We’re coming up on the 35th anniversary of a Supreme Court case involving public schools in Michigan that you may have never heard about – but its consequences are all around us. In the 1974 case of Milliken v. Bradley, a 5-4 decision deemed cross-district busing an unconstitutional means of integrating schools.
The policy involves sending kids to schools that may be farther away in order to better integrate them. While one may argue that there’s nothing inherently unconstitutional about cross-district busing (states, with their power over schools, arguably have the mandate to effect such a remedy), it’s actually quite stunning that four justices supported the plan — considering how intuitively offensive cross-district busing seems.
The Milliken decision was an opportunity lost. Had cross-district busing been upheld, the actual purpose of remedial busing would have been met. By the time I attended public schools in Detroit and its suburbs 25 years later, the problem would have been solved, all districts would have reached what courts call “unitary status” and such remedies would no longer have been needed. But instead, cross-district busing was defeated in the Supreme Court and the problem of de facto segregation in major metropolitan areas — in schools and elsewhere — never went away.
The Detroit area is one of the most segregated regions in the country. You might wonder exactly what that means in this day and age. Could segregated regions still be so much of a problem with, you know, Barack Obama being president and all?
The answer is yes, of course. And for an explanation, it’s helpful to look at how we got here.
The phenomena that racially polarized the Detroit area are the same ones that wreaked havoc on race relations across the country for much of the mid to late 20th century — tensions accompanying the civil rights movement, redlining, white flight and growing unemployment. These things segregated neighborhoods and schools in many major metro areas, but all of them hit Detroit especially hard.
Other similarly situated cities were able to somewhat mitigate the effects of segregation in part because they had what the Motor City did not: a viable, comprehensive public transit system. While those regions may have been segregated in terms of housing, at least disparate groups of people still had the ability to travel freely within the region.
Most major metro areas developed light-rail transit 50 years ago, but debate over that issue never gave way to a solution in Detroit. General Motors’s insistence that (GM-built) buses, not trains, were the solution for Detroit undoubtedly swayed public officials, and by the time they realized that city buses were no substitute for trains, it was too late to build a cheap, comprehensive subway system.
This unfortunate scenario has had repercussions that University students know all about. For all the big games, nice restaurants, music clubs and museums in Detroit, there’s just no feasible way to get to these things without a car.
Besides the sheer inconvenience, the systemic immobilization that results from the lack of a viable public transit system serves to reinforce boundaries in our unfortunately segregated region. Don’t believe me? For proof, look at the recent flap over comedian Jay Leno’s free comedy shows. The shows — which Leno did to provide a much-needed distraction for out-of-work Michiganders — were held at the Palace of Auburn Hills and not within the city of Detroit itself.
In what other city would that be a problem? People would just get on the subway and go. But that’s not possible in Detroit. The people Leno wanted to help — the recently unemployed, who may have lost their cars — had no way to get to Auburn Hills. It’s simply mind-boggling.
Since we can’t use public transit as a Band-aid here in the Detroit area, a more grassroots, holistic solution — as challenging as that will be — may be the only answer. I don’t know what exactly that solution is, but perhaps we should once again turn to schools.
Schools in the Detroit area were desegregated, of course, but never became truly integrated. Had that happened, the regional disparity in terms or race and prosperity would never have taken root. Knowing their children could go to school anywhere in the region regardless of where they lived would have prevented parents from actively moving to or from certain areas. Tax bases would not have shifted so drastically and neighborhoods would be more integrated.
In short, the solution the Supreme Court rejected in Milliken would have made the problem go away long ago. But instead, we’ve had 35 bonus years of segregation.
Imran Syed was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at email@example.com.