Zernike, Delmont, and Stockman have different perspectives on iconic Boston school integration book.
For a couple of decades, the New York Times education reporter Kate Zernike’s recent choice of Common Ground as the book that “a visitor ought to read to truly understand” the city of Boston would have generated lots of nodding heads.
As recently as February 2014, Columbia University journalism professor LynNell Hancock praised the book in the Columbia Journalism Review (Uncommon ground).
However, perceptions have changed in recent years, as a new generation of reporters and historians have re-examined the history of school segregation and busing in America.
The book doesn’t receive the unanimous praise it once might have.
The 1985 book, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning onetime NYT reporter, is widely admired by journalists and education leaders alike and is still considered the definitive history of the era.
It tells the story of Boston’s school desegregation efforts through the perspectives of a poor black mother, a working-class Irish mother, and more privileged (white) couple.
Zernike’s selection is part of a NYT effort to gather reporter recommendations together called The United States in Literature.
In a short review, she praises the book for capturing Boston’s contradictory-seeming nature: “A city caricatured for its intellectual liberalism (or snobbery), it’s also socially conservative, and proudly working class.”
On Twitter, ASU professor Matt Delmont notes that black community leaders such as Ruth Batson called Common Ground “one of the most devastating and distorted views” of Boston’s history.
According to Delmont, who’s written a book re-examining the history of busing and its woefully inadequate media coverage at the time), “Boston’s civil rights activists HATED Common Ground.”
“It is great example of the lasting power of the mythic histories of race that don’t acknowledge the civil rights movement in the North,” says Delmont. “I mean, think about a book on Little Rock School Crisis that didn’t talk about Daisy Bates or the Little Rock Nine !?!”
You can read more of Delmont’s thoughts about media coverage of Northern school desegregation efforts here.
Former Boston Globe columnist (now at the NYT) Farah Stockman, who wrote a prize-winning series of columns about the school desegregation period, doesn’t go so far. She says it was a “shame that Lukas didn’t profile [Batson] or another black activist.” However, the Lukas book is “still worth reading.”
You can read more about her Pulitzer prize-winning series here.
Zernike is out of the office and wasn’t available for comment.