SCHOOLED ON CHARLOTTE: How much can you trust what you read in the Times?

MONDAY, JULY 15, 2019

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's web:
On the merits, Nikole Hannah-Jones thinks mandated busing in the 1970s was a good idea.

On the merits, she may be right!

On the politics, Joe Biden apparently thought that mandated busing was a bad idea. It isn't clear that those assessments were, or are, in conflict.

In theory, the world is full of good ideas which aren't politically feasible. That doesn't mean they're bad ideas. It simply means that, within our system, they can't gain sufficient support.

Was court-ordered busing in the 1970s a good idea on the merits but a bad idea on the politics? There's no real way to sort that out at this point in time. Nor is it clearly a good idea to attempt to do so.

But so what? Yesterday, in the New York Times Sunday Review, Hannah-Jones wrote a long, impassioned defense of the idea that mandated busing was a good idea, on the merits, back when crusading politicians were still endorsing such measures.

Perhaps because of the passion involved, Hannah-Jones sometimes almost seemed to be arguing against herself. At one point, for example, she recalled some basic facts which lay at the heart of the famous 1954 Brown decision:
HANNAH-JONES (7/15/19): [W]hile it is true that close-by schools may be convenient, white Americans’ veneration of neighborhood schools has never outweighed their desire to maintain racially homogeneous environments for their children. Few remember that Oliver Brown, a petitioner in Brown v. Board of Education, sued for the right of his daughter, Linda, to attend her neighborhood school. Kansas’ state law allowed school systems to segregate at the behest of white parents, and so the Topeka school board bused Linda and other black children past white schools to preserve segregation. Across the South and in parts of the North, black children were regularly bused long distances across district and county lines, because as late as the 1950s, some local governments valued the education of black children so little and segregation so much that they did not offer a single high school that black students could attend.
If we might borrow from Hannah-Jones' language, "few remember that Oliver Brown" didn't want his daughter bused to a distant school!

More specifically, he didn't want his daughter bused when she could have walked to her "neighborhood school" just seven blocks from the Browns' home!

Alas! Black kids were, in fact, "regularly bused long distances across district and county lines" during the era of dual school systems in states like Mississippi—and even in states like Kansas.

This was one of the downsides of de jure public school segregation, though the Warren Court cited the insult to those childrens' dignity, and the psychological harm thus accrued, as the principal reason why public schools in dual school systems could never be "separate but equal."

("To separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone." So said the unanimous Court. No provision of equal facilities could undo that harm, the Court humanely judged.)

Oliver Brown didn't want his daughter bused to a distant school for a range of good reasons. Twenty years later, others may have been less generous in their motivations when they opposed court-ordered busing in other states and regions.

To Hannah-Jones, that court-ordered busing was a good idea on the merits, and she may be perfectly right. That said, it proved to be politically impossible—and in effect, it still is.

That may explain why high-minded crusaders like Candidate Harris have never offered such proposals during their years in public service. In our current nomination campaign, we're perhaps being conned by people like Harris—though, in fairness, it must be said that our campaigns almost always turn on such gong-shows and on such semi-deceptions.

(Anthropologists tell us that this is the best our deeply flawed species was able to do. "It was all in the way their brains were wired," these despondent future experts have said, speaking to us in the past tense from the years after Mister Trump's War.)

At any rate, Hannah-Jones wrote a lengthy, impassioned defense of mandated busing, circa 1975. On the merits, her view may be correct.

On the merits, she may be right! But regarding the politics, Hannah-Jones forgot to tell us why no one proposes such actions today, including the crusading pols who are turning the current campaign into a blast at the past.

It slipped her mind to explain why the impassioned Candidate Booker undertook no such proposals when he revolutionized the Newark schools during his tenure as mayor. Why hasn't Candidate Harris issued a modern-day busing proposal? This too went undiscussed in yesterday's lengthy report.

For ourselves, we were teaching fifth grade in "apartheid schools" during the era in question. Perhaps for that reason, we read Hannah-Jones' report with interest—and we did a bit of a double-take when we read the passage shown below.

In the passage in question, Hannah-Jones discusses the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools, the nation's 18th largest school system. Perhaps because of the passion involved, the facts have perhaps been massaged a bit:
HANNAH-JONES: [T]o say busing—or really, mandated desegregation—failed is a lie.

It transformed the South from apartheid to the place where black children are now the most likely to sit in classrooms with white children. It led to increased resources being spent on black and low-income children. There’s a story black people ruefully tell of the day they knew integration was coming to a black high school in Charlotte, N.C.: A crew of workers arrived to fix up the facilities because now white children would be attending. This is how two-way busing worked and why integration was necessary—white people would never allow their children to attend the types of inferior schools to which they relegated black children.

