Kamala Harris’ takedown of Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden over his past opposition to busing — the euphemistic name for America’s halfhearted attempts, in the 1970s and ’80s, to desegregate public schools — was undeniably compelling political theater. In the weeks since, Harris has risen in the polls, while Biden has struggled to contain the damage.
Less discussed in this scuffle is the fact that few politicians actually support court-ordered busing today — not even the California senator who later qualified her position by saying that busing should be considered but not mandated. The consensus opinion, it seems, even from those who benefited personally from busing like Harris, is that the policy had largely failed and is overwhelmingly unpopular.
That’s not always true. I know. I attended public schools in Louisville, Kentucky, from 1993 to 2006 and earned my education in classrooms that were among the most integrated in the nation.
That wasn’t an accident or a product of the “voluntary” desegregation programs the former vice president said he supported. Louisville was the first major metropolitan area to implement a court-ordered busing plan to desegregate its city and county schools all at once, and in the four decades since the federal government first told Louisville to integrate its schools, the city has done so with an unrivaled commitment. Its desegregation efforts eventually became broadly popular among students, teachers, administrators and parents, white and black alike, and Louisville has kept at them, even as many other cities and federal policymakers — many current Democratic presidential candidates included — have abandoned the cause.
If you really want to understand the fight over desegregating public schools, you should take a look at the place that’s still committed to doing it.
Desegregation wasn’t popular when it arrived in Louisville. Forty-four years ago, a federal judge ruled that the city had failed to comply with Brown v. Board of Education ― the landmark 1954 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that separate-but-equal schooling violated the Constitution ― and ordered it to desegregate its schools. The ruling forced the merger of city and county schools into a single district, called Jefferson County Public Schools, and instituted racial quotas for student populations.
Six weeks later, on the second day of the school year, thousands of angry white students walked out of their classrooms and rioted. They torched school buses and chucked rocks at the police, who had been dispatched to help enforce the court ruling. Protests took place especially in the south end of the city, where largely white, working-class schools took in black students, some of them for the first time.
It was a typical scene for 1975, in the midst of a national effort, led by the U.S. Department of Education, the Supreme Court and the federal courts below it, to desegregate America’s schools.
Images like those from Louisville remain seared in the national conscience when it comes to those debates and help inform why so many seem to regard “busing” as a cosmic and total failure of American policymaking.
But it’s what happened next, in the weeks and years and decades after those protests died down, that should inform those debates instead.
By the end of the first week, the majority of residents in Louisville seemed “overwhelmingly to be accepting, quietly if grudgingly, the busing of 11,300 black students from the city to the suburbs and of 11,300 white students — out of a total of 118,000 students of both races — in the opposite direction,” The New York Times reported at the time.
Eventually, the National Guardsmen who had tried to help ensure smooth implementation of the busing program moved on to other causes, and, although some white Louisvillians fled the public school system for the surrounding counties or enrolled their children in all-white parochial and private schools, the city largely moved ahead with the busing program.
By the time I enrolled in kindergarten, in the fall of 1993, a program that had once been controversial enough to inspire a visit from the KKK had become as fundamental an aspect of Louisville education as textbooks and whiteboards. I was a mere generation removed from the busing fight ― my mother began her senior year at Westport High, the school that was featured in The New York Times story about Louisville, the year busing began. But when I started school, the ideal behind the district’s desegregation efforts ― that white and black kids benefited from going to school together ― enjoyed broader popular support across the city, from political stakeholders and black and white parents alike.
My experience is not a perfect rebuttal to the arguments that busing skeptics make, perhaps, as I wasn’t sent across the city to a school in a mostly black neighborhood. Rather, I attended one of Louisville’s best schools, but it too was subject to racial quotas, and enrollment was based on a lottery system meant, in large part, to maintain racial balance. (The student body at my alma mater is now roughly 34% black and 40% non-white overall, according to ProPublica.)
And that experience still helps explain the program’s success and why Louisville has continued its efforts to desegregate even without the federal oversight that once compelled it to.
My trips to middle and high school included a stop at a bus compound at another school; arriving on time for the 7:40 morning bell meant boarding a bus a few minutes before 6:30 a.m. Anecdotal skepticism of hourlong, cross-county bus rides provides some of the most potent ― if often misguided and dishonest ― ammunition for forced integration critics, but what they see as a problem, I saw as a feature: The bus ride was a valuable piece of my education, a place to make friends and bond with classmates and kids from other schools outside the confines of a more rigid classroom environment.
