On Thursday, November 20, WBUR ran a piece on-air they called “’A Fear of Going to School': 5 Former Boston Students Reflect on Busing.” In it, they played clips of a conversation between 5 former Boston Public Schools students who were bused as part of the desegregation plan put into place after the 1974 court decision. The personal stories shared on the program spoke to a lot of the personal and community trauma that occurred at the height of the crisis, and how that trauma has lingered since then. Each person’s story encompassed a lot of emotion and evoked the intensity, fear, and uncertainty of the period. The five participants should be thanked for being willing to share their stories with a larger audience, and, in fact, some of them had already participated in BBDP story circles prior to this piece. What drew my attention, though, in listening, was the way the program framed these stories. In our work, which has focused in part on collecting personal stories from before, during, and after desegregation, local and otherwise, we have always found the focus on the violence of the period to be a way of limiting how we talk about what happened. When we speak about desegregation and only talk about the extreme instances, we run the risk of losing track of historical context and the relationships to power of the groups involved. Listening to the WBUR program, it was discouraging to hear not only the lack of context provided to the listener, but also repeated uses of misleading language that serve to fit the same old story we’ve been telling for forty years, as well as the interests of power today.
What does it do to our perception of public school desegregation in Boston (and by extension, nationally), when the producers of the program, positioning themselves in an “objective” role, repeatedly refer to the desegregation plan as an “experiment” or “an uncontrolled experiment in social engineering”? And, further, as the producers of the segment are tasked with editing the conversation and selecting which clips to play, what do we make of them giving significant airtime to one participant, Tom Murphy, a white man who spoke at length about how the court order “artificially disrupted the environment of an otherwise vibrant city”? What picture does this paint historically? If desegregating the schools was social engineering, then how do we characterize the social order that existed beforehand? The producers do not address this themselves, but Murphy is given time to talk about how population movement occurs “naturally” and that government shouldn’t get involved.
I think that the timing of this radio piece should also be noted. In Boston, currently, if we are still “in the process” of gentrifying, we are pretty far along in that process. Simultaneously, the public school system locally (as well as nationally) is under assault from “school reformers”– one being bankrolled by noted grassroots activists like Bill Gates, the Walton family, and Goldman Sachs. So how does looking back in the manner WBUR has chosen resonate today? For example, whose interests does it serve to paint being a student in the Boston Public Schools as akin to being “embedded in a war zone,” as one of the participants in the story recalled? Does that encourage listeners to draw connections to images of today’s public schools, which are commonly painted as “broken” by the media? Similarly, how do we view people fighting their displacement from the city when we’re encouraged to look at population movements as “natural”, with no consideration of race or class?
A program that uncritically uses the familiar narrative of “busing pitted everybody against each other” and that “violence was endemic” on all sides serves to erase the larger patterns of history and power that the desegregation period came out of. It does the work of creating and evoking a pre-desegregation past that was free of problems before an activist judge and government forced unwanted changes down the city and country’s throat, “pitting everybody against each other.” This image erases hundreds of years of Black activism around education. It erases practices like redlining and blockbusting, as well as federal government policies that subsidized the suburbs for new white homeowners while tightly controlling where Black people could rent or buy. The WBUR program provides an interesting look into some personal stories, but frames them in a way that does a disservice to the social location of their participants and recycles the same conversation we’ve had about education, turf, and money since long before Judge Garrity made a decision. What we need is to see these patterns, so when we see the cranes hovering above Roxbury and East Boston, or hear the supposed benefits of the Olympics, or hear the “low-performing” rationale behind another public school closing, we can ask critical questions and take critical action.