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No Middle Ground

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In the mourning that gripped Boston last month following the passing of the city's legendary major, Kevin Hagan White, it was frequently noted that White demonstrated exemplary leadership in the weeks and months following US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity's decision to desegregate the Boston Public Schools. Having been born after the busing riots, I've always had a perverse fascination with that era; the images of extreme violence in South Boston and Charlestown in the fall of 1974 are still so lurid and so disturbing that one can't help wondering what exactly drives human beings to such behavior.

My fascination with that era, and White's decision-making during that crisis, drove me to finally read J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1985 documenting the busing crisis through the eyes of an idealistic aide to Mayor White and two families -- one from Charlestown, one from Roxbury -- caught in the crossfire of desegregation.

For years, I was advised not to read Common Ground by older Bostonians who had lived through busing. I was told that the book was too left-wing, too politically correct, too scornful of those who had a principled, non-racist opposition to busing. "Don't even bother reading it," I still remember hearing. "It's just liberal pap."

I was misinformed.

Common Ground turned out to be a heartbreaking, profoundly depressing, fully objective, brilliantly written work, a flawlessly composed history of ethnic, racial, and class tensions in Boston, a terrifying account of the immeasurable level of bigotry that existed in the city at the time. The book makes clear that Garrity's hand was forced by the Boston School Committee, which spent a decade flatly refusing to end the city's racially segregated school system. As a 2004 Boston Magazine story noted, as recently as 1971 the School Committee blew off efforts to integrate the schools voluntarily. However, Lukas also acknowledges that Garrity ultimately began to micromanage the school system:

As the School Committee continued to defy him, he was drawn into administering the system itself -- establishing school hours, hiring and firing personnel, ordering roofs repaired and hallways painted. One day he instructed South Boston High to purchase twelve MacGregor basketballs and six Acme Tornado whistles. Nor did he neglect to instruct a school that was being converted from elementary to middle grades to raise the height of its urinals.

Lukas concludes that Garrity's efforts to integrate the Boston schools did not work, and perhaps could not have worked:

... [W]hatever share of the white exodus could be directly attributed to Garrity's rulings, there could be little doubt that the goal of effective school desegregation had been substantially undercut by the steady drain of white students. By the end of 1976, blacks, Hispanics, and other 'minorities' were already a majority of the school population, and before long blacks themselves became a majority. With that 'tipping point' passed, most authorities agreed, the system would grow increasingly black year by year. More important, with middle-income parents of all races pulling their children out of the system, the remaining students increasingly came from the lowest economic and social strata of the city's population. More and more, Boston's busing program consisted of mixing the black poor with the white poor, the deprived and the deprived.

Lukas notes that White, who was widely praised for preventing Boston from breaking out in riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, tried his best to neutralize racial tensions in the aftermath of busing, but the crisis--and the images broadcast around the world of blacks being terrorized and, in one notorious 1976 case, attacked with the American flag--doomed his upward political mobility. As the great Boston Phoenix writer Peter Kadzis observes:

In 1974, White's national ambitions -- no matter how fanciful they remained -- were irrecoverably shattered when US District Court Judge [Arthur] Garrity ordered Boston to desegregate its public schools. Garrity's chosen instrument was mandated busing -- 'forced busing' in the idiom of the day.

Most Boston schools -- then as now -- were second rate. But whether the quality of education was good, bad, or indifferent, the then-elected School Committee shamefully gave schools serving African American students only a fraction of the support enjoyed by white schools. Making the situation even worse was the blatant racism of some School Committee members, who openly called blacks 'niggers' and 'monkeys.'

For three years, Boston, the home of abolition and the city where Martin Luther King Jr. received his theological training, was consumed by racial hatred and street violence.

Boston's newfound reputation for sophistication boomeranged on White. The bloody encounters, the seething anger, scotched the mayor's hopes of political transcendence. They also broke his heart.

By the late-1970s, Lukas notes, White lost interest in racial reconciliation:

Once he had failed in his initial efforts to 'broker' the busing crisis, he largely abandoned his attempts to resolve Boston's chronic racial tension. Periodically -- as in his 1979 inaugural address -- he proclaimed some new crusade on the matter, but before long it would grind to a halt for lack of leadership. When blacks complained of his vacillation, the Mayor accused them of ingratitude... By then the commitment to social change which had characterized Kevin White's early years in office had largely ebbed away. That commitment had coalesced over the issue of race in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, and it dissolved over the issue of race in the busing crisis of 1974-75. No longer very interested in such matters, the Mayor seemed increasingly obsessed with his own political survival.

Reading the book, I couldn't help noting how many of the social conflicts Lukas addresses are still with us today. The debate over the Catholic Church's influence on politics, the perception of liberal bias in the mainstream media, the belief on the part of some working class whites that the Democratic Party no longer takes their concerns seriously -- these controversies haven't gone away.

In addition, the hatred directed towards Garrity and pro-busing US Senator Edward Kennedy immediately calls to mind the invective aimed at President Obama over the past three years. In fact, one can argue that in terms of the unmitigated ugliness and caustic contempt he can provoke in his ideological adversaries, Barack Obama is the Arthur Garrity of our time.

Garrity's efforts to desegregate the Boston Public Schools failed. Perhaps those efforts were doomed to fail. Perhaps no one could make things work in that time and in that climate. However, we cannot forget this: had the Boston School Committee shown some measure of political courage in the 1960s, black and white blood would not have been shed on the streets of Boston in the 1970s.

Several months before his death, Garrity told the Boston Globe:

I've been asked and tried to answer truthfully, would I have done anything differently... Looking back to the circumstances confronting me at the time, I would not have done things any differently. I thought I did what I had to do, I did what I thought was reasonable.

After he leaves office, I can envision Obama saying the same thing about his domestic-policy decisions. I can also envision his ideological adversaries reacting with disgust.

Common ground? Oh, come on!