For the decade after Brown, White schools in the South evaded and resisted integration. Then, under Lyndon Johnson, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW, the agency charged with implementing school desegregation) finally stepped in and took a strong hand, demanding that schools move beyond token integration by showing “statistical proof of significant progress.” Backed by a unanimous Supreme Court, HEW brought the full weight of the federal government to bear, imposing sweeping mandates of racial balance on metropolitan school districts. Emboldened by the victories of the New Deal, Washington’s best and brightest had learned to dream big, to put their faith in top-down, technocratic solutions to society’s ills. That’s how they approached public housing and urban renewal, that’s how they approached Vietnam. School busing was no different. They fired up the buses and sent X percent of Black kids over here and Y percent of White kids over there. If America refused to integrate, the government would redraw the map and do it by administrative fiat. 

While this probably seemed—and, in some ways, was—an unavoidable response to white stonewalling, it created a new problem: It set us chasing a mirage. There’s no such thing as “statistical proof” of integration. Integration, as Martin Luther King put it, is “true intergroup, interpersonal living … the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes into the total range of human activities.” Integration is the forming of relationships based on mutual trust and respect. Schools could be forced to desegregate—that is, to accept Black students—but genuine integration, as King said, was an “unenforceable” demand. The government can put us in the same room, but they can’t make us get along.

To this day, the language of racial balance, as used by the left, keeps us talking about “integrated schools.” But institutions don’t integrate. People do.

If a school is 3 percent Black, but all of those students are actively engaged in making friends and participating in student activities, then those children are well and fully integrated. If a school is 20 percent Black but all the Black students stay on their own side of the cafeteria and then get bused home at 3 p.m. every day, then there is no integration taking place at that school. Trying to measure integration with percentages is like trying to measure your weight in inches.

The left’s second blunder on integration: Busing wasn’t actually what Black America was asking for

Because Brown v. Board was such a landmark decision, the idea of integration and the larger civil rights movement became somewhat synonymous, wrongly so. Black America wasn’t fighting for integration, per se. They were fighting for agency, the right to exercise control over their lives and, hopefully, to enjoy the full protection of the government while doing so. In education, that’s not what they got. They got a policy that demanded White schools produce statistical proof of significant progress, and one where Whites were in charge of executing the burdens imposed on them by the courts. Black schools were unilaterally closed down, their students divvied up and distributed to whatever White school needed to adjust its numbers in order to avoid being sued, often over the very loud protests of Black parents; at angry town hall meetings, integration was denounced as a White supremacist plot to destroy the Black community. Some Black students, fearing the prospect of a hostile White environment, dropped out of school rather than ride the bus.

Not all Black parents believed in integration. Those who did wanted a say in how it played out for their children. Some busing programs were voluntary, but by and large Black children had to bus where HEW told them to bus. Mandatory racial-balance requirements insisted on it. With Jim Crow, Black America lived under an onerous, top-down system that told them where their children could and could not go to school. Now, with busing, Black America lived under … an onerous, top-down system that told them where their children could and could not go to school. A 1972 Gallup poll showed that 77 percent of Whites were against busing. The same poll showed 47 percent of Blacks were against it as well. Many Black Americans did believe in the school bus and the access it provided, and busing might have been a viable tool for those families had it been smartly and surgically applied. It wasn’t. It was presented in a sweeping fashion that denied many Blacks the agency they sought.