School Desegregation Busing
Fast forward 20 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and we found ourselves embroiled in yet another school desegregation controversy. The more things change…
It was September 1973, I was about to enter the 11th grade in a new state, a new city. A transplant from the East Coast, I had recently moved from Queens, New York, to Long Beach, California. Feeling somewhat at a disadvantage entering this school a full year after the rest of the class, I focused on finding my place in this strange new environment 3,000 miles away from the place I still called home, New York.
On registration day, prepared to enroll, I arrived at the neighborhood school only to learn I wouldn’t be attending the school in my new neighborhood. The city of Lakewood, CA not Long Beach, was where I would be attending school. Although Lakewood is a different city, its public schools were and are part of the Long Beach Unified School District. Naturally, growing up in the most densely populated city in the nation, I assumed the reason I would have to travel to Lakewood was that the neighborhood high school was overcrowded. Having to attend a school in another community meant that my sister and I would have to get up a little earlier each morning to catch a bus and arrive home a little later. But aside from the extra transit time, this arrangement didn’t seem too problematic. Besides, since we were new to the community anyway, we were going to have to make new friends even if we went to the local school. I figured we’d just have to make new friends in Lakewood instead of Long Beach. No big deal — or so I thought.
On the first day at Lakewood High, we were greeted by the principal, who ushered my sister and I into his office. I remember thinking that this was kind of strange and wondering if the principal had one-on-one meetings with all transfer students. Already this was different from what I was expecting. But the principal had a pleasant demeanor and a gentle voice. I have forgotten most of the details of our conversation except for one question he posed. He told us that Lakewood High School had a student population of approximately 3,000 and that all except for two students were white. He asked if we thought we’d have a problem being in an environment that had a lack of ethnics. The question threw me off guard. I didn’t know how to answer. The mere fact that it was being asked gave me pause. I began to feel that perhaps I had reason for concern.
The school I transferred from in New York City was about 60% white and 40% other than white. But we tended to think in terms of ethnicity. This is not to say that New York had it right and California had it wrong. It’s just one of the observations I made as a newcomer to California. In New York City, our identities were more closely tied to our countries of origin. So the white kids weren’t just white; they were Italian, Irish, Jewish, or newly arrived Czechs, Lithuanians, and other Eastern Europeans. In fact, they did not seem to identify as white. The blacks, latinos, and Asians were East Indian, West Indian, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Black American, Dominican, Cuban, Chinese, Pakistani, and a host of others but they also identified as black, Hispanic, or Asian. While this was certainly a different racial and ethnic blend, it was the kind of environment where getting along with other ethnicities was expected. It was a given. No one would even think to ask a student if they thought they could get along because of ethnic difference. We all had ethnic differences. Everyone saw themselves as belonging to an ethnic group and the term ethnic wasn’t used as a euphemism for “people of color” as it is today. But by raising the question, the Lakewood principal pointed to something I had not considered. Maybe being the new girl wouldn’t be my only problem.
The Real Reason
In the weeks that followed, I learned that I had not been sent to Lakewood High School for the reason I had assumed. It’s not that I was misled. The reason I didn’t know the real reason was because I hadn’t been paying attention to the news. If I had, I would have known that like the communities it served, the LBUSD was racially segregated. Its answer to school segregation was to funnel black students transferring into LBUSD from other states into Lakewood High irrespective of the distance from their home. My sister and I were the first two; eventually, there were as many as a dozen during that year.
As time passed, what seemed like an odd question the principal had asked began to make sense. I had no idea that my sister and I were walking into a national controversy. In the mid 1970s, the debate was over the use of busing as a tool to affect racial balance in the nation’s schools. Busing was enacted as a component of many school desegregation programs in response to federal court decisions establishing that racial segregation of public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Green v. County School Board (1968), and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), the Supreme Court established that federal courts could require school districts to implement busing programs as a means of achieving racial integration of public schools.
I attended Lakewood High School from September 1973 to June of 1974. During that single school year, I learned more about the many variations of racism than all the previous 10 school years combined. To begin with, in the LBUSD busing was one-way. By that I mean there wasn’t a bus that carried white transfer students to black high schools. Only the black transfer students were bused. Early on, I began to see this as an inequity, which put me and the other bused students at a disadvantage not shared by the white students. We had an extra hour and a half to two hours taken away from us daily just do to transit time. I thought I’d do homework on the bus but I couldn’t because of car sickness.
