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Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 1999 /20 Kislev, 5760

George Will

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Busing's End -- CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The colors of West Charlotte High School, which opened in 1938 as a black school, are maroon and gold because, says Dr. Venton Bell of the class of 1962, those were the colors of Harding High School, a white school four miles away. Under "separate but equal" segregated schools, West Charlotte's athletic uniforms were Harding's hand-me-downs.

Which makes West Charlotte's colors a "vestige" of segregation. From that problematic concept has flowed litigation and other contention, including court-ordered school busing, first ordered in this city 30 years ago.

Then on Sept. 9, 1970, West Charlotte became the first high school in the South where whites were sent into a previously all-black school. Busing's purpose was to erase the vestiges of segregation by achieving racial balance. Now busing is ending here, in America's 25th largest school system, as in many other places.

On Sept. 9 this year a U.S. District judge ruled, in a suit filed by some white parents, that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system, which is 42 percent black, became desegregated "quite some time ago" and has eliminated "the vestiges of discrimination." Many white as well as black leaders in Charlotte, the nation's second-largest banking center, regret the ruling because busing has come to symbolize the community's good-faith efforts to put the past to rest. But newcomers to booming Charlotte, most of them not Southerners, are impatient with this retrospective cast of mind.

Bell is now principal at West Charlotte, where 60 percent of the students are bused. Ninety percent of Charlotte's bus trips by students are less than 30 minutes long; the longest are the voluntary ones for students -- 70 percent them white -- who are drawn by West Charlotte's magnet school component. Bell thinks busing is now unnecessary "if you are given the same resources and the right to choose your staff wisely."

Bell stresses the importance of diversity, which includes leavening schools with the demands of affluent parents for advanced placement courses and other curriculum enrichments: "If you don't know how other people live, you don't know what to want."

Lenny Springs, an NAACP national board member and a vice president of First Union bank, rejects the notion that "my daughter has to sit beside a white person to learn," but he says he has seen improvements in Charlotte's labor force that he attributes to "diversity." However, courts are rightly unreceptive to "race-conscious" policies adopted not to rectify a constitutional violation but to promote a good outcome -- school integration -- not mandated by the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Bell wonders: If 52,000 of the district's 100,000 students are going to be shuffled around to new schools next year, what about those who already have bought school rings and letter jackets? Thus does social engineering collide with social facts, such as teenagers. Many of them probably will be "grandfathered" -- allowed to stay put.

Arthur Griffin, a black Democrat, is chairman of the board of education and opposes the "judicial activism" that has ended busing. John Lassiter, a white Republican, is vice chairman and supports the judge's ruling. Arguing in Bell's conference room, these amiable but determined adversaries demonstrate why the judge's ruling should be welcomed by both sides as rescue from the sterility of the debate about busing.

Lassiter notes that private school enrollment (14 percent of school-age children) is as high as it has ever been and that for the first time since 1971 fewer than 50 percent of the pupils are white. He worries about "tipping" -- a flight from public schools that would cripple this "business-driven city."

Griffin believes busing has been an excuse for locating schools far from black neighborhoods. However, he insists, that were it not for busing, Charlotte would not be a "business-driven city" eager to ameliorate racial divisions. And he worries that money will still follow white children.

Griffin and Lassiter agree that the original busing order envisioned an end to busing when resources were comparable for all children. And they know that the end of busing will intensify scrutiny of resource allocation.

Decades ago the desegregation debate was muddied by those who tried to make "de facto segregation" -- racial imbalances in schools resulting from residential patterns -- an evil akin to "de jure segregation," racial separation enforced by law. Has Charlotte been scrubbed clean of the "vestiges" of slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation in all its forms? No.

But, then "vestiges" of feudalism, Luther, Cromwell and much else remain too. History lingers. However, Charlotte is pleasanter than it was before busing, and perhaps is so in part because of it.

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