A different kind of busing approach to desegregation

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Buses and trains can help us overcome our divisions
  • vxla
  • Buses and trains can help us overcome our divisions
On a summer day in 1892—120 years ago this year—Homer Plessy boarded a train in New Orleans and sat in the car for white passengers. Plessy, a 30-year-old shoemaker, was mostly white himself: he was an "octoroon"—seven-eighths white and one-eighth African. But that wasn't white enough. Plessy was violating Louisiana's Separate Car Act, which directed railway companies to provide "equal but separate" accommodations for whites and "coloreds." The conductor asked him to move to the colored car; he refused and was arrested, and later fined $25.

Plessy appealed, and his case, Plessy v. Ferguson, ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. By a vote of 7-1, the court found the Separate Car Act constitutional. States could not be expected to enforce "a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either," the high court said. Separating the races in railcars was no different than providing separate schools for whites and coloreds and forbidding interracial marriage, both of which were clearly within a state's powers, the majority said.

The problem with Plessy's argument, the court went on, was "the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."

It took only six decades for the Supreme Court to admit that the "badge of inferiority" wasn't something blacks were imagining. In Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation case decided in 1954, the high court acknowledged that separating a group stigmatized it—that separate was inherently unequal.

But we still live largely as we did at the time of Plessy, with "commingling" kept to a minimum—not by law now, but by the residue of history. Housing in metropolitan Chicago, and in many other metro areas, is still markedly segregated racially, with African-Americans especially isolated. Despite Brown, Chicago-area schoolchildren are intensely segregated, with most black kids in Chicago Public Schools and most white kids in suburban and private schools.

As for transportation, no segregated railway cars are needed to keep commingling to a minimum. The automobile does that naturally for us.

It was the automobile—and vast government expenditures on highways—that hastened white flight and suburban sprawl in the mid-20th century. Throughout that century, metropolitan travelers also shifted increasingly from public transit to cars.

Cars are superior isolating agents, segregating us not only from other races and classes, but all kinds of "others" we encounter when we use public transit instead.

A large body of evidence—"intergroup contact theory"—shows that contact with others has "overwhelmingly positive effects," a review in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations concluded last year.

Many people presume that intergroup contact is likely to be negative—that "good fences make good neighbors," the authors wrote. They noted that negative intergroup encounters are often publicized, while positive encounters "go unrecognized or are not viewed as newsworthy." But the research indicates that positive effects occur far more often than negative ones.

Contact between groups reduces prejudice, the authors said—especially the prejudice that majority-group members have for minority-group members. It reduces fear of others and enhances empathy. The positive effects aren't limited to different racial and ethnic groups, "but also for other, often stigmatized groups—such as homosexuals, the disabled and the mentally ill." The greater the contact the greater the effects—but even superficial exposure seems to be helpful, according to the authors.

The argument for increased spending on public transit has been made largely on environmental grounds. But here's another argument for it: use of public transportation can (and probably already does) reduce the prejudice that's a key indirect dynamic in segregation.

The ridership on the myriad CTA bus and train routes isn't all integrated, of course; the lines reflect the city's neighborhood segregation. But many routes have racially and economically diverse riderships. In a city with not enough possibilities for mundane commingling—between blacks and whites especially—public transit is a significant one. It certainly offers a lot more exposure than the auto.

The way one rides on a bus or train matters, no doubt. If you're lost in your smartphone, your presence isn't going to mean as much as if you actually chat with a fellow passenger on occasion. But, again, mere exposure seems to be beneficial.

So—if you often drive when you really don't have to, and you'd like to reduce your segregation footprint as well as your carbon footprint—just hop on the bus, Gus.

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