There was one bus that took us to school in the morning and one that brought us back to Long Beach at the end of the school day. This made it difficult for bused students to fully participate in school life. If I had an interest in any of the many extracurricular activities — such as debate club, cheerleading, yearbook, football, the school newspaper, or drama club — I was out of luck because most, if not all, of those groups met before or after school hours. Even the core classes required spending some time before or after school with your classmates.
For example, I took a marine biology class but couldn’t attend the study groups. My dance class culminated at the end of each semester with a performance that required rehearsals, half of which I couldn’t get to (good thing I’m black and already knew how to dance ☺.) Thanks to a fantastic teacher, some great fellow students and a little talent of my own I ended up with the only solo performance in the show, and an “A” in the class.
Because I was determined that I wasn’t going to let this transportation thing beat me, I came up with some creative solutions of my own. When I needed to attend a rehearsal or meeting that just couldn’t be missed, I’d often take public transportation home instead of the school bus. But this required money, which I often didn’t have. So I got to know some of the city bus drivers and they’d let me ride for free. But with every solution there seemed to be another problem. In the winter months, if I stayed more than an hour beyond the school day, it would be dark when I got to my final bus stop, meaning I’d have to walk several blocks in the dark. This brought a whole slew of problems that I won’t write about here. But, during that year, there were students, teachers, and a wonderful school bus driver named Wanda who made my experience tolerable most of the time. Unfortunately, there were just as many who made it almost more than I could bear on a few occasions.
Hard Knocks in Lakewood
It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that I experienced my share of racial incidents and yes, I did. But a couple were noteworthy and particularly hurtful to a teenager who didn’t have a clue about the deeply entrenched racial divide that exists in this country. Here’s one such experience. I was in an advanced social studies class that contained some of the top students in the school. For reasons I don’t have space to write about here, I felt more comfortable with the students in the advanced classes. I loved this class and had friends there. One day, I happened to spot one of those friends handing something to the other students. Our eyes met. She saw that I saw that she was doing something that she didn’t want me to see. To her credit, she was enough of a friend to tell me what was going on. It seems she was throwing a birthday party and was handing out the party invitations. She expressed deep regret that I would not be invited because her parents would not allow me in their home. As I write this, I still feel a little of the sting I felt on that day.
Another incident put things in a whole different perspective for me. This experience helped me to see that what I was observing at Lakewood was preparing me for life in the United States.
We were working on a group project in this same advanced social studies class. We had broken up into groups of four and were given a writing assignment. The paper had to have contemporary social relevance. Research for the paper was to be conducted as a team. The four in my group were two boys and two girls. I put forth the idea that we do something on the topic of racial integration. So the four of us came up with a plan. The two girls would pretend to be apartment hunting college seniors. The boys had cars. Their job was to provide transportation, leads to apartment vacancies in Lakewood, help in tabulating the results, and input in the overall writing of the paper.
Lori (not her real name) and I would be the apartment hunting college girls. Separately, she and I would fill out and submit applications at the same apartment complexes. I’d apply first and she’d show up a few hours or, at most, a day later. We decided that the girls were more suited to play the role of college seniors because although the four of us were the same age 16, the boys didn’t look as mature and couldn’t pass for 22, the approximate age we figured we’d be if we were college seniors. The other advantage was that I was black and Lori was white. Both boys were white an obvious disadvantage for this kind of experiment.
As 16-year olds, both Lori and I were excited and nervous about whether we could pull this off. It only took a couple of attempts to see that it was a breeze. My initial concern was that the apartment manager or owner wouldn’t believe we were old enough to be college seniors. But that issue never arose. In the first attempt, the four of us drove to our first target. My three classmates stayed in the car a half a block away as I nervously approached the apartment building where a sign clearly advertised an apartment vacancy. The manager of the building was very pleasant. I think she may have addressed me as “dear.” She explained that she’d love to take my application but unfortunately, the apartment had just been rented. She wished me luck as I went on my way.
When I got back to my classmates, I gave them the details of our exchange. The way we planned it, we’d go to about four places and then circle back, if we had time that day, so that Lori could go to the same places. If we didn’t have time that day, we planned to continue the next day. We documented things like the race, gender and approximate age of the apartment manager, the nature of the exchange (were they pleasant or rude, for example), and the look and feel of the place. We made our notes and drove on to the next place.
