Reflections on a failed busing plan directly from a front-row seat

Forty years ago, shortly before forced busing went into effect, I was a new judge appointed to Dorchester District Court. Since much of the anger and violence associated with that ill-conceived “solution” to segregated Boston schools spilled into the courts, I had a front-row seat from which to view its effects.

I understood that racial housing patterns had resulted in “de facto” segregated, underperforming schools and the federal courts had a mandate to do something about it. The problem was how to devise a solution that would cause the least disruption while improving education at a reasonable cost, in all a formidable undertaking. What happened, instead, was a plan that did not adequately take into consideration its effect on those who would be impacted.

In every respect, the solution imposed on the city failed to meet those objectives. When children become the instruments to achieve social change, any plan is bound to generate fear and apprehension, not only among the children but also among their parents. The wholesale movement of children, black and white, from neighborhood schools to schools miles away from home caused major disruptions.

Many parents left the city, some put their children in private schools, and others protested, often loudly. The burden of forced busing fell on those families that did not have the financial resources to escape. Black children and their parents were terrified and angry at the sight of white protesters hurling insults at and blocking buses full of frightened students. Violence spilled over into the neighborhoods with an upsurge of racial enmity, much of it not directly related to protests but to the underlying animosity it generated. Race relations in the city were set back decades.

Busing proved to be enormously disruptive. Did it ultimately solve the problem? No! The schools remained largely segregated, their overall performance did not improve, and funds that could have been invested in underperforming schools were spent on transportation. Imagine the improvements that could have been made if the millions invested in busing over the years had gone to education.

The well-intentioned planners who fashioned the remedy failed because they did not understand the human dimensions of the problem. Their solution was a statistical formula based on the assumption that integrated schools would foster better education for all. They failed to anticipate or understand the consequences. But what alternatives did they have?

They could have fashioned a plan that put greater resources into underperforming segregated schools. They could have created incentives and developed quality magnet schools to encourage parents to voluntarily participate. They could have strengthened the Metco program and even subsidized the movement of minority families willing to relocate in the suburbs. School segregation in the city was, after all, more a housing problem than a neighborhood school problem.

By overlooking the historical importance of neighborhood schools and their connection to families, the experts imposed an unworkable solution. Coming on the heels of another failure, the Vietnam War, it was a further example of how the “best and brightest” can get it wrong.

Like Vietnam, the policy objectives were not achieved despite great cost in money, anguish, and pain. Some problems do not lend themselves to easy fixes. To act precipitously often makes them worse. Patient, incremental prodding toward a reasonable objective takes more time but it can be more effective.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.