When it comes to domination—whether of race, class, or gender—there are no workarounds

Thomas Edsall says some frustrating, historically shortsighted things in this interview with Isaac Chotiner.

After calling for the Democrats to be more moderate, to trim on issues that divide the country—the presumption being that moderation in one party breeds moderation in the other or that moderation in one party checks the extremism of the other (we’ll come back to that)—Edsall brings up the infamous Boston busing battle of the 1970s. This exchange ensues:

Q: So what do you draw from the busing controversy then? What advice would you have given racial justice advocates in the 1970s?

A: The goal of school integration was a crucial and important one. The mechanism to achieve it—of pitting working-class whites against working-class blacks—was not the way to achieve it. Liberals in the 1970s should have struggled intensely for cross-county busing, and they should have tried to legislate that. Instead, all busing was done within single urban areas. It created extraordinary disruptions.”

Where to begin?

First, liberals did in fact push for cross-county busing. They were stopped dead in their tracks. By conservatives.

Cross-county busing, where you bus kids from the cities to the suburbs and vice versa, produced an infamous Supreme Court case, Milliken v. Bradley (1974), in which a 5-member majority of the Court (all Nixon appointees), ruled that the courts couldn’t order that kids be bused across district lines unless they could show that the suburbs and the city—or the state government—had maintained, through formal laws of segregation (de jure segregation), racially segregated school districts or what is called “dual systems” of education: one for whites, one for blacks. Such laws were fairly uncommon in the North in the postwar era.

There were many other ways that state and local governments in the North kept the suburbs white. As the plaintiffs in Milliken showed, and as Justices Douglass and Marshall pointed out in their dissents, state agencies in Michigan (the case came out of the Detroit metropolitan area) were involved in redlining, restrictive covenants, concentrating black neighborhoods in certain areas, and so forth. One of the mayors of Detroit’s surrounding white suburban ring had said, “Every time we hear of a Negro moving…in, we respond quicker than you do to a fire.” But the Court rejected that argument. So that was the end of the vision Edsall is talking about. Not because liberals didn’t try it, but because it was stopped by five Republican justices on the Supreme Court.

And while Edsall says liberals should have also pursued this vision legislatively, the facts of Milliken—where politicians in the North, Republicans and Democrats (the Dearborn mayor quoted above was a Democrat), were so actively involved in maintaining segregated schools—gives you an inkling why that never got off the ground.

Second, the notion that if the Court had approved the plan in Milliken, integration would have gone easier in the North, is questionable. The mere fact that the cross-county desegregation plan was opposed so strongly in the North should tell you something about the politics of these things. Edsall seems to believe that had liberals done cross-county busing, elite northern white liberals would have been participating in the same experience working-class whites were participating in. Instead, he says, they asked working-class whites in the cities—not elite white liberals in the suburbs—to do the work of desegregation.

Now, as a proposition of political morality, Edsall is absolutely right. And he’s also right that this is how busing should have been done. But Edsall is not making a moral claim; he’s making a strategic claim. That somehow the shared experience of busing across social classes would have softened the political blow. Because everyone’s participating, you get more buy-in.

Yet the very language Edsall uses belies the gauzy communitarianism of his vision. Elite white liberals, he says, bore “none of the costs” of busing. That’s true. But the fact that he uses the word “costs” indicates the depths of white hostility to integration, regardless of social class.

The notion that cross-county busing, across the urban/suburban divide, would have made things less rather than more explosive is fanciful. Whether you think whites moved to the suburbs in the postwar era because of race, the schools, crime, or property values, it’s hard to think how any of those factors would have produced a less ferocious battle if black kids were bused from the Bronx to northern Westchester (where I grew up) and white kids were bused from northern Westchester to the Bronx. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been done, but you can’t claim that the reason to have done it was that it would have massaged things politically.

(I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t an implicit political sociology behind this vision. Not Edsall’s per se—based on his shrewd reporting before the election, I definitely don’t believe he thinks this way—but among people in the media and elsewhere who might agree with his argument. A fair number of elite white journalists think wealthier whites in the professional classes are more liberal and socially tolerant. Perhaps the idea is had they been involved in this grand experiment of the 1970s more directly and personally, the forces of trickle-down morality would have made their way into working-class white communities.)

