools besides transportation-related ones.

It’s easy to spend an entire story focused on this one hot-button method of trying to achieve racial equality in schools, but doing so is a mistake and a trap. As Dana Goldstein of The New York Times pointed out on Twitter, there are a variety of tools beyond “forced busing” that can and are being used to achieve integration today. We can’t afford to shorthand a subject so important, so complex.

As Halley Potter for the Century Foundation explained in a recent column, gerrymandered school attendance zones are one of many ways integration and education equity efforts were opposed, often increasing segregation, she noted. Controlled choice programs allow families to rank their school preferences, and then, based on those preferences and an algorithm to ensure diversity, assign students to each school.

Lesson #6: Be sure to depict the experiences and needs of communities of color.            

The New York Times interviewed several of Harris’s former classmates to discuss the particulars of integration efforts. That’s key. We must not forget the voices of those who were thrust into the middle of this as kids – then and now.

For too long, the media has emphasized the wants and complaints of white parents and administrators and politicians, while ignoring or downplaying the effect integration, and opposition to it, has on students who just want a better education.

That New York Times piece also includes a look at the imperfections and successes of racial equity in education efforts, reminds readers that localities could have chosen to prioritize the civil rights for all students, and points out the role broader societal injustices, like redlining in housing policies, played, and still plays, in racial inequities in schools.

Journalists must know this and make sure that information shows up in their stories about race and education and “busing.” Our job is to inform, not inflame baseless political passions.

But we can’t do so if we are distracted or blinded by overused, underexamined racial rhetoric.

Previous columns from Issac Bailey:

Why education reporters need antibias training

Previous columns from The Grade about media coverage of school integration issues:

New documentary highlights the need to deepen school integration coverage

Race and reporting: Why more journalists need to take us inside schools (Josh Starr)

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Beyoncé of journalism


Issac Bailey is a veteran journalist based in South Carolina, a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow, Davidson College Batten Professor and author of "My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South." Follow him on Twitter at @ijbailey

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