Alternatively, the words “bussing” or “dispersal” were used from the early 1960s to the early 1980s to refer to the subject of this book. Clarifications about the two words are needful. First of all, the two terms are not strictly synonymous. Indeed, technically, “bussing” is only one form of “dispersal”. In January 1964, West Bromwich introduced a measure of dispersal, “first for children walking to school and later by bus” [1]. In 1967, Denis Howell, Labour MP for Small Heath and Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Education and Science, was scathing about Birmingham’s adamant refusal of dispersal and insisted that there were almost wholly white schools not far from the city’s northern segregated ethnic enclaves (Handsworth, Soho, Rotton Row) as well as from its southern ones (Small Heath, Sparkbrook, Balsall Heath) [2]. Consequently, in order to desegregate schools in these places, a form of dispersal without resorting to bussing was possible and desirable according to Denis Howell and Roy Hattersley, who was then Labour M.P for Sparkbrook.

For all these nuances, dispersal and bussing were mostly understood as synonyms in the 1960s and 1970s. However, their connotations were different. “Dispersal” is a fairly abstract concept mobilised by local and national authorities who endorse or promote a policy of encouraged or forced desegregation. By using “dispersal”, policy-makers could always convey a feeling of protectiveness towards South-Asian pupils deficient in English and cultural integration. After all, wasn’t the evacuation of British children from Blitz-torn London in World War II sometimes called “dispersal” [3] ? Such terminological associations, however indirect, did play a part among political authorities who in the 1960s had all been through the traumatic experience of war.

On the contrary, “bussing” a is concrete term which was used by critics of dispersal at grassroots level, i.e. multicultural or anti-racist associations, Asian parents, community relation bodies, politicians, etc. Bussing refers directly to the experience of being herded away from a neighbourhood school where one feels one naturally belongs, it is about a quantity of human bodies being shovelled into seemingly or actually unwelcoming places. Whilst many Asians either had fun with their peers on the buses or were simply dozing, many, as we will see, experienced daily racist bullying in predominantly white schools, and this is what “bussing” encapsulates. Likewise, “bussing” is fraught with controversy, particularly when one thinks of the American struggle against it. “Busing” was what thousands of white American families rallied against in impressive and often violent demonstrations avidly reported by the mainstream media. Matthew F. Delmont argues that these families had no objection to busing as such “until and unless it was linked to desegregation. Put more starkly, then, school buses were fine for the majority of white families ; ‘busing’ was not”[4]. Although it took a radically different form in Southall or Bradford, “bussing” was likewise made, by those who fought against it and the media, into a red-button concept, a sort of boo word.

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These lexical nuances were not lost on some public actors. During a 1975 interview for the London Broadcasting Corporation, an Asian conciliator for the Race Relations Board, Usha Prashar, was asked by anchorman Tony Tucker : “Where are they being bussed to ? It’s an unfortunate expression that -bussed- I think because it conjures up so many other attitudes, but I mean where are they being taken ?” [5]. In the same way, faced with mounting criticism of bussing, Ealing Council issued a press release on December 4th 1974 which ran : “After careful review of these changed circumstances, the Council accepts that the best interests of all children in the borough would now be met by bringing dispersal -as we prefer to call it- to an end as soon as is practicable” [6].

These hesitations around a word inevitably betray a self-consciousness among authorities, who knew full well dispersal was no panacea, was certainly a makeshift, “short-lived” solution to a much larger problem over which local authorities had little control. This self-consciousness is also illustrated by the fact that other words, phrases and metaphors were used in order to validate the policy recommendations made in circular 7/65. For one thing, the circular itself mentioned “spreading the children” besides “dispersal”, the National Union of Teachers (N.U.T) promoted “distribution schemes”, Nicholas Hawkes in his Immigrant Children in British Schools refers to “spreading “ and “purposeful distribution”[7], Sheila Patterson of a “benign quota” policy[8], Maurice Kogan talks repeatedly of “coaching” [9] and, in 1965, a Birmingham consultative document entitled ‘A First Report on the Educational and Social problems of the Coloured Immigrants’, upheld dispersal by calling it “unscrambling the omelette” [10].

As opposed to these motley circumlocutions, Asians and whites who mobilised against dispersal in Bradford and Southall always singled out one enemy which they generally called plain “bussing”. This is important since in the 1960s even more than today, immigrants and ethnic minorities tended to be objects rather than subjects of public discourse. Hence, the bulk of words and concepts used in the debate on immigration and integration were often none of their choosing. Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad, in line with the concept of “symbolical violence” by Pierre Bourdieu (with whom Sayad worked), insists on how immigrants are frequently deceived into using the very concepts which in public debate are exploited in order to question their citizenship, deny their integration, suggest their backwardness, etc…If anything then, the choice of “bussing” is a telling sign of lexical agency from among the Asian minority, whose low-profile has too often been exaggerated in classic historiography.

One last comment on this lexical ambivalence, for the more practical purposes of the book. Both “bussing” and “dispersal” will be used, depending in most cases on whether the focus is more top-down or bottom-up.

[1] Birmingham Post, undated newspaper cuttings, Birmingham City Library / Wolfson Centre, Indian Workers Association archives.

[2] Birmingham Post, 23. 01. 1967.

[3] See Carlton Jackson, Who Will Take Our Children ? The British Evacuation Programme of World War II, Jefferson (N.C.), McFarland publishing, 2008, pp. 18, 149, 179.

[4] See Mathew F. Delmont, Why Busing Failed : Race, Media and the National Resistance to School Desegregation, Oakland (Cal.), University of California Press, 2016, p. 3.

[5] “Immigrant School Children”, LBC, Radio scripts, Report RRB n°429, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah race relations centre, Manchester Public Library.

[6] Quoted in Maurice Kogan, Dispersal in the Ealing Local Education Authority Schools’ System, Report to Race Relations Board, 1976, appendix IV (unpaged).

[7] London, Pall Mall Press, 1966, p. 28-9.

[8] See Immigration and Race Relations in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1969, p. 256.

[9] See Ibid., p. 7, p. 17, p. 22, p. 24.

[10] On this last phrase, see Ian Grosvenor, Assimilating Identities : Racism and Educational Policy in post 1945 Britain, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1997, p. 118.