That paled in comparison to my experience in school, though: Louisville’s aggressive desegregation efforts meant that I was exposed to an environment that didn’t exist in my corner of southeastern Jefferson County.
In my neighborhood, at Little League games, at the pool or anywhere else, almost everyone I knew was white. My school, by contrast, looked more like Louisville itself: Roughly 40% of students in my graduating class were racial or ethnic minorities ― most of them were black. Our student body included rich kids from the exclusively white neighborhoods in the east end, students from the almost entirely black neighborhoods of West Louisville, and those of us from the blue-collar suburbs of the south and southeastern parts of the county. Inside those walls, we became classmates, friends, teammates, girlfriends and boyfriends, kids who were exposed to and able to learn from the things that made us different, and those that made us the same, too.
Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott, who is black and graduated from high school just a few years before me, left downtown Louisville and the Beecher Terrace housing project to attend duPont Manual High School, one of Louisville’s best schools.
“I was traveling farther than many white students,” Scott told me last year when I asked about her experience with busing. “But it was worth it to me.”
When the national political mood was becoming inhospitable to school desegregation plans…in Louisville and Jefferson County a biracial integrationist coalition and eventually the school board itself fought to protect diversity in the local schools.Tracy K’Meyer, University of Louisville history professor
Critiques of desegregation policies often focus on their effects on academic achievement, and on that front, districts like JCPS have acquitted themselves well: “The peak years of desegregation” saw “mixed test score results but a positive trend toward higher African American student achievement,” as well as “long-term academic and professional gains for African American adults who had attended racially mixed schools,” one review of school desegregation studies found. Other studies have suggested that students from all races make achievement gains when they attend diverse schools.
And, although racial and ethnic achievement gaps still persist, research has shown that the gulf between black and white students is smaller in integrated schools. Black and Latino students who attend integrated schools also score higher on college entrance exams like the SAT, studies have suggested, and students in such schools are less likely to drop out and more likely to go to college than those who attend heavily segregated schools. White students, meanwhile, show no real change in pure educational achievement at integrated schools, so, although busing is often viewed by white parents as a zero-sum affair, the data suggests the downsides are virtually nonexistent. School integration is beneficial to black and white students who experience it alike.
The benefits, however, extend beyond achievement alone, and JCPS has never limited its evaluation of desegregation to its effects on test scores. It has also seen integration as an important tool of social integration and a crucial part of a comprehensive education, a point to which I can attest: Although the schooling I received in the classroom across 13 years in Louisville’s public schools was valuable, when it comes to the real world, what I learned on tests and in textbooks often pales in comparison to the lessons, life experiences and perspectives I gained from going to school with kids who came from backgrounds different from mine.
Teachers, administrators and white and minority parents and students in Jefferson County tend to agree, according to a 2011 survey. And more comprehensive research has found that students who attend desegregated schools “benefit from access to integrated social networks and positive interactions with students of different races and ethnicities, and are more likely to live and work in integrated environments upon reaching adulthood.” It is said to reduce racial bias and prejudice, especially among whites.
“Forced busing,” in other words, has had profound effects on the city as a whole and the people who live there, and almost immediately the Louisvillians who’d experienced it under the first iteration of desegregation became its biggest champions ― white students who were bused were later among those who started a nonprofit group that advocated for school integration.
Which may be why Louisville hasn’t given up on school desegregation efforts even when the federal government has given it a chance to.
In the 1980s and then again in the 1990s, Jefferson County Public Schools, believing it had satisfied the federal requirements, attempted to make major changes to its desegregation policies in ways that many in the community feared would result in the re-segregation of its schools. But each attempt was met instead by broad and racially diverse coalitions of activists and organizations who “stood up for preserving integration and diversity in the schools,” as University of Louisville history professor Tracy E. K’Meyer has observed. “As a result, the school board over time altered but did not end the busing plan.”
So, during a period “when the national political mood was becoming inhospitable to school desegregation plans,” K’Meyer wrote in her book about desegregation in the city, “in Louisville and Jefferson County a biracial integrationist coalition and eventually the school board itself fought to protect diversity in the local schools.”
And instead of dramatic overhauls, JCPS constantly tweaked its approach to desegregation, giving parents slightly more choice in where their children went to school, attempting to reduce the inequitable burden busing placed on black students, reintegrating some aspects of neighborhood schooling and implementing magnet programs across the city to make schools more attractive — all while maintaining desegregation as an overarching goal of how it assigned students to various schools.