But the biggest problem with Edsall’s interview is the essential assumption that I already flagged: that moderation breeds moderation. Edsall has been pushing this argument, particularly when it comes to race, since the 1980s. And one could argue that he played a considerable role in shifting the Democratic Party’s positions to the center, beginning with the rise of the DLC and Bill Clinton. In the interview, Edsall cites Clinton positively—he knew how to “find middle ground”—and Obama—”he tended to be reasonable”—for these reasons.

But what has that moderation, that reasonableness, produced? Did the GOP get less moderate under Clinton, despite his move to the right on race and other matters? I think we know the answer to that.

And what about Obama, whose immigration policies Edsall praises? Obama took the border seriously, Edsall says, pushing hard on immigration enforcement. What did that do to the GOP? We now have a Republican Party adopting the most overtly anti-immigrant positions—and being led by the most anti-immigrant president—since the days of Johnson and Reed.

Edsall tries to blame this on Hillary Clinton not being as draconian as Obama was on immigration, but that merely sidesteps the issue. Obama’s attempt to meet the anti-immigrant sentiment of the Republican Party halfway did nothing to bring the Republican Party closer to the center—and nothing to avert the nomination and election of a candidate who took the positions Trump did.

When it comes to any program of the left—whether it’s racial or gender or class equality—there are no workarounds. Anyone who thinks you can eliminate domination, on whatever axis of social life, without a backlash and volatile resistance, is dreaming. The only way through it is through it.


  1. Hal Ginsberg December 9, 2017 at 4:40 pm | #

    There were ways to soften the blow. The Democrats could have fought harder for equal funding for all schools and for more support for struggling schools regardless of their demographics. This would have generated buy-in from working and lower middle-class whites since their schools in Southie and many other areas were, liked black schools, underfunded and poor performers. The Democrats could have also focused on integrating neighborhoods rather than public schools which would have led, of course, directly to integrated public schools.

    • zenner41 December 9, 2017 at 5:21 pm | #

      This assumes that the “working and lower middle-class whites” were–and are today–quite rational and empirical in their policy views, so that they would have been happy to go along with such an enlightened program for improving their schools. Some would have, no doubt, but they were not the folks screaming hatred in the streets and beating up African-Americans. (If you don’t remember the atmosphere surrounding that piece of history, please go back and review the record.)

      The basic thing about racism is that its foundation is an intense complex of emotions way down in the gut that are tied up with the most essential convictions about peoples’ identities. “Buying into” nice progressive plans which appeal to the cerebral cortex has hardly anything to do with the matter. As Corey and others have pointed out a number of times, this is as true of progressive intellectual folks as it is of anyone else. That’s what makes racism such an intractable problem.

      Integrating neighborhoods also would have been a splendid idea, and still would be. (Still is not a very common practice anywhere in the country.) But the Southie rough-necks wouldn’t have “bought into” that idea either.

      I grew up in a very integrated school district in Indianapolis in the ’40s and ’50s, with mixed classes from kindergarten on. But there were no African-Americans living in my neighborhood at all, as I remember. Folks then and there apparently didn’t object to school-kids “mixing,” but living next door–uh, uh.

  2. Paul Simmons December 9, 2017 at 8:46 pm | #

    I was there. One of the ironies was that there was originally as much opposition to busing from the black community as there was in white working-class Boston, primarily because (relative underfunding notwithstanding) the black schools were better, based upon performance by graduates. The (shut down) Roxbury High School was much better than its South Boston counterpart.

    Black support for busing was primarily a reaction to anti-black violence. Anti-anti-busing, if you will, rather than pro-busing.

    Another thing was that there were three distinct anti-busing movements operating simultaneously: the first was overtly racist, the second was opportunistic, the third was as anti-racist as it was anti-busing (apropos of which its members saw the class implications). Raymond Flynn, a leader of the third version was eventually elected Mayor of Boston.

  3. Corpulent December 9, 2017 at 10:49 pm | #

    Always nice to get a concession from self-proclaimed socialists that they’re just as ready and willing to throw aside things like “democracy” and “what voters actually want” when it gets in the way of their revolution.

