Lukas keeps readers off balance with his pace and structure. He may head dutifully down a chronological path, marching to the next School Committee meeting, the next violent confrontation, but then he whirls back in time, sometimes 400 years, to fill in the context. One minute Rachel Twymon, the black mother of six, is weeping in her Roxbury apartment over the murder of King. By the next Twymon chapter we are in 1619 on a sandy spit in Virginia where the first “Negar” slaves landed. Lukas pauses for long stretches to tell us about congressional politics in the days of “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, or the relationship of the Irish Catholic Church to the French Revolution.
It’s a tribute to Lukas’ storytelling skills that readers are pulled along with him, following what seems to be a relentless curiosity. He is never satisfied. How much is dedication to the craft, how much deep-rooted obsession? Lukas’ legendary intensity could seem extreme, in ways that sends chills down the spines of the average journalist.
Early on in his reporting, he chose one anti-busing family from Charlestown and followed them for four years, before deciding they weren’t right for his story. They were fanatics, he told an interviewer, which was more suited to a Dostoevsky novel than Lukas’ epic work. So he started from scratch with more moderate “Townies,” the McGoffs. Four years of reporting, gone.
Tony Lukas was a large-framed man. It’s difficult to imagine him settling into Alice McGoff’s kitchen in his 1950s-style tweed jacket as seven children clamored for attention. Still, it’s obvious from his incisive portrayals that he gained her trust and that of all his interview subjects. One telling glimpse into his methods and motivations came later in his own words, in an interview with the National Book Foundation in 1985. “Writers, I think, are, to one extent or another, damaged people,” he told the interviewer. “Writing is our way of repairing ourselves. In my own case, I was filling a hole in my life, which opened at the age of eight when my mother killed herself, throwing our family into utter disarray. That’s one reason the book worked: I wasn’t just writing a book about busing. I was filling a hole in myself.”
In the last three pages of Common Ground, Lukas predicts the next consequence of this social experiment: white guilt, white flight. When Judge Wendell Arthur Garrity Jr. began examining Boston’s dilemma in 1972, some 90,000 students were enrolled in the city’s public schools, roughly 60 percent of them white. Four years later, 20,000 white children had transferred to parochial or private schools, or had left the city altogether. By 1976, Boston schools were 55-percent white. Today, Boston’s white school population is down to 13 percent; only 22 percent come from middle-class or affluent homes.
Colin and Joan Diver joined the exodus in the late ’70s, a capitulation so painful that it sent Joan to a doctor’s office literally gasping for air. They abandoned their diverse school for a home in a leafy suburb. Colin had reached his limit when he found himself armed with a baseball bat, chasing a mugger down his street.
The book ends with Colin reconstructing the 17th-century white picket fence around his Newton house, “the intricate junction of peg and hole sealing off the Divers’ perimeter, rearing its ivory spine against the world.” The image is eerily prescient. The white flight trend would continue, leaving many convinced that forced busing was the reason racial isolation in cities eventually became worse. But it’s too easy to draw a straight causal line. New York City, for example, chose neighborhood control over cross-district busing in the late ’60s, and its white population fled public schools as well. Today the city’s public schools are 85-percent black and Latino, and overwhelmingly poor, and its elite options are whiter and more Asian than ever before.
Mayor Thomas Menino finally ended Boston’s busing in March 2013, amid warnings that a return to neighborhood schools would inevitably lead to clustering the poorest students in the schools least prepared to help them succeed.
And yet only a few local community folks are taking the death of integration seriously. As journalist Dana Goldstein pointed out in The Atlantic, Boston’s volatile legacy of mandatory busing gone wrong has obfuscated the real benefits of busing for integration when it’s done right. One model that has worked with some success in Hartford, CT, mixes high-quality magnet schools with voluntary busing; good schools draw suburban kids into blighted areas, and inner-city kids are bused out to fill their newly open seats. A variation on that theme has worked for more than 40 years in Raleigh, NC’s Wake County School District.