For years, North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, where the community decided to make busing work, were some of the most integrated in the country, and both black and white students saw achievement gains. The district was forced to return to neighborhood schools after a white family brought down the desegregation order, and Charlotte is now the most segregated district in North Carolina. We should question why in the narrative of busing we remember Boston but not Charlotte.
In that passage, Hannah-Jones begins with the rhetorical move of the modern impassioned progressive. Under this heroic regime, any statement with which the writer disagrees must be dismissed as a "lie."

In this case, Hannah-Jones says that the era of mandated desegregation was, in fact, a success. She may be right in that assessment, depending on how you score it.

Hannah-Jones cites Charlotte-Mecklenburg as an example of this success. Along the way, we may perhaps become entangled in a bit of a web.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg engaged in busing in the 1970s and 1980s as the result of a high-profile Supreme Court decision. Let's review what Hannah-Jones says about what happened:

According to Hannah-Jones, "both black and white students saw achievement gains" during the years of court-ordered busing. As her evidence, she links to this 57-page report by the Naep about its Long-Term Trend Assessment program—a report which doesn't include a single word about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

Such "phantom links" are hardly unknown at the Times. Having said that, let's move right along:

As she continues, Hannah-Jones reports that Charlotte-Mecklenburg "is now the most segregated district in North Carolina." Depending on how you measure "segregation," that may or may not be true.

For her source, Hannah-Jones links to this dead-end, two-paragraph news report. Thanks to additional work on our part, the actual study in question can be reviewed right here.

Let's ignore those useless links in the Times report. You'll note that Hannah-Jones tells us nothing about academic achievement in Charlotte-Mecklenburg after the end of court-ordered busing.

We're told there were gains during busing, but the link she offers is a phantom. And uh-oh! Because Charlotte entered the Naep's Trial Urban District Assessment program in 2003, it's easy to measure the system's academic gains in the era of high "segregation."

Hannah-Jones doesn't do so. Instead, she lets us imagine the academic disaster which surely must have ensued.

In our view, it's much better when kids of different "races" and ethnicities go to school together. In our view, it would also be much better if our tribe's assistant, associate and adjunct professors stopped insisting that every person must be said to belong to a "race" and must have his or her "identity" thus defined, full stop.

In our view, kids get a better deal when they go to school with a wide array of classmates. That said, it's also our view that citizens get a better deal when they aren't being conned by crusading political candidates or misled by impassioned journalists.

What has academic progress been like since Charlotte emerged from busing? It's extremely easy to check that out and, by gosh, we did!

You may be surprised by the data—by the simple data you weren't provided in yesterday's New York Times. Those data complicate our world—and our journalism is largely based upon the construction of simplified fictions.

How much can you trust what you read in the Times? On our sprawling and leafy campus, we've been asking that question for years!

Tomorrow: A bit of background


  1. Somerby doesn't understand the concept of a "confound," an uncontrolled variable that may provide an alternative explanation for an effect found in a measured dependent variable.

    In this case, integration is hypothesized to cause an improvement in children's school performance. Data is provided to demonstrate that. Somerby then suggests that Hannah-Jones should have used NAEP data to show whether the return to segregated schools has decreased performance.

    The problem with this is that ALL children's performance has increased in the years between 1970 and 2003, due to other factors such as improved nutrition, better teaching methods, and a variety of other historical factors. Unless you control for this, it will appear that segregation had no bad effect because the kids in Charlotte-Mecklenburg improved despite segregation. Somerby may then conclude that segregation doesn't have any bad impact, when the truth may be that those kids might have improved more if they weren't in segregated schools.

    It is very difficult to explain these kinds of technical issues, so it is (1) not surprising Somerby doesn't understand, and (2) not surprising the Hannah-Jones didn't muddy the water by trying to explain them in a newspaper article aimed at the general public.

    Then there is the lag in effect. If a child is influenced by something bad that happens at school, it may take years to see the impact of it. So which kids do you test, in what year of school? You would perhaps need to identify the year in which school were officially resegregated, or look for a trend if the segregation happened gradually, and perhaps hypothesize a tipping point or critical %, or do some correlations. You cannot just compare 2003 with 1973 (or whatever Somerby thought Hannah-Jones should do).

    Since Somerby was able to find the original study, it seems ridiculous for him to complain about Hannah-Jones's links. That kind of thing is piling on, to make her appear to be a bad journalist. It is stupid.

  2. Liberal zombie-cult has many "good ideas".

    Banning air travels and beef are only the most recent ones.

    It's all for your own good, dear Bob.

