The road to hell is paved with good intentions. This fundamentally conservative adage has haunted efforts to break down racial barriers to public education in America. When impatience with the slow pace of school desegregation reached its peak in the seventies, liberal activists began a campaign fraught with unintended consequences.
Forget about taxes or abortion or immigration. Today’s Tea Party anger has its roots in the accidental destruction of public schools and the local communities they supported through the well-intentioned plans of the American left.
Forced busing changed the character of the Civil Rights Movement in ways that would destroy any hope of linking the fates of low income whites and blacks. Campaigns to end segregation of lunch counters or hotels may have offended hardened racists, but the material cost to whites was minimal and the economic importance to oppressed black communities was enormous. Forcibly breaking up community school districts was an entirely different matter, with implications for whites and African-Americans that no one outside those communities anticipated.
School desegregation campaigns begun in the ‘70s were justifiably perceived as punitive and imperial. Punishment fell most harshly on lower-earning, white working families, people who had accumulated the least advantage from centuries of racism. Meanwhile, wealthier white communities escaped from forced desegregation almost entirely untouched.
Schools that had acted as the glue holding white communities together were destroyed. Schools that acted as the glue in black communities were destroyed right along with them. There were no winners, and the losers did not deserve their fate.
When the campaign was finally abandoned our public schools were more racially segregated than they had ever been. To make matters worse, now those schools and the communities around them were also intensely segregated by income as well. The quiet compact that once held white communities together was broken and working whites were left to fend for themselves.
Majority black school districts left behind by white flight have not only been stripped of most of their financial resources, they have been captured by the patronage engines that dominate urban politics. Black students in the nation’s wealthiest cities attend schools that exist for little public purpose beyond promoting the power of a partisan political establishment.
And what happened to lower income whites unable to flee into better schools? Take a close look at mortality rates for whites who came of age during this period and failed to receive an education. By the ‘90s the ‘shadow welfare state’ which for centuries had offered protection to low income whites on the basis of their race had been irrevocably smashed. Middle and lower income whites, especially in the South, have reacted as you might expect, with a desperate rear-guard effort to rebuild white supremacy. If you want to know where we got Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the Tea Party, you need to have ridden a school bus in the ‘80s.
Beaumont is a mid-sized refinery town in the coastal swamps of East Texas. Socially, the area bears more resemblance to Youngstown or Toledo than to Dallas. The only union-dominated corner of a union-hostile state, Beaumont until the ‘80s was relatively liberal, racially-mixed, and industrial-minded.
For all its uniqueness, the town is surrounded by East Texas and that wider geography matters. Its first neighbor to the east is the notorious “sundown town” of Vidor, dominated by the KKK long after the group lost its relevance elsewhere. The town’s character would begin to break down when racial tensions rose. Today, Beaumont is another relic of industrial decay, resegregation, and blue collar malaise. What happened to Beaumont can shed light on the deeply mixed legacy of the late Civil Rights Movement. In the process, it might also serve as a caution to ambitious crusaders willing to compromise basic civil rights to achieve Civil Rights.
Beaumont was never Little Rock. In fact, the overwhelming majority of southern communities were not like Little Rock, or worse yet, Boston. Though no beacon of racial amity, the town showed little interest in preserving Jim Crow. When in 1962 Rev. Edward Brown filed suit to invalidate the main school district’s race-based admissions policies, the district simply gave up. They announced a plan to drop race-based admissions one grade at a time in 1963, then just dropped formal segregation altogether.
Most Southern whites, especially in Texas, wanted no part of the tragic displays of racial hatred they saw playing out across Dixie. By the 70’s, the prevailing attitude of whites in Beaumont to questions of desegregation was exhaustion. Sick of being reviled by high-minded outsiders and being bullied by racial terrorists, they wanted the matter resolved. Many of those communities would encounter a complex obstacle as they sought to disentangle themselves from the legacy of Jim Crow.
Neighborhood public schools are a hallowed American tradition. There is a special strength that comes from multiple generations of involvement in a core set of educational institutions. Schools where many of the teachers and administrators were once students and where mom once wandered the halls not only add richness to an education they create bonds that reinforce a sense of community. Though desperately underfunded and poorly treated, the same community-building dynamic was at work in schools created in and by the black community.
