Over the years, this magazine has been saying that book-length nonfiction that combines the rich humanity of novels with journalism’s reportorial, and moral zeal can be the very best way to illuminate public affairs—to get discussion of politics and government out of the realm of caution, posturing, and self-interest. With that well-loved Washington Monthly gift for repeating ourselves infinitely when we care about something, we’ve again and again cited the same book as an example of what we mean: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. Now, at last, there’s another book to add: Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas.

Common Ground is a very long, dense, richly detailed account of the first two years of busing in Boston in the mid-seventies, told by interweaving the public events with the stories of three families, one poor black, one poor white, and one upper-middle-class white liberal. What makes it such a great achievement isn’t Lukas’s writing, which is serviceable, or his thinking, on which more later, but the combination of two other qualities: thorough reporting and humanity. Writers about lower-class people whom we think of as towering figures—Jacob Riis, John Reed, Jack London, James Agee—in fact were never able to triumph over their impulse to chide, or excuse, or recoil in horror, and achieve a true empathy for their subjects. Lukas does, through both doggedness and purity of purpose. He wants not to prove a theory, or to posture as a journalist-hero, but to explain what happened.

As everyone must know by now, it’s a tragic story. Busing in Boston exposed how bad race relations really are in the urban North. It set off a wave of white resistance as ugly as anything that happened in Alabama and Mississippi in the sixties and in the long run seems only to have hastened the exodus of the white middle class from the Boston public school system. In his retelling, Lukas makes it seem even more tragic than that. By constantly setting the realities of busing against the intellectual and spiritual high-mindedness for which Boston is famous (this culminates in a horrifying set-piece about a black-white rumble on July 4, 1976), he paints a much darker picture than we’re accustomed to of America’s relationship with its stated basic principles. One finishes this book feeling almost completely hopeless about the possibility of healing race and class hostilities in this country.

Lukas puts busing in the context of a long-standing tension between two fundamental values: equality and community. We expect public schools perfectly to embody both, which, in big cities, they don’t. More specifically, the context of Common Ground is the Irish-American world of Boston, which is one of many distinctive local cultures around the country that since World War II have been overwhelmed by the national culture. The rationale for busing was compelling, on the terms of the national culture, and nonexistent, on the terms of the Boston Irish. It was something forced on the Irish to achieve a greater good that wouldn’t affect them. But by the seventies, after four or five generations of assimilation, what was left of the pure Irish inner-city culture was small, powerless, and bitter. The legatees of the powerful Irish political tradition—Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Mayor Kevin White, Judge W. Arthur Garrity—were, as Lukas shows, disinclined to stand firmly in the way of busing because, though their roots were in the Irish culture, their lives and aspirations were in the national culture. The poor Irish, lacking the mighty church-state institutional edifice that had protected and guided them in years past, were left to sink into racism.

The poor white family in this book, the McGoffs, lives in a housing project in the tough Irish enclave of Charlestown. Several McGoffs become leaders of the local antibusing movement. The poor black family, the Twymons, lives in a project in the South End and sends a daughter on the bus to Charlestown High School. For both families, busing is a disaster. It means that their children get a worse education and that they are plunged into race-hatred, though it’s a sign of Lukas’s skill that the enormous theoretical appeal of busing is never forgotten. One’s heart soars during the few tiny moments of racial harmony at Charlestown High, but these are far outweighed by an endless series of fights and tauntings. Though the McGoffs are good at heart and their fury understandable, it’s still impossible not to be horrified by Charlestown’s response. Theirs isn’t the familiar case against busing—would you put your kid on the bus? The McGoffs and their friends aren’t bused; they’re lashing out with real cruelty at a handful of black kids sent to their school, which they still firmly control. Busing for the people of Charlestown turns into an exhilarating, slightly out-of-control exercise in unity against the many, many slights of the outside world. Though they talk about the anti-busing movement in lofty terms of civil disobedience, most of the time it seems to be instead a clear example of how hate can unite people just as easily as love.

Lukas’s white liberal family, the Divers, moves to the South End, near the Twymons, in the late sixties in hope of creating a city neighborhood integrated by race and class. They, too, are good—in fact, outstandingly good—people, but, though they support busing, when the orders come for one of their kids, they use their influence to get him exempted. Other cities have had much better experiences with busing than Boston, and in large part that’s because Boston’s is the most grotesque case of the decision-making class not having to live by the rules it sets for everybody else. Not one of the many upper-middle-class Bostonians who parade through the pages of Common Ground actually participates in the busing program, just as not one of them sent a son to Vietnam, where many poor Boston kids died. No wonder Charlestown despises and won’t listen to the people who are supposed to be its city’s leaders.

