Race, Class, and the City

COMMON GROUND by J. Anthony Lukas.
Knopf , $19.95.

THE BUSES STARTED tO roll on the first day of school more than two years after a group of black parents sued the Boston School Committee, and three months after W. Arthur Garrity, a federal judge, ruled that the committee had deliberately segregated schools by race. Partly out of geographic necessity and partly out of bureaucratic arrogance, the state-formulated desegregation plan adopted by Judge Garrity called for a heavy exchange of students between black Roxbury and white ethnic South Boston. This was a plan for social catastrophe. It came on September 12, 1974, as buses carrying blacks to South Boston were met by white mobs shouting “Niggers, go home!" and pelted with beer bottles and rocks. A few days later white teenagers attacked blacks waiting at a city subway station, and racial brawls broke out in two high school cafeterias. In early October a Haitian-born maintenance man, on his way to pick up his wife from her job at a South Boston laundry, was hauled from his car by neighborhood whites and beaten with a hammer and a sawed-off hockey stick. Apparently in retaliation, the next day mobs of black teenagers stoned white motorists passing through Roxbury, pulled several from their cars, and beat them. With the city seemingly on the verge of a race war, Governor Francis W. Sargent called out the National Guard. What the press quicklv labeled “the Boston busing crisis” had begun; for at least the next six years racial violence would continue to crackle and flare in the city’s high schools.

The busing crisis forms the backdrop of Common Ground. A Pulitzer Prizewinning investigative reporter formerly with The New York Times, J. Anthony Lukas has written a book that will lose none of its pertinency as long as our cities remain so starkly divided by color and class. Lukas worked on Common Ground for more than six years, and it shows in his exacting reportage. He balances thick detail with a subtle development of themes—the tension between equality and community, for example—a willingness to venture interpretations, and a delicate skill in biographical portraiture. If Common Ground has some of the formlessness of modern cities, it has more of their variety. It is a big book, and potential readers may fear that it will tell them more than they want to know about Boston. And so it may. Still, just as novels about strikingly individual people contain glints of truth about all of our lives, so Common Ground lights up not only Boston’s particular troubles but the generic troubles of the American city— poverty racism, crime, decaying public housing, poor public schools, racial polarization, and the destruction of old neighborhoods by new money and those puissant forms of intervention the federal bulldozer and the federal writ.
LUKAN’S SUBTITLE IS A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, and his chapter-length accounts of these families are interspersed with biographies of five public figures who played leading roles in the busing crisis: Louise Day Hicks, the South Boston-born School Committee chairwoman, who began as a school reformer, became a national symbol of resistance to busing when she twice ran for mayor, and then was outdistanced by the political dynamics she had set in motion, as more-extreme opponents of busing took control of her movement; Judge Garrity, a former aide to John F. Kennedy, whom Lukas depicts as torn between fear of ostracism by his own kind and a damn-theconsequences devotion to the rule of law; the late Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, Boston’s Portuguese-born archbishop, a lonely figure in an Irish city, whose support of busing, ambiguous though it was, made him lonelier still; Thomas W. Winship, the editor of the liberal, pro-busing Boston Globe, whose part in the busing crisis is memorialized on a bumper sticker often seen in South Boston—NUKE THE GLOBE; and, finally, the largest presence in Boston’s politics through these years, Kevin H. White, the mayor of Boston from 1968 to 1983. White, who was nearly picked as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, set about positioning himself for the 1976 presidential nomination. That hope vanished the day busing began.
These five chapters are rich in insights and information (some of it recondite: Lukas gives the institutional histories of the Boston School Committee, the Archdiocese of Boston, and The Boston Globe, and by some alchemy contrives to make these fusty annals interesting). However, the compelling family histories are the center of the book. The McGoffs are a large Irish family from Charlestown, a white, working-class neighborhood of Boston; the Twymons, a black family from Roxbury and the South End; the Divers, an upper-middle-class family from the comfortable Boston suburb of Lexington who moved to the South End out of sixties idealism, in order to live in an integrated neighborhood. Like a Balzac of Boston, Lukas, over hundreds of pages, moves from one family to another as they face the varied problems that give them common ground.
His most controversial choice is the Twymons. Not that anyone could object to his portrait of Rachel Twymon. Abandoned by her husband, afflicted with lupus, Rachel is an indomitable woman, sustained by a strong Methodist faith and by a generous civic vision of whites and blacks living together in harmony and even affection. On welfare in the intervals when she is disabled by her illness, she shows an admirable tenacity as she tries to raise her six children in the image of her own righteousness. And fails, one child getting pregnant at thirteen, two other children turning to thievery, yet another child to rape.
