Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Does “boycott” equal “busing?”

When I hear about the Rev. James Meeks’ attempt to use a boycott of the first days of school in Chicago to protest the inferior conditions of urban schools, I can’t help but be reminded of “busing.”

For those of you whose memories don’t go back a couple of decades, I’m referring to the attempts by racially homogenized school districts to impose some sort of racial diversity among their student bodies. Some of their students would be shipped off to inner-city schools, while some of “those” students would be sent to the Anglo-oriented schools.

THE IDEA WAS to expose students to people outside their own group, and to overcome the concept of “white flight” by which some families deliberately moved to avoid such exposure.

What actually happened was that it aroused the anger of all those white parents, who took up in protest (using their Constitutional rights) against the idea that anyone had the authority to force their kids into a differing environment.

Boston was particularly hard hit by such sentiments (how many of you remember the news photograph of a white anti-busing protester trying to impale a black man with a U.S. flag?). I was actually in Boston the “Summer of ‘75” and will never forget the sight of such protests. But such feelings out anger could be found elsewhere, including in Chicago.

Mention the word “busing” to one of those parents (now a senior citizen whose grandchildren may be finishing up their education these days) now, and you will get a visceral reaction.

ANGER. DISGUST. CONTEMPT. In trying to articulate their feelings, many of those people will try to justify their claim by saying they were merely sticking up for the concept of neighborhood-based schools.

The reason I am reminded about this is that it is the same reaction I am sensing in some quarters these days to the Rev. Meeks.

The reverend (who also is a member of the Illinois Senate representing a couple of South Side neighborhoods) led a protest by which he took some busloads of kids (he claims 1,000, but some reports indicate only a couple hundred actually made the trip) from Chicago and their parents up to a pair of the wealthier school districts in Illinois. Those students made a token attempt at enrolling their children in the suburban schools.

Of course, they were turned away. What was encouraging was that at New Trier High School, students who were supportive of the concept that there should not be such financial inequities between school districts engaged in a rally of their own to try to make the inner-city kids feel a little welcome – during their few hours on the North Shore.

THERE WEREN’T ANY of the angry protests that used to take place with regard to “busing.” No parents shouting at the “out of district” kids to go home. Nothing that visually could be compared to the scene outside Little Rock, Ark.’s Central High School when it integrated in September 1957.

Instead, the anger simmered under the surface. Anyone checking out the Internet could turn to “comments” sections of various websites to find out how anonymously vocal people thought about the issue.

My personal “favorite” crackpot comment was posted at the Chicago Tribune’s website, where one reader literally wanted the police of suburban Northfield and Winnetka (the towns chosen by Meeks for his protest) to set up roadblocks to prevent the reverend’s buses from entering town.

“They can tell Meeks to STICK IT!!!,” this person (who only identified him/herself by the vague name of “More”) wrote.

OTHER COMMENTS BY people reading the Tribune and WMAQ-TV websites referred to Meeks as a “liar” and a “four flusher” who plays the “victim card.”

This is the aspect that bothers me about the boycott as a tactic more than anything else. It is going to be used by people hostile to the interests of urban American to somehow justify the current conditions and their pathetic attitudes.

It is as if they are desperately trying to find a way to claim Meeks is causing the problem, and should therefore be ignored. Now, in their minds, they have their reason.

When serious attempts are made in the future to try to resolve the inequities of public education funding, there will be a group of people who have entrenched themselves for the fight against it. Meeks’ boycott may wind up stirring up more anger than it does build up sentiment for trying to solve the problem.

FOR THE REALITY is that there is a problem with regard to equality of education. Not everybody gets equal quality of schooling. All too much depends on where one lives. While some Chicago residents will argue about the option of private schools (particularly those run by the Catholic Archdiocese), that is not an option for everyone.

And for those who would rather have government take steps to help make private schools (or even charter schools, whose supporters are usually more interested in messing with teachers’ unions than anything else) more readily accessible to all, I’d argue we ought to be trying to boost the quality of the public schools. That is more in line with “the American way” of life.

Now I was lucky. I had adequate public education (in part because my combination of living my early life in both Chicago and certain suburbs put me in certain school districts with easy opportunities to learn). In fact, I went to a brand new high school with quality facilities that gave me a chance to do everything I wanted to with my life back then.

Not everybody gets that. People in inner city Chicago whose children can’t get into the “magnet schools” are stuck in older facilities that are decaying (and cannot be properly maintained). Their educational experiences are limited because local officials are stuck trying to maintain the status quo, rather than being able to think about improvement.

THIS ISSUE ISN’T just an urban problem.

People who live in the most rural parts of Illinois (places where they think Carbondale is a BIG city) often attend schools with only a few dozen students (maybe a couple hundred in total) where there just isn’t enough of a tax base to raise the kind of money needed to provide for the newest technology and other tools to help provide a 21st Century education.

Because there was no serious chance those suburban school districts were going to enroll any of the Chicago students, I will agree with those people who say that Meeks’ school boycott was a wasted gesture.

But I don’t want to come off too favorably in favor of those Meeks critics, because there is a larger issue at stake than whether one day of school means all that much (some have argued that the students should not have used up one of the nine absent/tardy days they are permitted each school year).

THERE IS A serious problem at stake here. We don’t want the people who would just as soon ignore it to prevail just because of some disagreement you might have with the boycott, as a tactic.

Because quite frankly, the thought that 30 years from now, people will remember the word “boycott” the way an older generation regards “busing” is depressing, because it means we will have achieved nothing in terms of solving the greater problem.


EDITOR’S NOTES: How many students really participated in the boycott organized by (,0,2704581.story) Rev. James Meeks?

Were more people angered ( by the concept of a school boycott ( than actually participated in it? It almost seems so, to read the rants of the Internet public.

Suburban residents (,pp-meeks-090208-s1.article) have their own perception of the coming students, while some activists try to use Meeks’ action ( to score points for their own political causes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, but a little overreaching on your part here:

(or even charter schools, whose supporters are usually more interested in messing with teachers’ unions than anything else)

Here in the District of Columbia, where a number approaching half the school-age children attend charter schools, the goal isn't messing with the unions. My wife left a union job in a suburban school district to teach at a city charter, for a number of reasons.

The first is that charters, often thematic (math/science, arts, etc.), are laboratories for education ideas that may not fit in a one-size-fits-all system. The second is that parents, who often help found charters, tend to be more involved. The third is that working in an environment where administrators are free to pick unconventional teacher candidates or those who would fit best into the culture of a school.

I'm not sure what the charter situation looks like in Chicago. But maybe time for a little more research and a little less generalization?