In a brief author’s note, Lukas says of his families, “At first, I thought I read clear moral imperatives in the geometry of their intersecting lives, but the more time I spent with them, the harder it became to assign easy labels of guilt or virtue.” There’s always a trade-off for a writer between capturing the nuances of real life and thinking over the evidence in order to draw conclusions, and Lukas has come down entirely on the side of the nuances. Almost nowhere in 674 pages does he, say, pass judgment on anyone or anything; although I think he’d say busing was a failure, I couldn’t produce a passage in the book to prove it. The only times he veers even slightly into scorn are when he discusses powerful people who see government entirely in abstract (in the case of judges and professors) or symbolic (in the case of politicians) terms. He implies that busing would have gone much better if Judge Garrity had adopted a streetwise pol’s plan over his own.

So Common Ground has to be kind of a source-book, rather than an explicit beacon, for those interested in figuring out what we do about urban problems. It is very difficult to get anyone to open up in the way Lukas’s three families have, especially people like the McGoffs and the Twymons, who are hostile to outsiders. Somehow Lukas has won their trust, which he never abuses, and he recounts the families’ lives at a level of almost total intimacy. By going through events in what must have been many hours of long, painfully specific interviews, he’s able to interweave the three families’ stories in a seamless, intricately constructed narrative, beginning with the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Every time a larger issue crops up—urban renewal, police patrols, changes in the Catholic church—Lukas gamely produces a lucid explanation, exactly as much as you want to know. And he breaks from the narrative five times to profile, vividly, the major public figures involved in busing, which helps make Common Ground work as a multi-layered portrait of Boston as a whole.

It could be argued that the problems of Charlestown are uniquely Boston’s, but what gave rise to busing was liberals’ horror about life in the black ghettos, which is the same in every big city. One of the bleakest aspects of Common Ground is the fate of its black family, the Twymons, who, in the three generations we see, move from unhappily married working poor to the precarious edge of the underclass. Rachel Twymon, the head of the family and a smart, tough, devout woman, becomes a welfare mother. She sees one of her daughters have a baby at thirteen and several of her sons join the gang of criminals that, by the end of the book, drives the Divers out of the South End and to the suburbs, their ideals shattered. (Several McGoff sons become violent toughs, too, by the way.) The family’s saga ends with one of Rachel’s sons gruesomely raping a white radical woman who has befriended him at a Thanksgiving party—a story with eerily familiar echoes to those who’ve read Richard Wright’s Native Son. Charles Murray, author of the less optimistically titled Losing Ground, will find in the Twymons grim confirmation of his theory that poor blacks have done worse in the very period when the larger society was massively turning its attention to their problems.

Murray’s explanation as to why blacks fell further behind, however, does not hold up very well here because it’s too specific. He cites increased welfare benefits and the abolition of the rule against having a man in the house as causing an explosion in welfare dependency, but Rachel Twymon goes on welfare back in 1962, and never seems to have a man around the house anyway. (Speaking of conservative theories, Roger Starr would say Common Ground proves his about liberal city governments’ being afraid to impose values on the ghettos—but if that’s why the ghettos of New York and Boston are so bad, then why are the ghettos of Richard Daley’s Chicago and Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia even worse?) Why, then, does life in the ghettos seem to be getting more miserable with time? What can we do about it?

Though it doesn’t directly address these questions, Common Ground is extremely valuable for lending them urgency, and it deserves to be combed for clues. It shows more vividly than anything I’ve read lately how horrible life in the ghettos really is. The low point, by far, of a book full of depressing incidents, is the moment when Rachel Twymon, distraught because her two teenage daughters have left home to live with their boyfriends, finds out her son Freddie is being sought on rape charges. Sometimes it seems that the larger society has just tuned out the ghettos, preoccupied instead with preserving weapons systems and Social Security COLAs. To me, ideas like enterprise zones on the right and job training on the left, while good, often have the aspect of providing people with an easy out—a way to think, “Oh, this is all we have to do and everything will be fine; now let’s think about something else!’ The ghettos are worse than we think, and only a real, sustained passion will lead the outside world to find out what they’re like, as Lukas has done, and figure out what to do next.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.