Commentary Magazine

Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas

The Judge & the Schools

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families.
by J. Anthony Lukas
Knopf. 659 pp. $19.95.

By now, everyone must know that J. Anthony Lukas has written a fascinating book about three families and various public figures who are caught up in the turmoil surrounding the effort to integrate the Boston public schools. The words on the dust jacket have been picked up and repeated by most of the review media, and I think they are by and large correct—a “brilliant tapestry” conveying a “deep sympathy for the people involved” and supplying a “powerful account” of the “realities of day-today living” in a city wracked by controversy and violence.

The families are those of Colin Diver, a Yankee graduate of Harvard Law School; Rachel Twymon, a black woman with six children living on welfare; and Alice Mc-Goff, an Irish widow living with her children in Charlestown. The public figures are former mayor Kevin White, former School Committee chairman Louise Day Hicks, Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship, Cardinal Medeiros, and federal judge W. Arthur Garrity.

Though everyone’s story is interesting, the most informative ones are not those about the three families but those about the legal, media, and governmental institutions of Boston. The account of the power struggle and political cleavages within the Globe sheds new light on the role of one of the most powerful political forces in New England; the chapters on Kevin White are a revealing portrait of a man caught up in the need to pacify a city while pursuing his ambitions for higher office. But the key figure is Judge Garrity, and about him we learn the least.

Judge Garrity’s orders set in motion one of the most massive, and bitterly resisted, school-integration plans ever attempted in a Northern city. No one has learned more about the history of this period than Lukas, but he is at pains not to judge what resulted, nor does he judge the people who shaped the outcome or were changed by it. In fact, the book is written in such a way as to make it almost impossible for the reader to reach any conclusions, either. The book does not proceed chronologically, but by means of a series of snapshots of the families and officials at various times. The story of public schooling and its integration is not told in any single place, but is woven into the tapestry like a thread, and not even a brightly colored, easy-to-follow one at that. If you do not already know the convoluted history of the Racial Imbalance Act, the federal court orders and plans, the neighborhood response, the legal and political appeals, you will find the book’s structure puzzling and confusing. If you wish to extract that history from the book (most of the bits and pieces are there, scattered through its twenty-nine chapters), you will find it hard going because the book has no index.

School integration is the frame, but Boston is the picture. Lukas is fascinated by the city and its many cultures. He tells us about how the Irish and the Yankees began their political wars, how people live in some of the ethnic neighborhoods of a city that is virtually defined by the idea of ethnicity and neighborhood, and how newspapers, business leaders, and city hall struggle with one another. If you do not know contemporary Boston, this is a splendid introduction to all parts save the new Yuppie precincts of Quincy Market and Newbury Street and the student culture of the universities.

One can both admire and be irritated by Lukas’s steadfast refusal to tell us what school integration did or did not achieve. Almost everybody involved in this struggle has his story told sympathetically; there are very few stereotypes; careful distinctions are made among persons often lumped together (“the press,” “city hall”). But Lukas’s resolute refusal to judge—save here and there, by slips of the pen—makes us wonder who can ever hope to judge, since it is unlikely anyone will ever again interview as many people and read as many documents as did Lukas.

And even if no judgment were made, it would be helpful to have an account rendered. What happened to the Boston schools? How many were integrated, and how many of those were resegregated as whites left the city or its schools? Did the schools get better or worse? Did racial attitudes improve or worsen? Is Boston a less racist city after the judge’s intervention than before? Was all the turmoil worth it?

Bostonians feel strongly about these matters. Many people who will readily agree that the Boston school authorities were actively aiding and abetting segregation nevertheless believe that Judge Garrity very nearly destroyed the Boston public schools as a consequence of an insensitive, heavy-handed, overly intrusive desegregation plan. There can be little doubt that something had to be done; the practices of the school authorities in the early 1960’s simply did not measure up to even the loosest interpretation of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But were there better ways to eliminate segregation than the one chosen by Judge Garrity?

Lukas hints that there were. In 1975, Judge Garrity decided that, in the face of the refusal of the Boston School Committee to submit an acceptable desegregation plan of its own, he would devise and impose such a plan. But judges are not equipped to do that kind of detailed work, and so he recruited several experts and “special masters” (i.e., surrogate judges) to help produce a plan. One of them was former Massachusetts Attorney General Edward J. McCormack, a liberal who was also a native of South Boston, which was the heart of the angriest resistance to integration. McCormack quickly decided that for a plan to have any hope of success, it would have to be shaped by consultations with the affected parties, and so he set about trying to broker a deal.

“In weeks of shuttle diplomacy,” Lukas writes, “he negotiated a Phase II plan with broad support.” Unlike the temporary Phase I plan that covered only part of the city, this would cover all of it, and do so in the face of already fierce opposition. The McCormack plan had several key provisions. Pupils could attend a school within their districts (drawn so as to include both black and white neighborhoods) or attend one of several “magnet schools” containing special, or especially high-quality, programs designed to draw students from all over the city. The ratio of blacks to whites in the various districts would range from 5 per 100 in East Boston to 75 per 100 in Roxbury. Enrollment in the voluntary magnet schools was to reflect the citywide ratios—about 36 blacks per 100. Most important, there would be no busing between South Boston and all-black Roxbury; instead, blacks from nearby Dorchester would be moved into Southie.