When trying to desegregate a neighborhood school, the trouble is the neighborhood. Creating ‘open enrollment’ in Beaumont allowed people to attend the school of their choice, but both black and white families tended to choose a school in their own neighborhood. North or south, most American neighborhoods in the ’60s were explicitly segregated. Beaumont was no exception.
Beaumont started out by trying to redraw school boundary lines, but the effort accomplished little in either direction. Whites re-zoned into traditionally black schools either chose different schools or moved. Black families also remained mostly attached to their neighborhood schools. By the late ’60s the Federal government was taking a far more activist approach to the issue and local options were drying up.
In 1974 the 5th Circuit rejected Beaumont’s efforts at voluntary desegregation. Not enough black students were attending the two traditionally white high schools (which were 24% & 14% black, respectively) and no white students were attending the district’s traditionally black school.
It is important to recognize why desegregation was the solution of choice for civil rights activists outside the community. Efforts to achieve equitable funding, resources, and basic respect for black schools were failing almost universally. By breaking down the racial organization of public schools, liberals expected to gain for black students access to the same resources that communities were reserving for whites.
This conclusion was not unreasonable, but there was no practical way to implement such a strategy without systematically dismantling neighborhood schools. Achieving that objective would mean reaching federal power deeper into the personal lives of American families than we had ever done before.
This would be federal power exercised in local communities, not to provide new resources for the poor or expand healthcare, but to break up an institution at the heart of community identity. When the true implications of this strategy are taken into account, it becomes clear that other options, including direct federal financial support for minority schools, might have been a more prudent next step. In the late stages of the Civil Rights Movement, both prudence and patience were running short. Reformers were developing an appetite for retribution.
For the next twenty years Beaumont schools would operate under the supervision of a Federal Judge. Neighborhood schooling and the system of public education in general would be deeply, perhaps irrevocably, damaged.
We’ve Come to Help You
Those decades of heavy-handed social engineering all over the country would make Republicans out of Democrats, drain cities of white families with school-aged children, and create the suburb as we know it today. They would also fail utterly in their goal, with schools in many places ending up far more segregated than they were when the effort began.
Middle and lower income whites’ children became pawns in this game. They were shipped all over their respective towns to provide a moving racial shield for wealthier white neighborhoods. In response they became more politically activated than ever before and would shift their traditional party loyalties. Lower earning whites developed a sense that the Constitution no longer protected them from government interference in the way they had always expected it should. They learned a deeply emotional lesson about the power of government and the willingness of well-intentioned bureaucrats to screw them over without remorse.
But perhaps the most tragic casualty of this process was its most ironic. The busing saga devastated black communities.
Beaumont’s Charlton Pollard High had a rich history and deep community roots. What should be a proud tribute to what African Americans were able to achieve against a backdrop of discrimination, abuse and outright violence is now lost. Hardly anyone left in Beaumont could point out the location of the old Charlton-Pollard campus. The name no longer hangs over a school door, a sad legacy of a failed judicial experiment.
The school that would become Charlton Pollard was founded in the 1870’s by freed slaves who recognized the need for schools to serve the black community. With no government help and against tremendous, sometimes violent resistance, they built an institution to provide a critical service. Administration of the school was picked up by the city in 1883 and two formal wooden school buildings were completed in 1900. In 1925 the first brick building was constructed.
Charlton Pollard, underfunded, neglected and poorly served by the white-dominated school board that controlled it remained an anchor in Beaumont’s black community. When the Federal courts took control of the schools in 1975, its destruction began.
Under pressure from the Justice Department, BISD merged Charlton Pollard with the venerable old Beaumont High, mostly white at the time. Beaumont Charlton-Pollard, or B-CP, as it was known, began its short career in ’75 as a liberal political experiment. District officials began looking for whites they could ship to the new forcibly-balanced schools. They needed people with the weakest political sway and the least ability to pay for private alternatives.
They found them in blue collar white neighborhoods.
A strategy was carefully constructed to protect the few elite schools still available in Beaumont; the ones distant enough from majority-black areas to be insulated from integration. For decades that strategy worked, allowing wealthier white families a valuable escape from desegregation.
