It's too soon to know whether the House-passed anti-busing legislation will also clear the Senate. But the fate of that mischievous piece of legislation (which says the Justice Department may not "bring or maintain" any action to require the busing of students beyond the closet neighborhood school) may be more harmful to presidential prerogatives than to the education of black children.
Busing for school desegregation has nearly always cost more in political, financial and emotional capital than it was worth in educational gains for black children. It is an issue that has unified much of white America and justified some of its black instincts without similarly uniting black America, which never really was that hot for busing. It has torn communities apart for precious little educational gain, and it has nearly bankrupted NAACP.
An occasional study here and there has found some slight gains in black achievement as a result of busing, but more typically even the optimistic, pro--busing studies can claim little more than that white children aren't hurt by busing.
And for all the hoopla over the question of "forced busing," there has, in fact, been relatively little of it. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, only 3.6 percent of the children who ride buses to school do so for purposes of integration. For the overwhelming majority, buses are just a way of getting to school.
Most of the impetus for busing has come from white political activists and the civil rights establishment, most notably the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It has interested rank-and-file blacks primarily on the basis that opposition to busing has been seen as evidence of continuing white racism. In other words, blacks have tended to be less for busing than against anti-busing whites.
Oridinary blacks have understood, even if the black leadership has not, the difference between the racial segregation that was outlawed in 1954 and the active intergration of schools that later came to be the trend. Indeed, the anti-busing legislation attached earlier this month to the Justice Department authorization bill would have been greeted with cheers from black America back in the mid 1950s. What they wanted then was precisely an end to racially based busing beyond the nearest neighborhood school.
Not only were the all-black schools to which black children were then bused generally inferior and less well-financed than the white schools they passed every morning; there was also the psychological damage done to black children by a policy that said, in effect, that they weren't good enough to attend the nearby white schools. The psychological damage inflicted in more recent years came from the implication that the problem with black schools was that they were black; that the way to cure what ailed black children was to see to it that they had white schoolmates.
Nobody ever put it quite that way, of course. The favored formulation was that racial isolation was harmful to black children (though, curiously, not for white children) quite apart from the quality of facilities, the financing and the teaching at black schools. Still, the suggestion was that black children needed white schoolmates.
What black children have needed all along is quality education, and that, as the District of Columbia is learning, can be had in black schools as well as in intergrated ones. This is not to say that rank-and-file blacks have favored segregation. They haven't. They have merely resisted the implication that schools whose students are black because the school neighborhoods are black are, on that account inferior.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of this feeling is the attitude of blacks toward historically black colleges and universities. Blacks who would wage bitter war against a policy of officially segregated colleges have argued with equal fervor against government policies that would eliminate black colleges. It is racist to say that black Virginians may not attend Old Dominion University. But is it right to say that Norfolk State University must be merged out of existence as a black-oriented institution?
The arguments in favor of the traditionally black colleges stand in interesting contrast with those made on behalf of public school integration. In the case of the colleges, the argument is: We have our own traditions and concerns; we understand and care about black students, and we know how to teach them. Just give us the resources and leave us along. But when it comes to the public schools, the argument is that black children need not just first-class resources and facilities but also white schoolmates and teachers. Some of us never bought it.
There are areas where racial segregation remains a problem, and the anti-busing legislation will harm federal efforts to correct it. But it may well be that the major mischief of the anti-busing rider is that it weakens the authority of the president to enforce the law of the land.
As President Carter said when he vetoed a bill containing a similar rider. "The real issue is whether it is proper for the Congress to prevent the president from carrying out his constitutional responsibility."