In 1974, Boston's public schools were forced under court order to desegregate. The process—which came to be known as "Boston busing"—called for students from predominately black and white areas of the city to be reassigned to new schools. The moves overwhelmingly affected the poor; violent protests and threats led to a crisis that "still scars the city," according to WBUR. Nearly two years ago, Boston adopted a new plan that may address the problems caused by busing, but as filmmakers David Knight and Stephen Shane reveal in this short documentary, busing desegregation has left a legacy of unanswered questions about race, class, and public policy. I spoke with them last month about their project. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Chris Heller: Why did you make this documentary?
Stephen Shane: That's a good question and a long story. David and I had an idea for a retrospective about the desegregation of Boston's public schools and we had access to people who had good perspectives from different generations of people who had lived through it. We didn't really know what we were going to come up with. It was a really interesting—and at times frustrating—process.
David Knight: This year marks the 40th anniversary of Boston busing and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, so it was on our minds. Also, both of us have worked in public schools. I am currently a public school teacher. Seeing the day-in, day-out struggles of how to enact justice and equity in education really sparked our conversations. We wanted to do something a little different. We felt like there was another way to reach people, by taking the contemporary present and linking it with history.
Heller: Do you have experience with documentary filmmaking?
Shane: I haven't had any experience with something like this before.
Knight: I’ve taken courses on documentary filmmaking, but this is my first piece to the public. I've done research on education, writing about education and young people. I think this project was, for us, a way to speak in a different way. Stephen is a writer and has taught in public schools and also at the university level. I teach now. We wanted to do something different.
Heller: How did you track down the subjects for the film? What were the interviews like?
Shane: Like David said, we both have experience working in Boston public schools. We were able to talk to people we knew, who had went through it. David is also a part of community organization groups.
Knight: I reached out to various people and became involved in the Boston Busing Desegregation Project, which is an initiative from the Union of Minority Neighborhoods here in Boston. The Project has collected people's stories about segregation from different racial and ethnic groups and different generations. The dominant narrative is, "Boston busing happened, it was bad." But we haven't really disentangled that history. We haven't really processed it in terms of truth and reconciliation, considering the violence that happened. When you look at the structural issues around Boston school desegregation, the big question is, "How do we understand our current situation with a historical lens?" I think that's really important.
Heller: A moment from the documentary that stood out to me is when Robert says that Boston hasn't dealt with this. Why do you think the legacy of this issue has been ignored for so long?
Knight: That's a big question! I think part of it is that it was violent. It was about race and class, we can't really talk about those two things separately in this society. Also, people don't want to talk about race. We're just now coming to a point where people are having more conversations about race in the media. Not all necessarily productive, but lots of conversations. That hasn't always been true. I think part of it is that people don't want to talk about it. Another part, as I said, is the violence. It was violent and traumatic. The many, many people who are working to understand this history are also working to understand the trauma that people have experienced. That hasn't been talked about.
Shane: It's interesting to live in a city like Boston, which people think of predominantly as one of the most progressive, one of the most liberal-minded cities in the country. I think shame plays a role. People don't want to address these things. People are changing the ways they think about race in some positive ways, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're willing to look at the entrenched systemic legislation that is still in place. These issues are so entrenched, and they're so deeply part of our culture and social norms, that psychologically, people just look past them. If you ask students today, they don't know why they're getting bused across the city. They have no idea why they have to travel an hour and a half just to get to school. Like Louis says in his interview, we don't know our own history. We don't know why these things are happening.
Knight: We want to think about something in the past as something that is separate and something that we are distanced from. That we're not the same as the people who did these things back then. The truth is, this happened not very long ago. There is a real denial, in a lot of ways, of the institutional forms of racism and classism that played a role. People don't want to accept that they might've had a relationship to that. Not necessarily that they did it, but that they either benefited from it or someone they knew was a part of it. There's a lot of wanting to distance themselves from it.
Heller: That brings to mind some of the issues Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about here at The Atlantic. He often argues that progress requires a society to have the willpower to enact a change. Do you think, given what Boston was like in 1974, there was a way to do it right? Was there a way to do it better? Did the city lack the will to do what it needed to do?
Shane: When you combine communities, you have to do it in a way that goes beyond legislation. At the time, people looked at it purely as combining schools that had students of color and schools that had white students. But really, they were making the most vulnerable groups of people deal with a situation that everybody else was able to ignore or circumvent because of affluence.
Knight: Was there a way to do it better? I think that brings us to a question of, "What does desegregation do? Are we talking about desegregation or integration?" We want to get to a point where we are an integrated society, where people can look at one another as fully human. To do that in Boston, there needs to be an attention paid to class divides. They desegregated, quote-unquote, kids of different races, but all of them were in economically struggling environments. The people who were impacted were mostly low-income folks. Because of that, all types of antagonisms rose. It was not done in a thoughtful way. Even if it were done in a thoughtful way, I'm not sure there wouldn't have been violence. It's more than just shuffling kids around based on race. It's thinking about how to enable people to see the person sitting next to them as fully human.
Heller: Have there been any significant changes for these minority students? The statistics you cite in the documentary are galling. Are there signs of progress?
Knight: This is a seven-minute short documentary that's meant to provoke people. It's based on what our subjects said. In that way, it is designed to make people think. Obviously, there have been major gains. Those statistics that we cite about discipline and suspension rates, those are true across the country. It's a national, universal issue. I think Boston has done a lot of great work to acknowledge these issues. I think Boston has done a lot of great work to equip teachers to deal with these issues. And I think that there is a lot more work to do. What that really involves, though we didn't feature it in the film, is the importance of hearing young people. Young people need to be part of these conversations and decisions. I think that's really crucial. Young people today are living in a very different time and we need to understand what they think and feel. A lot of gains have been made. More students are going on to college. There are a lot more policies to ameliorate these disproportionate discipline rates among students of color. That's great. But there is more work to be done around understanding from a student's perspective. That's where we need to go.
Shane: Like David said, this is meant to be provocative. It's not meant to be an indictment of Boston's public schools. I have the utmost respect and greatest admiration for these teachers and educators. The problem is really systemic. It's not with them or myself in the classroom. Teachers are working to help students relate to each other and themselves in a more diverse community. That's a huge part of it. That's really come a long way. All the teachers I talk to, they're really working hard to make that happen. The fact that the reading lists are changing, I think that's huge.
Heller: Thanks for talking with me. Anything you'd like to add?
Knight: The real value of film is that you see it and feel something. The goal of this is to have audiences feel something. To see that history isn't so far from us. We need to understand that, if we want to think about how to change our institutions. That's a major goal of the work.