Debate Fallout

According to MSNBC and network news, the most significant fallout of the two night Democratic debate was that Kamala Harris took on Joe Biden about bussing. Yes, commentators correctly point out, he was not as sharp as he needs to be or as he once was. Earlier in his career, he would have pinned her ears back by saying she didn’t know what she was talking about, but here he seemed to be struggling just not to give in to uhs and pauses, even to the point of saying he had run out of time to cover up the fact that he may have lost his train of thought. His voice was also weak. But on the merits of the issue, he was absolutely right. Back in the early Seventies, bussing was not a way to enforce Brown v. Board of Education but one alternative being tried out to improve the education of black children by integrating them with white children and Biden was a voice that told the simple truth: that bussing would not work as a way to integrate the schools, even if it should be used to end de jure segregation, and bussing would therefore needlessly inflame the passions of whites who were opposed to it even if whites had been perfectly willing to have blacks bussed long distances to attend schools in the previous segregated system. 

The key Supreme Court decision was Milliken v. Bradley, which declared in 1974 that Detroit could not be forced to bus kids to neighboring school districts across county lines so as to have enough places for black children in the white majority schools of the suburbs, even though county lines are creatures of the state’s creation and so should be no barrier to bussing. But that is not the only time the Supreme Court has been wrong on an issue. What the decision did show was that bussing was not the mechanism that was likely to integrate the schools, there being so much opposition to this particular mechanism.

The key point is a practical one. If your goal is to make sure that a certain number of black students will be placed in white dominant schools, then there aren’t enough white children to go around to make sure that they salt the school with what is understood to be their higher educational standards and attainments, the argument being that they have to serve as the spur to black motivation, the presumption also being that raising the standards for black students by mixing them with predominantly middle class white students will not have a detrimental effect on white achievement so long as the number of blacks integrated into those schools is below a certain tipping point number that was estimated at the time to be about twenty five percent. In New York City, for example, the number of black students in the school system was so high that no one could figure out how to move students around to achieve the desired numbers, no matter how much bussing was used within the city limits. In other words, as Joe Biden correctly claimed at the time, bussing was not a solution to the problem of residential segregation, which could be addressed by keeping realtors from “redlining” districts in which they would not sell houses to blacks, and so was a useless remedy even if it made sense in certain districts, such as Berkeley, where kids from the flats would need only short bus rides so as to be integrated into schools farther to the east and in the hills. That was Kamala Harris’s experience, but it was not generalizable. 

It is a mistake to think that a potential policy remedy like bussing should be regarded as a moral imperative that leads people to get all hot and bothered rather than a policy proposal to be looked at carefully so as to tease out its advantages and disadvantages in comparison to other policy proposals. Bussing had also been tried out in Boston and resulted in a great deal of conflict between the white mothers in South Boston who resisted bussing and the black mothers elsewhere in Boston who supported it. Ironically, even according to the models of the time, Boston bussing could not have worked because it would have meant the mixing of working class whites with working class and poor blacks, and that does not provide the leverage of middle class values that are supposed to be transferred from the white to the black population. 

There were other remedies tried at the time. Some suggested that black students were not being respected if they were treated as hostages to white student influence, and so there was a demand for more black teachers in the public schools, the supposition that black students would respond to teachers of their own race, though that wasn’t backed up by research or very workable in practice because there weren’t enough black teachers to fit the slots in black majority schools, and even if there were, would that not just be perpetuating the idea of segregated schools, which is just what we were trying to alleviate? Another alternative, suggested by James Comer, a black psychiatrist at Yale Medical School, in his book “School Power”, published in 1980. was to treat teachers as part time therapists who would help retrain the minds of black students so that they would be susceptible to education. A test program to that effect did not work. Another alternative was the idea of magnet schools such as those established in Kansas City, Missouri in 1986. These schools offered elaborate amenities as well as sufficiently enriched programs so that white kids from the suburbs would be drawn to enroll in them and so provide the leavening of white middle class students for the black student body. But they were not the draw people thought they would be. Magnet schools were dropped by Kansas City when it became clear that the test scores of students at those schools did not go up and that the gap between black and white scores persisted. Fancy amenities do not lead to a good education, however much suburban school districts continue to pour money into schools to make them attractive so that affluent parents will be attracted to their town.