“Why did Lukas have to pick a black family who embody everything that whites fear about poor ghetto blacks?” a friend asked me after I told her the Twymons’ story. I can only guess at the answer. Perhaps he did so to bring home the sordid realities of underclass life to a nation grown complacent about urban poverty. And perhaps it was to make the reader grasp why education is so important to families like the Twymons and why the separate but manifestly unequal Boston schools were such a blight on black hopes.
Cruelly, the newly integrated schools were no better. Bused to Charlestown High in September, 1975, in Phase II of Arthur Garrity’s desegregation plan, fifteen-year-old Cassandra Twymon was not rising in the world but falling into a kind of hell. “Throw them a banana, Tarzan,” she heard one white classmate remark on her first day of school. “Anybody smell something peculiar in here?” whispered another. Worse was to come in the months ahead.
Among the white students who watched Cassandra get off the bus that day were Kevin and Lisa McGoff. Kevin, who was then in his senior year, would avoid the vortex of the busing controversy by participating in sports; Lisa, a junior, would become a leader of the anti-busing cause and, ultimately, a fair-minded president of the class of 1977. Her growing tacit acceptance of the black students is the most hopeful portent that Lukas records—a victory of normal adolescent concerns with proms and dating over commitment to a stern politics of grievance.
His narrative of the Twymons takes Lukas back to the slave plantations of the antebellum South. Similarly, his account of the McGoffs traces their roots in Ireland and tracks their life in a nineteenth-century Boston inhospitable to the Irish. Slowly, by a widening of perspective, their story becomes that of Charlestown. A Puritan enclave in the seventeenth century, the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill in the eighteenth century, by the early twentieth century Charlestown had become an Irish Catholic ghetto. Fronted until 1972 by a clattering elevated railway that ran right down the main street, girded by an expressway built to speed suburbanites into Boston, and cut off from the rest of the city by the Charles River basin, Charlestown was a place apart. Its working-class “Townies” valued “community above achievement, solidarity over mobility.” They couldn’t abide the proximity of black children to their children, Lukas suggests, because there was so little economic and social distance between the two groups. Whether you call it prejudice or “status anxiety,” the Townies had a bad case of it.
Alice McGoff is a Townie. Widowed in her thirties, the mother of seven children, she is cut from the same moral oak as Rachel Twymon. Alice raised her children in the Charlestown publichousing project (where, in a less racially polarized time, some of her neighbors were black). By no means a racist (she voted for Kevin White, not Louise Day Hicks, in the 1967 mayoral elections), Alice McGoff through the first year of busing
grew progressively angrier at the power, wealth, and privilege arrayed against her. An unelected judge, an unresponsive senator, and uncaring suburban liberals had joined hands to wrest from her the one thing in the world over which she exercised some control: her family.
She would not allow her children to be bused. Even before the buses arrived at Charlestown High, she had joined the local anti-busing movement, participating in prayer marches and demonstrations aimed at changing the minds of Judge Garritv, Senator Kennedy, Kevin White, and Tip O’Neill—all to no avail. Tip O’Neill was Charlestown’s longtime congressman; his refusal to support a constitutional amendment banning busing was an especially hard blow. “The break with Tip severed a last, critical link with the Democratic Party,” Lukas writes, in a politically resonant sentence.
Having forced racial reform on the South in the 1960s, northern liberals like O’Neill and Kennedy (whose brother John had been O’Neill’s predecessor as Charlestown’s congressman) could hardly shrink from supporting the same cause in their own back yard a decade later. They were trapped by what John Kennedy and, through him and Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic Party had become in the 1960s, and by a judge’s decision that left them no room to maneuver politically or to devise the kind of legislative half-remedy that obscures issues of principle with deals and compromises that disgust the moralist but preserve social peace while promoting social change.
ON APRIL 9, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was buried in Atlanta, Kevin White spoke at the annual banquet of the Harvard Law Review. “The time has come,”he told the graduating lawyers, “for me after one hundred days in office, and for this nation after one hundred years, to put, as Lincoln did, the preservation of the Union above all else, the creation of a single society of white and black above all else. This is our commitment in Boston. I need your assistance. I hope there are those here among you, among the very best young lawyers America has produced, who will choose to join us in this commitment.” Colin Diver, a member of the Law Review staff, took Kevin White literally. After graduating that June he declined the offer of a lucrative job in a Washington law firm to take a minor post in the White administration. Drawn by Kevin White’s dream of a city united across racial lines, he and his wife, Joan, the director of a progressive philanthropic foundation, moved to Boston’s multiclass, multiracial urban frontier, the South End.
