Boston's continuing search for `common ground'
AFTER years of research, of wading through reams of notebooks and piles of taped interviews, J. Anthony Lukas finally arrived at ``Common Ground,'' his new book on the school desegregation era in Boston. But the lead character of the book -- the city of Boston -- is still searching for the metaphor in that title, scrambling up the steep slope from a no man's land of racial strife.Skip to next paragraph
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The book has taken the city by storm, selling faster than baked beans on a cold winter day. The 659-page epic details the attitudes, hopes, and failures that led up to the school desegregation case, and, through the eyes of three local families, it chronicles the limited successes and unexpected shortcomings of busing.
On a recent Indian-summer day, author Lukas, a journalist by training and a tall, commanding figure who confesses he ``became obsessed'' with this project, maintained in an interview that his work is not much different from the writing of other journalists. Critics, though, have rated the book outstanding.
Since its publication a few weeks ago, ``Common Ground'' has been called the ``best book on an American city ever published'' and ``an American classic -- a book that will find a place not merely in the shelves where our national history is recorded but also in those where our literature is kept.''
Nonetheless, after his 71/2 years of investigation, Mr. Lukas provides no ``sweeping answers,'' as he puts it, to problems that confront Boston and other American cities involved in school desegregation. His quest was to understand what happened and why. It started in the Irish neighborhood of Charlestown, where anti-busing sentiment was virulent. ``If people beat up little black children, or stoned buses, I don't want to excuse that,'' he says. ``I don't condone that. But I try to understand it. Ther e's a difference.''
Speaking before a local gathering recently, he said, ``When people ask me whether my research has carried me from left to right or right to left, I say, neither. I have moved from the party of simplicity to the party of complexity. I have plenty of questions, very few answers.''
Nonetheless, Lukas says he has come to understand that, although media attention during the busing crisis focused on racial tension, ``class struggle'' is just as important. ``Americans don't like to talk about . . . class conflict, because it sounds so Marxist,'' he told the Monitor, hastening to add that he is ``not a Marxist.'' But because so much of Boston comprises working-class neighborhoods -- and because ``the privileged, the powerful, and the wealthy'' live outside the city -- ``the burden of i ntegration'' has fallen upon the poor.
This issue was a key source of the rage that swept through white neighborhoods like South Boston and Charlestown in the mid-1970s, Lukas says. ``One of the things that drove [people] to do what they did in opposing busing was their knowledge that they were being asked to do something that people a few miles away in the suburbs were not being asked to do. They were being ordered to do it . . . . by a federal judge who himself was Irish, who lived in [suburban] Wellesley, and to whose own children and nei ghbors none of this applied.''
Although Lukas is critical of the way the federal desegregation order was applied, he says the judge had no choice but to require busing. ``That it did not turn out perfectly is not [Judge W.] Arthur Garrity's fault, and it certainly is not to be used as an attack on school desegregation. However, I do think we have to be realistic as to what we've achieved,'' he says. ``It may be constitutional justice, but I don't think it's social justice.''