Wednesday, October 13, 1999

Court's Busing Order is the Wong Stop

WHEN I TAUGHT English at the University of North Carolina in the 1980s, I enrolled my daughter in a private school in Charlotte that offered her a scholarship. It was not long before I learned that the academic tradition of private schools there was not the time-honored one of the Northeast. Their establishment was linked to a 1969 court ruling, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1971, that attempted to achieve the integration of two separate but unequal public school systems. One of them was for blacks and one for whites. These schools dated back to the start of the first court-ordered busing.

So, how could a Federal District Court judge recenty rule that busing was no longer necessary in Charlotte because "all vestiges of past discrimination" have disappeared? Last month Judge Robert D. Potter said that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district had complied with the original decision of the Supreme Court. But what the initial 1969 Federal District Court ruling actually did was prompt a mass exodus from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system into newly established private schools like the one my daughter was enrolled in.

And it prompted the vehement objections of those who could not afford to opt out and did not want their children bused to schools in black neighborhoods. As one of my daughter's private school classmates asserted, "My mother would never let me go to school with them. "

My daughter was not happy in her "elite" school. Being accustomed to the diversity that characterized New York City, she felt out of place in a school that was almost all white and affluent. It was not long before she moved on.

I must say that I, too, felt somewhat of an outsider in a city where old habits died hard and residential segregation and racial discrimination were rampant. "What are you doing here? Why aren't you with your people?" one of my neighbors even asked me, perplexed by my New York City and my Eastern European origins.)

Though the city's booming bank business may have had a few black employees, the races did not mix socially. The scenario was the same at the college where I taught; the student population was homogeneous - except for the occasional token black basketball player. Blacks had their own state colleges. In short, the Charlotte I experienced was a place where Jim Crow was still very much alive.

Clearly, Judge Robert D. Potter merely caved in to what had always been the status quo in Charlotte. Not surprisingly, his decision came in the wake of a lawsuit by white parents who contended that Charlotte's educational policies discriminate against whites and objected because their children were not able to go to a neighborhood school.

And, amazingly, the residential segregation that persists in Charlotte, he concluded, was not a school system's responsibility to rectify.

Black educators certainly did not agree with this decision. School board officials said they needed more time because the school system had not done all it could to eliminate disparities between the black and white neighborhood schools. In response to thenobjections, the judge found it "bizarre" that the school board took the position that busing had not achieved its goals. "Now it wished to use that order as a pretext to pursue race-conscious, diversity enhancing politics in perpetuity," wrote this former campaign worker for Sen. Jesse Helms, who even collected signatures on a petition against the busing plan in 1969 --as though the goals of integration and diversity were an aberration.

So, where does all this finally leave Charlotte,the first city in the country to implement busing in 1969 in order to equalize the disparity between black schools and white schools? The city, it looks like, has merely come full circle. Busing ended at the same starting point where it originated, with white children remaining in their schools and black ones in theirs.

It seems those "separate but equal" standards still apply. In this, unfortunately, Charlotte is not alone, but part of a disheartening trend. As has happened in other cities in the past five years, the same courts that imposed busing plans have dismantled them, officially declaring their school systems "desegregated."

Sadly, it looks like the legacy of busing and integration will not become that of a historic goal achieved but a strategy that has been exhausted.

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