Then, in 2007, the year after I graduated from high school, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the quota-based busing plan Jefferson County Public Schools had used to desegregate, giving forced integration skeptics yet another opening and the district an out. For the last decade, conservatives and well-funded education “reform” groups have pushed various policies that, whether by design or by accident, have rolled back a half-century of progress across the country, and today, many of the nation’s public school districts are as segregated ― and in some cases even more segregated ― than they were when Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in 1954.
But Louisville and JCPS have remained committed to desegregation. School officials there responded to the Supreme Court decision by implementing a new student assignment plan meant to comply with the law but achieve the same ends: Instead of relying solely on race, it incorporated socio-economic and poverty statistics into its plans, too.
It was, by and large, successful, and that persistence has earned Louisville plaudits as “the city that believed in desegregation” and made Jefferson County Public Schools, as Penn State education researcher Erica Frankenberg told me last year, “a real national model for commitment” to integration.
Despite the protests that occurred in the immediate aftermath of busing’s implementation, it seems that forced integration fostered support among Louisvillians for it ― especially as a generation that went to integrated schools became parents who wanted their children to learn in integrated spaces, too.
In 1975, as many as 90% of local residents ― and 98% of white parents ― opposed the plan. A 2011 poll, however, found that 89% of parents who had children in Jefferson County Public Schools supported desegregation in theory, and surveys of students themselves found broad support as well. The same survey suggested that residents’ commitment to desegregation was more than philosophical, as nearly half of white parents said they’d support desegregation policies even if it meant their own child had to cross neighborhoods to attend school.
It’s possible such polls overstate the popularity of specific desegregation policies, but Louisvillians have consistently shown support for the city’s actual plans at the ballot box: School board candidates who have run against the district’s student-assignment plan have faced overwhelming defeats even in the wake of the 2007 Supreme Court ruling, according to The Atlantic.
In the years since, opaque organizations with nondescript names have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into school board races to no avail. Two years ago, a Republican-backed “neighborhood schools plan” that would have effectively ended Jefferson County’s desegregation efforts stalled amid vocal opposition. And last year, a proposed state takeover of JCPS that threatened the district’s aggressive desegregation efforts drew widespread opposition in Louisville, in part because locals saw it as an effort to “effectively re-segregate our schools,” as Chris Brady, a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education, told me at the time.
That’s not to say Jefferson County is perfect or that it doesn’t need to make substantial progress to achieve equality and improve its schools. Too many of its students, especially those in black neighborhoods, still attend schools with high concentrations of poverty, and its low-income schools ― which are largely located in the overwhelmingly black neighborhoods west of the city ― remain far behind in terms of equity and achievement. Its efforts at desegregation might not be ambitious enough, in practical or idealistic terms. And inside school, white kids like me were and still are more likely to wind up in Advanced Placement classes, meaning there were still pockets of segregation even in a broadly desegregated space ― a problem many integrated schools haven’t adequately addressed. Students of color are more likely to be suspended. And, though most black Louisvillians support desegregation efforts, there has long been concern that the district’s efforts still place an unequal burden on black children. The list goes on.
A survey JCPS conducted last year suggested that the overall plan isn’t popular: Just 20% of Louisville parents believe the current method of assigning children to schools is working, and the numbers are even worse among black parents. Just 40% of white Louisvillians, meanwhile, expressed “high agreement” with the idea that the district’s guidelines should “ensure diversity” among its student bodies. But dig deeper, and the chief concern with the plan is its ability to get children into quality schools ― a broader problem JCPS needs to address ― rather than its focus on desegregation. Among students, parents and Louisvillians generally, the survey found that less than 10% disagreed with “using enrollment guidelines to ensure that students learn alongside peers from races and backgrounds other than their own.”
School officials in Jefferson County have, at least publicly, taken those shortcomings seriously, launching new policies aimed at addressing existing iniquities. And amid threats of a state takeover last year, they promised to re-evaluate, and possibly overhaul, its current processes for assigning students to schools ― a move that will keep the reform process in the hands of local officials who see desegregation as a priority. And whatever changes occur, it seems clear, a half-century after the federal government forced it to start desegregating its schools through busing, that Louisville remains committed to building on that foundation and keeping its schools from re-segregating.
There, at least, the question is one of how rather than if. But how Jefferson County reached that point still matters historically.
“I think of busing as being in the toolbox of what is available and what can be used for the goal of desegregating America’s schools,” Harris said days after the debate in what some viewed as an effort to walk back her criticism of Biden. “I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district.”
Busing was in the toolbox in Louisville. But only because the federal government put it there.