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The Supreme Court stays at the wheel

The US Supreme Court was wise to let Nashville continue a court-ordered busing plan to carry out desegregation law throughout the public schools. The Justice Department was not wise to depart from previous practice over several decades and urge the court to consider weakening such a busing plan.The time is not ripe to deny judges what is customarily a last-resort solution to segregation, especially in light of a new report on a rise in segregation in large US cities.

This does not mean there should be any halt in the vigorous pursuit of administration-endorsed alternatives to busing, such as the development of more magnet schools to encourage voluntary desegregation. Nor does it mean any slowdown in the effort for fair housing to reduce the residential segregation that contributes to school segregation.

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Does anybody actually have court-ordered busing as a first choice for desegregation? Indeed, the Justice Department's antibusing position doubtless was reached in the belief it represents a growing public resistance - black and white - to busing as any choice at all. This even though busing for desegregation is a small fraction of the busing that goes on daily simply to get children to school.

But the great struggle to have American institutions live up to American ideals is a matter not only of what is legally allowed, required, or prohibited.It is a matter of atmosphere produced to a considerable extent by a nation's leaders and officials. Remember the outcry when Jimmy Carter, regarded as an ardent supporter of human rights, uttered what seemed an insensitive remark about ethnic purity. Or the earlier outcry when President Ford seemed insensitive in comments on a judge who had ordered busing.

For all the legal points the present Justice Department might make against busing as such, the impression is left of being less than enthusiastic about desegregation itself. There have been successes in desegregation. Ironically, Nashville has been regarded as doing quite well. But the difficulty of extending desegregation through all the years since it was outlawed suggests that no Justice Department would want to leave any suspicion that it is not foursquare behind the courts in this fundamental American task.

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