Lukas’s chapters on the Divers detail Colin’s growing disillusionment first with Kevin White, as the Mayor tacked toward the white backlash of the early 1970s and as his quest for higher office distracted him from his job, and then with life in the South End—because of the struggle to reclaim the local public school from a rigid school bureaucracy, because of busing (only Colins political clout kept young Brad Diver, already in an integrated neighborhood school, from being bused to Roxbury), because of rising class and racial tensions, and above all because of crime.
Every morning as Joan Diver left their renovated Victorian town house, she would wave to a vacant window, “hoping to persuade anyone who might be watching that the house was occupied.”Every evening she and Colin would join their neighbors in patrolling the nearby streets and alleys. And still the muggers came. One night, after breaking a baseball bat over the head of a fleeing street criminal, Colin suddenly saw what was happening to his family.
Nearly a decade before, he’d moved into the city to help bring racial justice to Boston. Now he was rushing out of his house to hit darkskinned people over the head. Before him on the kitchen table lay his boyhood bat, splintered beyond all further use. Some of his cherished assumptions were in smithereens as well.
The book ends with the Divers moving out of the South End to suburban Newton, leaving the city to Alice McGoff and their former neighbor, Rachel Twymon, whom they never met.
At first the Divers had supported Arthur Garrity’s decision, but gradually they began to wonder whether Garrity’s remedy—widespread cross-city busing— “hadn’t finally set back the very cause it was designed to advance.”The figures on student enrollment in the Boston public schools support these doubts. In 1972, when Garrity first began hearing the busing case, 60 percent of the school population was white. By 1976 the percentage was 44. Today it is 27. (Whites make up, as they did in 1972, more than two thirds of Boston’s population.) Over that same period total enrollment declined from 90,000 to 55,000. More blacks are in the system today than were a decade ago, but there are dramatically fewer whites to mix them with. A plan designed to desegregate the schools has helped to resegregate them.
Only those who believe that “Let justice be done though the heavens fall" is a sound formula for social policy can think such a plan a wise one or view the results of a decade of busing in Boston as a triumph of juridical liberalism. The life of the law is experience, Justice Holmes said, putting pragmatism into a sort of slogan; and experience condemns Arthur Garrity’s decision just as it supports the similar decisions of other federal judges in cities like Buffalo and Charlotte, where court-ordered busing did not lead to self-defeating white flight from the public schools. If busing succeeded in promoting integration in these cities, why did it fail in Boston, and what is the broader significance of that failure?
LUKAS DOES NOT address those questions directly, but his book provides the makings of several answers. Here then, with Lukas’s help, are three lessons of the Boston busing crisis.
First, values. Judge Garrity approached the busing case as if it were a conflict between right and wrong, the former represented by the black families who sued the School Committee because their children were receiving a segregated (and so unequal) education in the Boston schools, the latter by the white neighborhoods that would eventually defy his court order and by the committee, whose zoning and school-assignment policies had made the worst of the choices left it by the city’s segregated housing patterns. While Lukas holds no brief for the odious School Committee of the day, his perspective on the white neighborhoods that were served by the committee’s machinations is morally more complicated. For Lukas, the busing crisis was a conflict not between right and wrong but between two rights —equality and community. These values have been at odds throughout American history, he argues, and they were crystallized in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, with Lincoln arguing that the essence of democratic government was “the equality of men" and Stephen Douglas insisting that it was the primacy of “popular sovereignty”—the right of communities like Charlestown to control their own local institutions.
Morally, Lincoln’s argument is unanswerable, chiefly because the local institution Douglas wanted to protect was slavery. But is the “neighborhood school” such a clearly iniquitous institution? It is hard to think so. Community is a prickly, irrational value, all mixed up with prejudice and xenophobia. Nonetheless, it has undeniable moral dignity and, in our anomic mass society, irreplaceable social utility as an antidote to loneliness, a stay against alienation and despair. Equality, too, has great moral authority, but it may be a piece of sentimentality to suppose that conflicts between two such central values can be reconciled by appeal to a higher value that embraces them both. The moral universe is irreducible pluralistic; within it right will be in conflict with right— equality with community, liberty with equality, justice with culture—from here to eternity. That is why tragedy is a permanent feature of the human condition and why in any conflict of ultimate values the sum of good in the world is diminished.
Some such tragic perspective on the values at stake in the busing case might have led to a wiser policy. Out of deference to community mores, for example, integration could have proceeded more slowly, affecting only the lower grades at first, and allowing threatened neighborhoods to adjust to the inexorability of change. In this case justice delayed might have been justice fulfilled.
