Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Bus Back to the Future

Published in The Wall Street Journal on July 7, 2019


Two scenes from the old American movie:

Scene I. On a sunny day in May 1954, I sat at the lunch counter of the People’s Drug Store on Dupont Circle in Washington. I was 14. I sipped a Coke through a straw and waited for my BLT. A copy of the Evening Star lay on the countertop. The banner headline said “High Court Outlaws Segregation.”

The Warren court that day handed down its 9-0 decision in the case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. The 58-year-old Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal” was dead—though only on paper. Two white men sat beside me at the counter. They’d come into town from Northern Virginia, which in those days was mostly old Confederate farmland and not, as now, the sprawl of the federal megalopolis. The man nearer me (bald and red-faced, a caricature) waved his hand in a sort of spasm, knocking over his water glass. He growled: “Never!” People looked up. The two men agreed on the subject of Chief Justice Earl Warren—“ ’at sumbitch!” The bald one had a vein pulsing under the skin of his skull.

Scene II. It is a lifetime later. Sixty-five years have elapsed. We are well into the neverland of the 21st century. A black president has come and gone. On my flat-screen TV, I watch as a female U.S. senator of Jamaican and Indian descent stands and berates a white-haired white man—the black president’s former vice president—on the matter of his record concerning something that happened 40 or 50 years earlier. That something was busing, a policy that was designed to accomplish what the Warren court intended: to abolish racial segregation from the country’s public schools.

It seemed a little odd that Kamala Harris brought up the long-ago subject of busing during a 2019 Democratic debate. Presidential candidates usually wish to deal in new ideas. Busing is a period piece.

Ms. Harris spoke of it as having been an unambiguous good. It was not. Older Americans recall the busing days as contentious, complicated and divisive. The idea was to try to solve the problem of de facto segregation by busing black children to public schools in white parts of town while transporting white children in the opposite direction. Almost no one was satisfied with the scheme, although it did succeed in some places, such as Charlotte, N.C. Some blacks who rode the buses as children say now that they benefited from it. But in the worst light, it seemed a piece of brutalist social engineering that placed hard burdens on the kids (long rides twice a day to strange neighborhoods, away from friends and community). The policy offended many blacks with its implication that a black child cannot learn without sitting next to a white child.

No matter. Ms. Harris’s mind wasn’t on justice anyway. Busing was the McGuffin. She invoked it as a way of proving that she could take down the powerful white male front-runner, Joe Biden. She staged the scene in order to establish, early in the first round, that she was capable of ruthless and creative effrontery. She sucker-punched Mr. Biden. Next morning, she was the coming thing—the psychological front-runner. As she intended, people began to imagine her in the ring with President Trump, toe to toe.

One of the interesting things about Ms. Harris is her swagger—the sly and private half-smile, the dare in her eye, a hint of the reckless. On the night of the debate she showed off an instinct for the cynical uses of sentimentality. “That little girl was me,” she said, her body torqued poignantly toward Mr. Biden. She conjured herself as a heroic but vulnerable child on her way to future glory despite the efforts of then-Sen. Biden and his Southern segregationist pals to stop her—a prequel glimpse of predestined greatness. She was Moses in the bulrushes.

Her childhood occurred, mind you, not in Mississippi or the Chicago projects but in Berkeley, Calif., where her father was a professor of economics. The Harris household was intellectual, accomplished and, at the very least, solidly middle-class. There was so little spontaneity in her stunt that, just afterward, her campaign offered commemorative merchandise—T-shirts showing the image of “that little girl.” All this was unfair to Mr. Biden, but his complacency no doubt needed a jolt.

Both the Brown decision and the struggle over busing are items from another age. Nineteen fifty-four was the Pleistocene. Everything in America has changed since then—very much of it for the better. Yet if we blink and look again, we find that a stubborn, remnant something has remained as it was on the day of the Brown decision. Race hatred, where encountered, has a familiar, vicious quality—the old American Adam.

Besides that, the dangerous thing now is hate’s half-brother, sentimentality—and the cynicism with which it is manipulated for purposes of gaining or keeping power. Everything in the politics and policy-making of 2019 is processed (by both the woke and the Trumpists) in those idioms: raw emotions cynically manipulated, especially on social media. It is true on the issue of immigration, for example, and especially true on the related issue of race.

Sentimentality is the traditional style of American politics. At one time, it was endearing, in the antique Norman Rockwell way. But the dark side of sentimentality is shallow and thoughtless and volatile and dangerous. At its worst, it is the style of mobs and dictators.

Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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