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Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas.

Updated on June 6, 2011

Book Review

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas. The book won a Pulitzer Prize.

Common Ground follows three Boston Area family through the 1970s, the decade in which busing was ordered nationally as a means of making school a fair opportunity for all children. Lukas also gives each family’s back story and includes, for example, a history of the Boston Globe, a newspaper that changed its politics in the middle of the last century in the heat of Great Society debates such as the one about busing.

There were marches.  People fought the police who tried to enforce busing.  And although the 1970s with the busing issue are history, the deeper problems are with us still.

What becomes clear as Lukas narrates the protest against busing in South Boston and Charlestown, is that busing focused on integrating races but did little to integrate social class.

Lukas writes the thoughts of one of the Charlestown High School teachers. “Charlestown High had always been a school of last resort, but the buses had brought blacks who were even less prepared that Charlestown’s whites. What benefit…could possibly derive from mixing the poor with the impoverished, the disadvantaged with the handicapped.”

For, those who had the economic means often sent their children to private schools or moved their families to suburban towns not included in the city busing order.

Our children fall between the cracks in many ways. School is not the first one. To see racial inequality in the schools as a first issue is to miss the underlying question: Can the American dream be shared by all? To attempt to be fair to children by integrating the schools is to try to control a flood of issues with a single plank. To attempt to control in the classrooms and hallways children who are not held in safety at home is folly.

Lukas paints a bleak picture of single parent family living in housing developments where trash is not hauled away, property is reduced to trash, and the kids, feeling like throwaways themselves, study crime from the age of ten. Survival is their school and anyone who has anything is the enemy and fair game. If it’s clear you are locked outside the dream, how much allegiance do you owe the protection of the dream for others?

One family Lukas followed was committed to neighborhood integration, but they had to abandon their community before a tidal wave of crime and life in the raw. And they were able to do so, leaving behind those who had no way to move.

This book touched me deeply. It reminded me that often the things we fight about are not the core issues but false choices, decoys that distract us from what we should be addressing. Probably the single most important distinction today is between those few families who make economic decisions and those who merely try to live good lives best they can without fully understanding just who does control the money system.

If there is one best response to the questions Lukas raises in this excellent study, it may be the one Bill Stills gives in his video, The Secret of OZ/Solutions for a Broken Economy.

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