So we have not made much progress on this issue, which is how to successfully integrate the schools so that black and white and Hispanic children all get a good education, and Harris flashing her anger and her wounds does not move the discussion forward, however adroit the verbal scalpel that Harris wields. But maybe she knew she was taking a cheap shot but thought that politics demanded she take Biden down. I wish the commentators knew more about these issues so that they could make useful comments. They were still unconvinced on Friday, the day after the debate, that Biden could have been in favor of school desegregation even though he was not crazy about bussing and even if he had just said that a thirty or sixty second sound bite is not enough time in which to explain his view of the issue. MSNBC commentators don’t want him to explain because they are already set against him as too old when the problem may be that he is too nuanced on the issues to please them. The same was true on the Sunday morning gabfests where only Rich Lowery of The National Review suggested that bussing was not a very good idea. Newscasters and on-air commentators, after all, are in the business of reducing all news to a sound bite and so it goes against their grain to think you need to listen to a whole argument, never mind the fact that you have fellow journalists who share their views rather than policy wonks appearing on their programs. (You would think that MSNBC could afford to hire a few policy wonks and even spend some time getting them camera ready so that they can keep their remarks tight and punchy, but apparently the network thinks journalists are quite sufficient for the job of analyzing policy, thank you.)

There are some other things to be noticed about the two nights of debate. Very little was said about foreign policy in spite of the fact that Trump is inching us close to a war with Iran. Maybe the moderators just thought that Trump always blusters and so little notice need be taken of that, but foreign crises have a way of creeping up on you and we have, as a country, gone such a long time without them, thanks to Obama, that we are not querying the candidates very deeply on their views of Russia or China or North Korea or the Middle East. There was a lot of talk about health care, but it was not very illuminating about how we would transition into Medicare for All from the present system, which is a prime issue because people don’t want to give up what they have. And there also was no depth on the wealth tax, just a lot of self-righteousness in the place of argument. And there was little talk about what I would think would be the marquee issues for Democrats: abortion, given what Southern state legislatures are up to, and the incarceration of children, which is a terrible blight on the American conscience, even if some candidates went on Friday to a detention center not far from Miami only to be turned away from going in. Go after Trump, not Biden.

So it gets down to a matter of personalities and here the rising stars of the party are three in number. Pete Buttigieg has recently weathered a storm in South Bend, where he is mayor, because a policeman shot a black resident. Mayor Pete went back there to meet the crowds. Some black women shouted at him, expressing their outrage, which they had a perfect right to do, and he stood his ground, saying that he needed an investigation to be completed to help him decide what to do about the cop who had shot the black man. When asked, on the debate stage, what he had done to integrate his police department, he admitted that he had not been able to attract more black men to the force, which is what happens in many towns and small cities. I think he showed himself to be determined, candid and grim because of the shooting and I think that improved his stature as a Presidential candidate because he showed what it took to deal with a crisis. Kamala Harris also showed herself to be a contender because she is very good at turning the knife, whether it is deserved or not. And Julian Castro showed himself to be both calm and knowledgeable about immigration issues. Those three, along with Elizabeth Warren from the previous night, all of them capable of sustained articulateness, without hemming and hawing, are the contenders who will challenge Biden. It is a shame that a President is to be chosen from people on the basis of who has been best schooled in glib delivery, but that is the way it is, and maybe Biden can do well enough to pass that test minimally well, his credentials carrying him the rest of the way. After all, he was right on bussing in that it didn’t get you anywhere in the quest to integrate schools and that reducing residential segregation might and now he gets blamed for being right. Such is politics. We will see.