Race in Transit

Cap’n Transit posted an interesting post on race in transit systems, and I’d like to explore the issue a bit more here. In discussing the effects of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which eventually allowed blacks to sit wherever they’d like on buses, thanks to the work of Rosa Parks and others, he suggests that the ultimate consequence may have been losing the war for better transportation options:

“Looking at the transit system as a whole – including all the ways that people get from home to work, play, school and shopping – what did these leaders accomplish?”

In the years since desegregation, the Montgomery bus system has shrunk to a tiny fraction of its original size, and, as an article in The Nation argues, it is poorly funded and provides limited service. Like many small and medium transit systems around the country, Montgomery’s has become the domain of poor minorities, with few whites and few in the middle class choosing to ride buses. The bus boycotts may have ensured equality, but in the meantime, the service the Civil Rights Movement fought so hard to integrate has almost disappeared.

Who’s fault is this? Why have our transit systems become transportation of last resort and the ultimate anathema to middle class whites? One might argue that the rise of the automobile simply made the disuse of transit inevitable, but there’s another explanation: a lack of public investment. Indeed, in cities such as Portland, New York, and Washington that have continued to invest in their transit networks, ridership on trains and buses is mixed in both race and income. That’s because of a consistent public sector effort to ensure quality service, something that cities like Montgomery have not pushed.

Why not? Why should Montgomery be fated to an underused, ill-performing transit service?

In a July 2005 article in the Journal of Urban History, “The Politics of Race and Public Space,” Kevin Kruse argues that the increasing lack of public investment since the 1960s in Atlanta was a result of desegregation – whites pulled out of participation in the civic sphere once they recognized that blacks would have to be incorporated:

“Accordingly, in Atlanta and other cities across America, as public spaces desegregated, whites abandoned them, effectively resegregating these spaces almost immediately. As this article demonstrates, the desegregation of urban public spaces brought about not actual racial integration but instead a new division in which the public world was abandoned to blacks and a new private one was created for whites…

“Thus, white flight from cities like Atlanta was not simply physical, as white residents abandoned the central city for lily-white suburbs. Their withdrawal first unfolded in a less literal sense, as they withdrew their support—political, social, and financial—from a city and a society that they believed had already abandoned them.”

These lessons from Atlanta probably apply equally to cities like Montgomery. The middle class sections of society – in other words, the whites – simply abandoned their involvement in the public sphere when blacks voiced their natural right to equal access. Their abandonment made the use of their tax dollars for the funding of municipal services seem “unfair,” since they never rode the bus or used the public swimming pools, for instance. The result? The rise of modern conservatism, routed in the South, which suggests that the government should simply cease to provide public services and rely instead on the private market. The consequence? Little interest in or funding for transit and other government-funded resources.

I don’t mean to suggest that all white people decided that the public sphere should simply be abandoned. Nor do I mean to suggest that no black people have been complicit in the systematic de-funding of municipal and governmental services. But the unintended consequence of desegregation, unfortunately, was resegregation – where whites in general simply choose not to participate and use their political and economic power to campaign against a government that invests in such services. What a shame.

2 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • JoeC

    Thanks for the interesting article – in the early 1990′s I visited a friend in Atlanta and picked up MARTA’s bus map, wchih had a very interesting note for one of the northwest suburban areas ( a separate county from Atlanta, I think) to the effect that the only transit service provided was for “domestics” – e.g. the African American maids. No genaral transit for the entire community – all windy suburbans streets – was shown.

    Also, on the same trip, I took Amtrak’s Crescent from Washington in coach. My car was completely full, and I was the only white peson, and only one of three men in the car. White passengers in the south (at the time) apparetnly traveled only in first class. But when i took the SIlver Star from eastern Georgia to DC in the late 1990′s, coach was somewhat more integrated. Perhaps the differnce was that one train went through Alabama and Mississippi, while the other originated in Florida, whcih seems to have a slightly better history of integration.

  • CW

    This issue needs to be explored and addressed by transit and urban administrators – soon. It gets to one of the major limitations of public transit in the US, and not just in the south. That said, I have not come across any articles that deal with the topic in transit trade magazines. Of course, it is not just race, but class as well. Often that concession can weaken the perceived impact of the problem, though.

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