The first day, all of the places I went to had just been rented. The kicker is that all of us, including myself, believed the apartment managers. Without exception, they were polite and talked to me like I had come to expect adults to talk to kids. They encouraged me to keep looking, congratulated me on almost finishing college and wished me luck in my new career.
We circled back, having Lori follow the same sequence I’d established. At the first apartment complex Lori was greeted by the same apartment manager who called me “dear”. But, unlike my exchange which was held while I stood outside as the manager talked to me from the threshold of the front door, Lori was invited inside. The same woman who told me that the vacancy was filled gave Lori an application and asked her to have a seat at the kitchen table to complete the application. This same woman promised Lori she’d get back to her within a week.
This time, the three waiting in the car were the boys and I. When Lori reported her experience we all high-fived each other. We knew we had hit a home run with this one. All of us, myself included, were highly competitive students. We wanted an “A” in this exercise and this outcome almost assured us of that. And to top it all off, all four of the places that told me they had just rented the apartment took Lori’s application. But while my classmates were jubilant that our research was yielding such dramatic results, with each new revelation, I felt as if I were being kicked in the stomach. I knew I had just been given a window into my not-too-distant future. A future where “nice” people act in ways they don’t characterize as “racist” but never-the-less negatively impact me in ways my white counterparts are rarely cognizant of.
To make a long story short, my study group was awarded an “A” on our project. We went on to do another group project, this time the topic was interracial dating. This one was just as successful, a lot less painful for me and a little comical. It involved a hidden camera, a white young man (one of my classmates) and a black young woman (me) shopping for engagement rings at the Lakewood Shopping Center. Needless to say, with the help of a very talented team member who was great with the camera we got some fantastic candid shots of the locals expressing their extreme dissatisfaction as my “fiancé” and I shopped for rings.
It’s been 35 years since I attended Lakewood High School. I’d like to think the classmates who participated in those projects were somehow enlightened by the experience. Perhaps their lives were changed in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had they not witnessed, first hand, what many minorities in America experience on a regular basis. I have no way of knowing since I did not maintain contact with those students. But based on the life experiences I’ve had in the past 35 years, I fear those experiences had little impact on those students.
In her book, The Failures Of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream, author and Georgetown Law Professor Sheryll Cashin points out that the civil rights revolution “put in place laws that attempted to guarantee that no one should be restricted in their access to education, jobs, voting, travel, public accommodations, or housing because of race.” However, throughout the book she sites case after case where the laws have not produced the desired outcome. In fact, according to Cashin and many respected social scientists, racial segregation in educational settings is more pronounced in the United States today than at any time in American history.
My very first experience in trying to gain access to housing demonstrated that the law provided me with little or no protection in terms of preventing discrimination. The “one-way” busing policy implemented by LBUSD in the seventies resulted in me having limited access to the full high school experience while the white students were unimpeded by the busing policy. And more than 40 years after the Civil Rights movement most Americans continue to live and work under conditions that are just as racially segregated as they were before the Civil Rights movement. This leads me to wonder if taking down signs like the one shown at the top of this page had any impact at all.
Although most Americans say they support integration, the lives they live tell another story. When asked if I think things are getting better, I don’t have an answer. While I’m less likely to experience the kind of overt racism experienced in the South in 1957 by the Little Rock Nine, at least the Little Rock Nine knew who was for them and who was against them. I can’t claim to know who is for or against me. In the 1970’s, although there were laws in place that prohibited landlords from discriminating based on race, my high school project experience demonstrated that it didn’t take much effort to find places where the law was blatantly violated. And, the burden was on me, to prove that the law had been violated.
Today it is socially unacceptable to openly admit to racist feelings. So people don’t come out and say what they think. If it weren’t for the numbers you’d think the United States had finely overcome its racist past. But alas the statistics tell a very different story.
The disparities that continue to exist between blacks and whites in every area that is measurable i.e. economic, health, education, life span, etc. tell a story of two different Americas. And in terms of America’s school desgregation efforts the numbers tell us that this country has made no progress.
– Sharon Kyle
Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes, edits and writes for several print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. Sharon is enrolled in law school at the People’s College of Law in Los Angeles. To contact her, please use the form on the Contact Us page.