    Maybe – just maybe – school integration in the north DID carry a cost? Maybe – MAYBE! – immigration IS an issue where the public is generally restrictionist, and the massive demographic shift of the past 25 years has come with social and economic costs.

    God, luckily people like you are as far removed from the reigns of power as they’ve been in the past century.

  4. Doug Neiss December 10, 2017 at 2:59 pm | #

    After the Obama years and the Hillary Clinton campaign, I find it impossible to believe the Democratic Party has moved to the right through repeating the same mistake decade after decade. The rightward move is by design. The mistake is only by those who fall for the “moderation breeds moderation” line and go along. The hope is that we are wising up.

  5. LFC December 10, 2017 at 7:05 pm | #

    The notion that cross-county busing, across the urban/suburban divide, would have made things less rather than more explosive is fanciful. Whether you think whites moved to the suburbs in the postwar era because of race, the schools, crime, or property values, it’s hard to think how any of those factors would have produced a less ferocious battle if black kids were bused from the Bronx to northern Westchester (where I grew up) and white kids were bused from northern Westchester to the Bronx.

    What if the busing had been mainly one way — i.e., the Bronx to northern Westchester? And additional space built in the northern Westchester schools to handle the increased student population? There still no doubt would have been opposition, but perhaps not as much as two-way urban-suburban busing would have involved.

    There were occasional integration success stories involving school districts that in one or another way chose to unify city and suburbs — the one I’m thinking of is Raleigh NC, claimed as a success by Gerald Grant in Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh (Harvard Univ. Press, 2009). Everyone who lives there may not agree with Grant, as these judgments obviously contain an element of subjectivity, but I mention the book fwiw.

    • Corey Robin December 11, 2017 at 11:33 am | #

      I haven’t read the Grant book, LFC. But (and this is entirely a hunch) I suspect part of the success in Raleigh was that it was court-ordered, and that the court order remained in force for some time. The reason it could be court ordered was that the entire state had mandated legal segregation. That wasn’t the case in the North, so something like what you’re describing in Raleigh would have had to been entirely voluntary. I’m skeptical that would have happened.

      • LFC December 14, 2017 at 8:44 pm | #

        Don’t know the details as I haven’t properly read the Grant book, though I own a copy of it. So I’d have to check on whether Raleigh was under a court order or whether it made a political decision to do it that way. I entirely agree on the badness of Milliken v. Bradley; things would hardly have been smooth sailing if the decision had gone the other way, but many schools in parts of the urban North probably would have ended up considerably more integrated. That must remain conjectural, of course, but that’s my guess.

  6. Chris Morlock December 10, 2017 at 7:32 pm | #

    More pontificating about race from the Left, I agree with Edsall. The working class, as an identity group, has no power in American society and therefore, according to the complex rules of the oppression scientists, cannot express racist beliefs. The same logic is used to justify how African Americans or other minorities can’t be racist, so why does this metric not apply to working people. For rich white liberals to socially engineer and dictate to working people how they should think and act has ended in ruin for the Democrats. Trump is the result. It just took time to fester. Meanwhile the mechanism of Racism goes forward unfettered. The byproduct of a Capitalist society ever doomed to continue its oppression while rich Whites confuse class with race. Rinse and repeat.

    And meanwhile again, look at the state of black life in the USA, especially since 2008 and the financial collapse, is in a state of emergency. The black middle class has been virtually wiped out in the last 10 years. Forced integration was never the answer, and still isn’t/ Forcing banks to lend to African Americans, forcefully attacking corporate America’s stranglehold on working people, free education, and free healthcare is the only solution. You know, what’s good for all American citizens.

    Get off race, it’s doomed our socialist paradise to a pipe dream and has been a disaster for working people. It’s nothing more than a power dynamic for affluent whites to gain “moral superiority” over working people.

    • James Levy December 12, 2017 at 9:00 am | #

      I’m guessing you are white. It is very easy for you to “get off race”, much as it is easy for gentiles to tell Jews to ignore anti-Semitism or women to ignore sexual violence and harassment.