  3. Somerby states, no less than four times, that Hannah-Jones is impassioned. These women are just so darned emotional!

  4. Somerby takes it at face value when parents say that they don't want their kids riding buses. Back in the day, that was the excuse for opposing integration -- the kids were being inconvenienced, perhaps endangered, by having to ride those buses. No parent could be called racist or blamed if they objected to the buses, not the black kids entering the previously white schools. No one was fooled by this subterfuge, except maybe the parents who said to themselves, "I'm not opposed to black kids being educated, just to putting my daughter on a bus every day."

    Biden helped segregationists oppose desegregation. Buses are not the point, for Oliver Brown either. He may have preferred that his daughter attend a nearby school instead of a distant one, but the lawsuit was about equality of educational opportunities under the law, not busing and not Oliver Brown's preferences.

    Segregation continues to be bad for kids. White kids are continuing to evade participation with children of other ethnicities. In liberal communities, parents seek out multicultural school experiences as a desirable element of their children's education. In conservative communities, they oppose busing. Biden cannot walk this back because he was opposed to desegregation and thus equal educational opportunities back in the 1970s. Who knows what he believes today. He needs to apology and demonstrate that he has changed and he won't do that. But whatever Biden decides to do or say, this isnt' about busing. Everyone seems to know that except Somerby.

    1. “White kids are continuing to evade participation with children of other ethnicities. In liberal communities, parents seek out multicultural school experiences as a desirable element of their children's education.“
      In the quote, above, “other ethnicities” and “multicultural” do NOT include low-achieving blacks (or hispanics or ...) in the minds of “liberals.” To suggest otherwise is at best an ignorant conceit, at worst an outright lie. I’ll adopt a middle ground and just call it “hypocritical BS.”

    2. There are poor and low achieving children in every ethnic group, including white.

      I would call Trump a poorly behaved, low achieving white child and I wouldn't have wanted my kids to associate with him, especially due to his behavior problems.

      It has always seem odd to me that parents assume that conditions such as poverty or low academic achievement are contagious, that their child can be somehow damaged by being in the same classroom with such kids.

      If a teacher cannot teach well and a class has poor discipline and kids are out of control, for whatever reason, kids will not learn as much. I've been in such classrooms in all-white middle-class neighborhoods where there are few minority kids. Parents should pay more attention to the skills of the teacher than the skin color of the students.

  5. Somerby tries to imply that Mr Brown was upset about the *busing* of his daughter, when the issue was her being excluded from a good school because of her race.

    When he implies that Hannah-Jones may be “arguing against herself” (“almost seemed to be” anyway), he fails to understand her point. Busing, when forced upon black students, got exactly zero pushback, because no one cared about blacks, who were politically powerless. As soon as white parents were faced with busing, they suddenly found out how (supposedly) horrible it was and successfully pushed back. For them, busing was ok as long as it propped up segregation, but not ok as a means to integrate schools. And so, when Somerby asserts that busing was (or might have been!) politically unpopular, he glosses over this fact.

    Hannah-Jones is explicit in acknowledging that busing and other forms of mandated desegregation are unlikely to be used again, both because of the political unpopularity, which she discusses from beginning to end of her article, (Indeed, one of her main points is precisely the political pushback), but also because of Supreme Court rulings such as Milliken, which she explicitly mentions and links to.

    And it ought to be in Somerby’s interest to examine and critique not just pro-busing arguments, but also anti-busing arguments like Biden’s, who after all is a Democrat, ostensibly a liberal, and not someone from the Republican side. Is Biden perhaps “apparently” conning us, or is it just Candidate Harris who is?

    And when Somerby says “Was court-ordered busing in the 1970s a good idea on the merits but a bad idea on the politics? There's no real way to sort that out at this point in time. Nor is it clearly a good idea to attempt to do so.”, he is making it all about the busing, when Hannah-Jones says, in the title of her essay, “It Was Never About Busing.” MLK wished for integration; desegregation of schools was merely one item toward that end. Since integration hasn’t happened, it seems still relevant to discuss it as an unfulfilled promise, and to take seriously the persistent pernicious effects on schoolchildren of racial and economic isolation, and “at the very least, we should tell the truth about what happened”, as Hannah-Jones says.

    Somerby is effectively willing to let stand the end results of white flight, redlining, deliberate racial isolation due to the drawing of school district lines, opposition to busing, and all of the other ways by which de facto segregation was maintained and de jure segregation conveniently became de facto. So when he says “In our view, it's much better when kids of different "races" and ethnicities go to school together”, it is an empty statement, because he makes no suggestion as to how this might be achieved, since all the means to achieve it he finds objectionable and (surprise!) politically unpopular. Although perhaps “there's no real way to sort that out at this point in time”.

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