Second, the economic context. The busing crisis coincided with a severe recession; unemployment in Massachusetts was approaching 15 percent the day the buses rolled to Charlestown High. Status anxiety among the approximately 33,000 jobless in Boston was high; so was resentment at civil-service affirmative-action programs, which were seen as encroaching on a traditional preserve of Boston’s working-class whites. Moreoxer, even in the best of times Boston is a poor city: at the last census it ranked twenty-sixth out of thirty major U.S. cities in median household income ($12,530). These short-term and structural features of the Boston economy do not excuse the violent manifestations of white racism. After all, even poor people are obliged to respect the rights of others; to ascribe their behavior to their economic status is to reduce character to condition and to treat morality as if it were contingent upon cash. Still, one can defend the idea of moral autonomy and recognize that a recession is a singularly bad time to mount a social experiment on the scale of the busing decision.
Today, thanks to a boom economy in Massachusetts and to employment programs begun by Kevin White and extended by his successor, Raymond Flynn, Boston does not have a severe unemployment problem. (Coincidentally, its racial climate has also improved a good deal. As many black leaders concede, this is owing partly to Mayor Flynn’s healing symbolic leadership, but it is also partly because of a greater sense of economic security among Boston’s whites. A second lesson of the busing crisis, then, is that social reform has a hard underlying economic logic that jurists or social planners ignore only at the price of failure.
Third, class. Because class consciousness never took hold in America and because our political parties no longer divide neatly along class lines, as they did during the Depression (Ronald Reagan carried South Boston, where the median household income is $10,149, in both 1980 and 1984), it is easy to think that class is no longer a relevant explanatory category in America. This notion gains support from surveys showing that even rich and poor Americans tend to identify themselves as “middle class.” But the ubiquity of middle-class norms and aspirations should not blind us to the persistence of class inequality in America. Do the Lisa McGoffs and the Cassandra Twymons of this country enjoy the same life chances as its Brad Divers? Clearly, no. That difference in life chances is the difference money makes. We all take comfort from heartening anecdotes about “mobility,” but the melancholy statistical fact remains that the distribution of income has barely changed since the Second World War.
If you wanted the Lisa McGoffs and Cassandra Twymons of the country to have a fair chance in life with its Brad Divers, then you would probably try to mix them in the same school. (Sartre said that he became cultured by imitating cultured people—and I think the same principle applies to social mobility: for those of us not born into the middle class, exposure to its exemplars among our peers is a crucial social event, one fraught with pain and hope, self-disgust and self-discovery.) Brad’s securely middle-class outlook might rub off on his poorer classmates, and his parents would certainly think themselves important enough to demand that he get a first-rate education. You’d hope that Lisa and Cassandra would start to want what Brad wants—competence with a musical instrument, say, or more-advanced study in geology—and you would see to it that what Brad got through private advantage, Lisa and Cassandra could get through public expenditure. You’d be investing in equality, betting that the economy would grow as kids like Lisa and Cassandra parlayed better educations into better jobs.
But none of this would be possible if you did not have a leaven of Brads to mix with the Lisas and the Cassandras.
Increasingly, the Brads of the country are either in private schools or in fine suburban public-school systems like those of Newton, where the median household income, according to the 1980 census, was $26,663, and Arthur Garrity’s Wellesley, where it was $32,547, nearly three times that of Boston. In many cities the Lisas and Cassandras now attend school together, but this mixing of the black and white poor cannot be what the Supreme Court had in mind, in Brown v. Board of Education, when it outlawed racial segregation on the grounds that “to separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”For the point of the social-science evidence that the justices appealed to was surely not that the whiteness of the white students would have a beneficial effect upon black students—to believe that would be to accept the idea of racial superiority. It was that something of the social power, the ease and relatively greater confidence and expectations of the white students, would light a spark of social hope in the blacks. When segregation by class replaces segregation by race, this premise no longer holds, and the educational results can only be damaging to whites and blacks alike.
If a five-to-four Supreme Court decision (Milliken v. Bradley) handed down a month before Judge Garrity’s ruling had gone the other way, Boston’s middleclass suburbs could have been included in Garrity’s plan and school desegregation would not have stopped, in Lukas’s words, “at the city line.” A reversal of that decision, though unlikely, might hasten the end of racial segregation, but what can be done about the new class segregation in city schools? Calls for a “renaissance" of quality in public education won’t by themselves draw the children of urban gentrifiers to the public schools, and they won’t lure the Brad Divers back into the city. A final lesson to be learned from the Boston busing crisis is that while our society has instruments for remedying some of the inequalities stemming from race—often rough and counterproductive instruments, like Judge Garrity’s court order—it has neither the public language nor the policy instruments to identify and ameliorate inequalities stemming from class. □