      I would contend that the idea that racism and sexism would “go away” if we had better economic policies is the pipe dream here. If you believe that hating people based on race is ethically wrong, then you have to stand up against it, just as those of us who think war is wrong have to stand up against it even if millions of working class whites worship the military and think the flag a holy item equivalent to a monstrance. Economic justice is crucial, but telling people to ignore their ethical beliefs because you think they don’t matter is as presumptuous as anything “liberals” ever say or do.

  7. Billikin December 10, 2017 at 9:23 pm | #

    If the liberals, among whom we must number Ike, had not told working class White Southerners how to act, we would still have segregation in the South today. We still have housing and neighborhood segregation in the US today, which carries its own problems. Busing may not have been the best answer to racial segregation, but it at least addressed the issue. As a practical matter, the long run solution in the US may be intermarriage. To paraphrase Governor Wallace, “Miscegenation now, miscegenation tomorrow, miscegenation forever!”

  8. Roquentin December 10, 2017 at 11:20 pm | #

    I talked at length with a black coworker and good personal friend of mine about…well, just about anything. He was always decidedly more pessimistic about the possibility of social progress or resolving racial issues than I was. For all my cynicism, I was unaware of how idealistic I could be at the core. I can’t remember how we got on the subject, but the gist of had to do with him critiquing my half baked Marxist idea that oppressive systems and societies are inherently unstable and doomed to failure. I had made the case that slavery eventually collapsed, as did segregation, etc…as long as it took and as vicious as the fighting had been, they eventually fell apart. But in saying that I realized exactly that, something as brutal as slavery, legally owning another human being like property, had proved incredibly resilient, in spite of its open brutality and even when it disinitigrate, Reconstruction and Jim Crow moved in to make sure the change wasn’t too fundamental. I can’t remember if it was then or some other time that the idea that for all our perceived consciousness of political issues, we both went into work the same as everyone else, day after day. That maybe understand your predicament didn’t matter, the idea of personal freedom was almost a joke, other things almost too bleak to comprehend.

  9. Nqabutho December 12, 2017 at 8:34 pm | #

    An important causal law in the evolution of social structures: (Rephrasing your thought in the last paragraph) Any attempt to eliminate domination, on whatever axis of social life, inevitably induces a backlash and volatile resistance. Tentatively, any hierarchical social structure in which the power principle (incl. coercion) determines the choice in any ethical conflict of interest between actors and affected others, we can say, is characterized by “domination”. I want to say that any (I do mean “any”) such structure, when put into practice, is ethically unacceptable. What I want to know is, why is this causal law such an accurate description of reality? We are morally obligated to eliminate domination wherever it is manifested in the “axes of social life”. What I want to know is, why the resistance? (Note to other commenters: I’m not looking for flip answers.) (E.g., it was necessary to fight a war to end the institution of slavery. Also, recently I saw a quote by a southern segregationist politician, George Wallace, Strom Thurmond or someone of the sort, to the effect that no army was strong enough to force the south to end segregation. I would say that white supremacist (and sexist) Trump supporters must be confronted directly on this question, with no compromise to be accepted.) Is there perhaps anything in your understanding of the problem of fear in socio-political dynamics that might help us to understand this situation?

    • SqueakyRat December 23, 2017 at 3:47 am | #

      Why the resistance? Because eliminating domination harms and scares the dominators. It’s really just that simple.

  10. Billikin December 13, 2017 at 10:56 am | #

    I was born in the Deep South during segregation, and I saw the virulent opposition to integration. I was therefore surprised, during the 1970s, to see how much White southerners had accepted the end of segregation. My hypothesis, then and now, is that many, if not most of them are authoritarians, and, even though they were on the receiving end of overwhelming legal and armed force, respected that force and obeyed it.

    Did hearts and minds follow? Yes, but it took a long time. My mother lives in an assisted living facility, and a few years ago one of the staff married a member of another race. My mother’s all White bridge foursome talked about getting the couple a wedding present. One of the ladies objected but the other three cajoled her into joining in. That would not have happened 20 years ago.

  11. Peter Dorman December 13, 2017 at 12:23 pm | #

    Short version of the busing wars: Wealthier whites bought their way out of integration. Working class whites used political opposition, from direct action to the voting booth. I agree with Corey, and I’m not fatalistic about making progress — but you have to recognize what you’re trying to make progress on.

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