By 1981, with whites already fleeing the city en masse the process reached the peak of absurdity. Beaumont’s other more affluent school district, South Park, was forced to make individual students’ school assignments by drawing colored ping pong balls in a lottery. South Park’s lone black school board member, Richard Price, summed up the white-flight problem with the observation, “We don’t have any black flight. Blacks can’t fly.”
Whites in Beaumont with any means steadily fled, either into the one small, but now booming Catholic school, or into the galaxy of small storefront institutions thrown up hastily by Fundamentalist churches (where the Earth is 6000 years old…). Beaumont’s middle and low-income families waited eagerly each summer for judges to decide which new part of town they would be exploring when school started.
In 1986, Beaumont Charlton Pollard would lose the last vestige of its freedmen’s heritage as the whole campaign began its final phase. The name was dropped altogether as some of the city’s least successful schools were amalgamated into a new entity on the campus of the old Beaumont High.
Beaumont would shrink for a time to only two high schools. West Brook was constructed out of the wreckage of the more affluent South Park school district. It was tucked away on the farthest reaches of the city’s suburban west-end where it could have the best chance of staying white. Black students and low income whites were concentrated into the suitably industrial-sounding, Central High. Charlton Pollard was finished off and buried beneath Central High.
Central High School, my proud alma mater and distant heir to the Charlton Pollard legacy, is now entirely black. West Brook High, engineered as a shelter for white-collar west-end professionals, remain majority white until just a few years ago. Neighboring suburban high schools like Nederland, Port Neches and Lumberton are overwhelmingly white to this day.
Meanwhile, the neighboring town of Vidor, with its long, overt, legacy of KKK control, was untouched by the whole process. Its schools are still whiter than the milk on your cereal.
The project failed to achieve any of its primary goals. Beaumont public schools today are not only segregated racially, they are crippled politically. As in other large urban districts elsewhere in the country, a pool of struggling students left behind by the political establishment become food for opportunists.
Schools in Beaumont exist primarily to distribute tax money to those who have the political heft to grab it. Recent FBI investigations have targeted millions fleeced from the district by a corrupt administration, but low income families lack the political influence to clean up the district. Robbed of more powerful allies by the demolition of local communities and the flight of the more affluent, families who cannot or will not leave Beaumont do they best they can to get an education for their children against terrible odds.
At a wider level, we now have a whole generation of Southerners who received their education, such as it was, in an atmosphere of complete racial and academic turmoil. The network of neighborhood support that sustained the schools was demolished in both black and white neighborhoods leaving them weaker and less cohesive. Though the quality of the students’ educations undoubtedly varied, we know they learned one certain lesson. You better not come between a liberal and his dream for your improvement. We shouldn’t be surprised at the politics this has inspired.
After the busing era, populism espoused by Bernie Sanders is a non-starter with working whites while populism espoused by the Tea Party and Donald Trump sets the South ablaze. Poor strategic decisions in the late stages of the Civil Rights Movement taught working whites that their best path to protection lay not in economic justice promised by the left, but in white nationalist activism offered by the paranoid fringe right. When they abandoned the Democratic Party they brought that white nationalist fringe into the center of Republican politics.
America’s attempt to right 300 years of oppression in a single, impatient, quasi-imperialist project is a warning to a new generation of liberals – one they will almost certainly disregard. Culture matters. History matters. Rights and justice matter, even when we are talking about the rights of a group that enjoyed many ill-gotten privileges. Injustice in the name of justice is injustice.
Our craving for a clear narrative, a simple story of good guys defeating bad guys, became our own worst impulse in the late stages of desegregation. We faced a complex picture with the interests of many innocent, vulnerable people irrevocably at odds. Sometimes the patient prudence taught by old-fashioned conservatives slows our efforts to achieve social goals. Sometimes it should.
Sometimes the frustrating insistence on process, rights and heritage is a crucial force protecting civil society from disintegration and toxic distrust. Caution has its place, even when the objectives it delays are valuable.
Here in the first quarter of the 21st century we are on the cusp of a major generational transition; a new wave of liberal reform probably larger than any we have experienced in the past. The outcome may be equitable, happy and prosperous if this rising generation retains some respect for community and tradition. Our still-segregated and badly damaged schools have lessons to offer tomorrow’s ambitious reformers.