Reading Common Ground when it first came out was exhilarating. It felt almost like attending a sweeping seminar on everything you need to know about America, with a spellbinding storyteller at the podium. Boston’s wounds were still relatively raw. Hostilities still crackled. There was an urgency to understand what just happened.
For those who lived in the midst of the riots, it was a revelation. One journalist who grew up poor and Irish Catholic in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood recently told me he never understood what all the turmoil was about until he read the book. “Common Ground changed the way I saw my origins,” said Kerry Burke, a longtime crime reporter at the New York Daily News. As a child, Burke was bused from one have-not neighborhood to another for elementary and middle school. “It was the difference between being from nowhere and then realizing I had lived through the death of the civil rights movement.”
Reading it today is still as daunting as it is inspiring. It feels, in the end, close to an act of despair. There is considerable evidence that creating district-wide diversity can be a powerful reform tool, but few reformers now consider it seriously. Mixing rich and poor, black and white children in classrooms is thought to be a dusty notion from a naïve time. It reminds us that the conversation that used to be so open has turned inward.
National school-reform notions from our last decade still wrap themselves in the rhetoric of civil rights. President George W. Bush codified “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “closing the black-white achievement gap” in his signature No Child Left Behind policy. The preferred means to the end are now top-down management tools: rating teachers, adding layers of tests, closing failing schools, creating a scattershot collection of privately-run public charters in their stead.
Busing programs have slowly been dismantled across the nation. No federal incentives encourage districts to create equity across their populations. Today, about one-third of black and Latino children are attending racially isolated schools. Child poverty inches up every year. It’s not exactly the outcome the US Supreme Court justices envisioned when they ruled in 1954 that separate schools were inherently unequal. And the achievement gap between the races, after narrowing somewhat in the 1980s, is now wider than ever. What did Boston really endure, and for what?
Readers talk about “devouring” books. That’s how I remember my first encounter with Common Ground in 1985, the year it was published. I carted the weighty tome around New York City, stealing reading time when I could on long subway rides. The screeching clatter of the train provided an appropriate soundtrack for the urgency in my head.
Reading it again takes me back not just to Boston, but to the Bronx, where my son attended kindergarten in the public school on the corner when I was a rookie freelancer for The Village Voice. From the first day I gazed through the wire fence watching children line up by size in the schoolyard, I realized that this overcrowded elementary school was a minefield of problems and untold stories.
Scores of buses drove in and out of the Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood in relative peace, dropping off Hispanic and African-American children from the South Bronx—the “busers,” they were called. Joining them were the mostly white “walkers” from the surrounding middle-class neighborhoods. If integration was the purpose, it disintegrated as soon as the children entered the classrooms. By first grade they were already sorted by so-called ability, a predictable proxy for race. The top first-grade classes with the strongest teachers were mostly white neighborhood kids. The bottom classes with the least experienced teachers were mostly low-income nonwhites from south of Fordham Road. Their education destinies were determined by age 6.
Racial segregation had moved quietly, with a wink and a nod, inside the schoolhouse doors. School administrators insisted there was no deliberate effort to track children by race. The principal distrusted the white parents who raised objections. After all, white families had options. Many had finagled transfers for their children to a wealthier, whiter, elementary school in Riverdale. There was a tacit acceptance of the assumption that true integration was impossible to achieve.
I was a fairly recent transplant from Iowa, at a loss to make sense of the hostilities flaring up between the principal and the cultural stew of parents. Racial friction seemed to be everywhere, but acknowledged nowhere. I plowed through Common Ground searching for answers, trying to understand the historical and legal roots of urban racial tensions. If Lukas’ account of the Boston riots didn’t exactly change my life, it gave it a swift kick down an untraveled road.