Wearing a black armband, a hefty antibusing leader stood up at a national conference on desegregation in Louisville, Ky. and pointed an accusing finger at James S. Coleman. “You’re the man who started this thing of busing,” he shouted. “Why use us as guinea pigs?” Those who favor busing are no more pleased with Coleman. Nathanial Jones, general counsel for the NAACP, for instance, has branded the soft-spoken, 49-year-old University of Chicago sociologist as a “fraud.”
Why is Coleman caught in the crossfire? In his 1966 Coleman Report (which, in fact, did not even mention busing), he concluded that lower-class children—white or black—did better in middle-class schools. His findings were subsequently seized on by integration advocates as justification for wide-scale busing. Then last June Coleman declared that forced busing had backfired. “My latest research,” he says, “shows that desegregation in central cities causes a sharp increase in the loss of whites from the central school system—thus defeating the purpose by recreating segregation between a black central city and white suburbs.” Coleman would favor voluntary busing with a multiple choice of schools, but over the long run, he feels, the solution may rest on intermarriage.
The economy aside, no domestic issue created more heat and less light in 1975 than busing. Torn by court-mandated busing, suburban Louisville erupted into a riot. In the north, South Boston experienced ugly episodes of violence as angry whites tried to halt their new yellow peril—the school-buses ferrying children of both races to and from Boston’s black Roxbury section.
As a central figure in the desegregation drama, Indiana-born Coleman appears miscast. Self-effacing, the Columbia-educated sociologist has been a full professor at the University of Chicago since 1973. Married for the second time, Coleman lives in the racially mixed Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago with his wife, Zdzislawa, 29, a Polish-born sociologist. His three children by his first marriage, aged 20 to 12, have all attended both public and private schools, integrated and segregated.
Coleman blames television and the press for sensationalizing his research findings. But his harshest criticism is reserved for researchers who maintain a “double standard when it comes to school desegregation. The discipline of social science,” he continues between puffs on a black cigar, “has been inexcusably unwilling to look at potentially negative consequences of school desegregation.”
Intermarriage may seem a desperately long-range solution, but Coleman stands by it. “School desegregation in the past has depended too much upon the guilt of a few white liberals,” he says. “When we have more blacks marrying whites, there will be a lot of people with a strong interest in maintaining an integrated society.”