The Norfolk School Board's vote this week to halt the crosstown busing that successfully desegregated public education and to adopt a plan that would resegregate half its elementary schools supposedly was intended to stem white flight and prevent the system from "becoming all-black."
But in reality, the black and white children are the scapegoats. The busing fight is a signal that certain whites in that city by the sea want the political and economic power to themselves. More deeply, it's an example of the continuing inability of many whites to overcome their historic fears of black people. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson puts it: "It ain't the bus, it's us."
In the many months this struggle has embroiled Norfolk, leaders of the white political and business establishment and some residents have gone public with the real reason they were fighting busing. They admitted that they did not want their city to become "another Washington" or "another Detroit"--both cities with predominantly black populations in which blacks have political control. Norfolk Mayor Vincent J. Thomas keeps transcripts of remarks made by former Richmond mayor Henry L. Marsh III, a black man, in his files--presumably as a reminder of what can happen if white folks relax their vigilance for a split second.
Mayor Thomas said in a telephone interview, "In all of my remarks (about not wanting Norfolk to become 'another Washington' or 'another Richmond') I was talking about the school system . . . and the politics. We don't want our school system to become like Washington where there isn't a chance for meaningful integration or where everything political is clothed in racial terms."
The opponents of the plan to resegregate Norfolk's schools have, with painstaking research, refuted all the arguments the anti-busing forces have mustered. When the city's school board said busing cost too much, the Norfolk Coalition explored 50 years of school board budgets to prove that cost savings didn't justify such a position. When the anti-busing forces said test scores had plunged, the pro-busing forces determined in that case as well that busing was not the villain.
King Davis, professor of social work at Norfolk State College and chairperson of the coalition, said Norfolk has had an unstable population through its history, and white flight began decades before busing. Federal government policies that made suburban living more attractive financially, U.S.-financed improved transportation that made commuting easier, the outward movement of corporations and consequently a better tax structure in the suburbs hastened the movement.
Norfolk is now 35 percent black, but has never elected more than one black to its seven-member city council. But political leaders seem to fear that if many more whites moved, there would be nobody left to vote for them and they would lose the power they now have. It became easy, then, to use the "too black" image to prey on the fears of the poor and working-class whites upon whom busing has had the greatest impact anyway. The Norfolk power structure knew that busing was the red herring, the magic word that could achieve their aims. Thus, the situation was tailor-made to make busing the same kind of tool in Norfolk that it has been in other parts of the country.
Norfolk also is, of course, a sign of the times. With the Reagan administration arguing that schools do not have to balance their populations racially to prove they don't discriminate, the Norfolk school board clearly believed it could get away with this action at this time.
But most of all, those pronouncements and moves to turn back the clock reflect the continuing inability of many whites to overcome their historic fears of black people, fears that are reflected in education, in jobs, housing and health care as well as in the political process.
The problem about all this is that this continuing struggle between blacks and whites based on racism and fear never is openly addressed, never debated. It is, however, a debate that needs to be engaged in if this continuous grappling ever is to lessen. Until an open discussion begins, we continue such vicious cycles as we see in Norfolk. Segregation. Desegregation achieved in the midst of great Sturm und Drang. Successful integration. And now resegregation. Business as usual. And that's wrong--and dangerous.