There were opponents of the McCormack scheme. Some blacks and white liberals criticized it for not integrating schools enough; other black leaders, like Professor Charles Willie, preferred giving blacks control over their own schools to attempting to mix whites and blacks into white-controlled schools. But most of the experts and masters felt the McCormack plan represented a reasonable balance among the contending interests.

Judge Garrity changed his experts’ plan. He imposed a more uniform racial balance on the various school districts, increased the amount of busing, and ordered that pupils from Roxbury be bused into South Boston. A decade of trench warfare began.



The chief lesson I derive from Lukas’s book (I do not know whether he would agree with my judgment) is the deep difference between the law and politics, between deciding rights and solving problems, between correcting wrongs and managing institutions. Judge Garrity decided the case by the strictest legal standards to be inferred from extant constitutional law. Abolishing barriers to blacks entering all-white schools was not enough; blacks and whites actually had to be in schools and classrooms together, whatever their preferences in the matter. Insuring that blacks and whites were actually in school together was not enough; the ratio between the races had to approximate their ratio in the city as a whole. Achieving this mixture in places where it could be done with the minimum disruption and protest was not enough; the mixing had to occur in the very bastions of white opposition and in those schools—the high schools—where the fears of both blacks and whites were the keenest and the potential for violence was the greatest. A city that cried out for governance got adjudication instead.

Some will say that Judge Garrity had no choice. I disagree, but I know of no way to settle the issue. In 1954, the Supreme Court in the Brown case said that “separate schools were inherently unequal.” In 1968, it said in the Green case that ending separation meant producing a “unitary, nonracial system of public education.” In 1971 in the Swann case, it reviewed a variety of methods to remove racism from the assignment of pupils to schools. It concluded that the existence of a “small number of one-race, or virtually one-race, schools” was not in and of itself evidence of segregation, and hence was acceptable (albeit subject to “close scrutiny”). It approved “the very limited use . . . of mathematical ratios,” or racial quotas, in assigning pupils, but commented that this was not an “inflexible requirement.” It approved court-ordered busing (“Desegregation plans cannot be limited to the walk-in school”) but did not insist that busing was essential in every place where black and white pupils lived some distance from each other. Moreover, the Court recognized that communities will not remain demographically stable, and so the schools and supervising courts are not required by the Constitution to make “year-by-year adjustments in the racial composition of student bodies once the affirmative duty to desegregate has been accomplished.” The Court looked forward to a quick end to the intervention of district-court judges.

So far as I can tell from the record, Judge Garrity took the most expansive, not the most moderate, view of his powers and duties under prevailing Supreme Court doctrine. He intervened in great detail and for many years. He was intolerant of any one-race schools. He did not view racial quotas as flexible guides to achieving integration, but as precise goals in and of themselves. He made year-by-year adjustments in all phases of the plan, and directed that action be taken on the most minute aspects of school management (a former Boston school superintendent once told me, perhaps in exaggeration, that the judge was selecting the Bunsen burners for the science laboratories). Far from looking forward to a quick end to his intervention, he acted as if he relished his continuing supervision of the Boston schools.



The supremely ironical consequence of the judge’s role is recorded in the story of Colin Diver who, with his wife Joan, moved into a racially mixed neighborhood in the South End, refurbished a dilapidated home on a street just beginning to undergo gentrification, and enrolled their son in a neighborhood public school where the parents, black and white, worked hard to create and sustain an invigorating educational atmosphere. Soon it had the reputation for providing, with broad community support, quality integrated education. Judge Garrity, seeing this success, decided to redraw district lines so that 90 of the 175 returning pupils would be reassigned elsewhere and 140 new pupils brought in from elsewhere. The parents who had created a quality, integrated school were now going to have their children sent elsewhere to schools that were much inferior, and parents of the children newly assigned to the school from other areas had no interest in the particular innovative programs that had been developed in the South End. The parents protested to Judge Garrity, but to no avail. Soon, bitter conflict broke out beween the parents of the children already there and the parents of those newly arrived, conflict exacerbated by the judge’s order that each racial group had to form a separate caucus to elect members of the “Racial-Ethnic Parents’ Council.” Pseudo-integration by judicial order had replaced actual integration by social processes.

Lukas does not really explain—perhaps no one can—why Judge Garrity chose to play the role he did. Lukas seems to have learned less about the judge and the judge’s thinking on the case than about any other aspect of the Boston story. It may well be that the judge, who is acknowledged as an interviewee, refused—quite properly—to discuss a case that was still before him. Whatever the reason, Common Ground as an account of the struggle over school integration suffers: it is Hamlet with only a sketchy, incomplete picture of the Prince of Denmark.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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