OPINION — A long time ago — in fact, the same year that Joe Biden ran for the Senate as a precocious 29-year-old — I sought a Michigan congressional seat as an even more precocious 25-year-old.
The cause that propelled me into a Democratic primary and a quest to become the youngest member of Congress was my fierce opposition to the Vietnam War. But the issue that upended my congressional race is one that unexpectedly has contemporary relevance — federal court-ordered busing.
When I began running for Congress in February 1972, six months before the August primary, busing was just another predictably liberal position that I staked out almost reflexively. As a graduate student in history at the University of Michigan, I embodied the dominant political ethos of Ann Arbor.
So I was ‘yes’ on abortion (a year before Roe v. Wade), ‘yes’ on legalization of marijuana (all politics is local), ‘yes’ on federally funded day care programs (an early and enduring feminist cause) and ‘yes’ on busing. Aside from my permissiveness on marijuana, it was the gospel according to The New York Times editorial page.
But these issues — aside from marijuana — had little to do with my campaign. Even though the military draft was winding down and American casualties had plummeted, I was more single-minded about Vietnam than even George McGovern or Jane Fonda.
All that changed in June when federal Judge Stephen Roth issued the most sweeping school desegregation decision since Brown v. Board of Education. Correctly assessing that — because of white flight — it was impossible to achieve racial balance in the Detroit schools alone, Roth ordered the busing of 310,000 students between city and suburbs.
In those days, Michigan’s 2nd District stretched from the college towns of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti (the district had more voting-age students than any in the country) to Livonia in Wayne County, a middle-class suburb that was, for many white residents, their first stop after fleeing decaying Detroit.
Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti were too far west of Detroit to be included in the Roth decision. But Livonia, home to many economically liberal but socially conservative autoworkers, was right in Roth’s crosshairs.
The white rage surrounding the Roth decision — soon mirrored in Biden’s Delaware and cities like Boston — proved to be a bigger challenge to liberalism than Lyndon Johnson blundering into the Vietnam War.
Unlike Biden, my position on busing in 1972 could withstand the most intense retrospective scrutiny from Kamala Harris or anyone else seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Without hesitation or equivocation, my position on the Roth decision was impeccable — I was enthusiastically for it.
Then and now, I can paint my position on busing in the most idealistic of hues. The son of a city planner (albeit in far-off Connecticut), I grew up understanding how zoning, red-lining and other techniques employed by banks and local governments could create virtually all-white suburbs and increasingly black inner cities.
In that sense, the gospel of neighborhood schools was a euphemism for continued de facto segregation in the north. While aggressive housing policies could ultimately create more integrated neighborhoods, that kind of demographic change was measured in decades and even generations.
For all its troubling aspects, busing (which had been part of the educational experience for many white rural and suburban children since the dawn of the automobile age) seemed the least flawed solution to America’s intractable racial dilemmas.
But even if I could have gotten a wider hearing for these arguments, my point of view could easily be dismissed as liberal hypocrisy. I was a non-parent and a non-homeowner, living in a liberal enclave an hour west of Detroit, preaching integration to non-affluent white parents whose children were about to be bused into Detroit.
My principal opponent in the six-way primary represented Livonia in the state Legislature so I never had illusions about my prospects in that part of the district. But I had identified pockets of local antiwar activists, so I naively nurtured the hope that I could limit my losses in Livonia.
After the Roth decision, that fantasy lasted as long as it took to hold one or two house parties. (Some of the details have been mercifully erased from memory). What I do recall is the coiled fury of Livonia voters after I conceded that I approved of the Roth decision. I would have done better giving temperance speeches at Woodstock.
I narrowly lost my primary in large part because I got walloped by a 10-to-1 margin in Livonia. (I have always assumed that the small total I did receive there was because voters’ hands slipped as they were working the old-time lever machines). Even if I had been successful in August, I would have been doomed to defeat in November with McGovern losing Michigan by a double-digit margin.
The Roth decision was never implemented after the state of Michigan joined by suburban school districts appealed to the Supreme Court. The court’s 5-4 decision in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974 permanently ruled out mandatory cross-district busing as a remedy for de facto school segregation.
What stays with me 47 years after my only foray into electoral politics is the anger. Not the rage of demonstrators shouting racist epithets. But the feeling by middle-class white parents that their children would be pawns in busing plans concocted by federal judges and supported by ivory-tower liberals.
My point is not to fully exonerate Biden. But it is worth reminding the former vice president’s critics that the angry days of the 1970s seemed far different at the time than they do now when viewed through a distant historical lens.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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