Hugh Bailey: The busing debate that never ended
Ned Lamont may want to work on his timing.
No one was really asking who the governor favored in the Democratic presidential primary, but Lamont went ahead and offered his pick a few days ago anyway. It’s not a surprise he publicly favors Joe Biden, who, after all, campaigned in Connecticut for Lamont last year. But Biden, who still leads in most polls, isn’t exactly on the upswing.
Biden had been far out in front of every poll from the minute he officially announced his candidacy in April, largely due to name recognition and nostalgia among Democrats for the Obama years. But the first round of debates found him on the defensive over his long and checkered pre-Obama past, and now polls show his lead narrowing.
He could still win. Maybe Lamont’s endorsement will set the Biden ship right again. Just as likely is that Biden is this year’s Jeb Bush, headed for an ignominious defeat after starting with a big lead.
Taking a different approach was another prominent state Democrat, Fifth District Rep. Jahana Hayes. She came out in favor of California Sen. Kamala Harris, recently seen taking Biden to task over that long and troubling record of his.
Hayes endorsed a candidate on the rise, as Harris has moved into the race’s top ranks. Hayes specifically cited the moment that for now has changed the presidential campaign when Harris talked about her role as a child in the integration of her local school district. “In that moment, I knew exactly what she was talking about — she was talking about access to opportunity that would otherwise change the trajectory of her life,” Hayes wrote in Essence.
All that made Harris’ apparent walk-back of her stance disappointing. She said last week that busing students to desegregate schools should be left up to individual districts and not federally mandated. That’s exactly the stance that got Biden in trouble, but Harris’ campaign said the problem was in opposing desegregation back in the ’70s. In other words, times have changed.
The problem is that they haven’t, at least not enough. Public attitudes may have evolved, and hardly anyone would go on the record today — unlike those senator friends Biden speaks of so fondly — saying they opposed integration. But in real terms, schools are just as racially segregated today as they have ever been. The difference is that district boundaries, not explicit policies, keep the races apart, and it’s as much a problem in Connecticut as anywhere else.
According to the most recent census data, the median net worth for black families in America was $4,900, compared to $97,000 for white families. All that’s needed to keep districts segregated is high property values and an aversion to solutions that cross town lines, both of which apply to large swaths of Connecticut.
Not long ago, a local leader proposed doing something about it, or at least starting down that path. The governor noted that most school districts in Connecticut are stagnating or losing population, while the cities continue to grow. “If some (suburban) schools took in students from Waterbury, which is overcrowded,” Lamont said, they could be in line for incentives of some sort.
The official policy put forth, which would have combined back-office functions among the smallest districts, didn’t include anything that affected the classroom, but just the hint of it was enough to set off alarm bells across the state. Sensing a fight it could not win, the Lamont administration quickly backed off, turning its attention to other fights it might still not be able to win, like tolls.
With that retreat went the best hope for a new round of school integration efforts in Connecticut.
The reaction is a reliably Democratic state to even a mild desegregation effort shows that no matter what is said on the campaign trail, this is an issue that has never been resolved. It doesn’t belong to the distant past or some faraway place.
Hayes understands this better than anyone. “Court-ordered desegregation was never just about making classrooms diverse; it was about access to resources for millions of children around the country who deserved a fair shot at opportunity,” she wrote, adding: “We should be compelled to hold the same doors open for others.”
Hugh Bailey is editorial page editor of the New Haven Register and the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.