You Are Where You Live

March 19, 1991|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. The government of South Africa is moving to scrap residential apartheid in a way that should remind us dramatically that in much of the world you are where you live.

Previously, an address in Soweto said that you were among the 28 million South African blacks who, along with mixed-race Coloreds and Asians, had to live in the 13 percent of the land that had not been reserved for 5 million whites.

An address in Johannesburg meant that you lived among the privileged whites who had all the political power, a disproportionate amount of the country's wealth, and a good chance of having their own swimming pool and tennis courts.

Now President F.W. de Klerk and his dominant National Party have introduced legislation to repeal the old racist laws regarding land ownership and to replace them with laws that would allow blacks to own property and live in ''white areas.'' The de Klerk government says this represents ''a historic turning point in the history of South Africa.''

Americans have good reason to see this as a move of great consequence, because residential apartheid is still, in most areas, ''the American way of life.'' Give me an address in the South Side of Chicago, the Watts area of Los Angeles, some southeast areas of this city, and I will tell you how vulnerable the children there are to drugs, sexual abuse or sudden death.

I have just finished reading 168 essays and school transcripts of black youngsters nominated for college scholarships under our Project Excellence program. I am appalled to see that the top-ranking senior in one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods has an SAT score less than half that of black seniors in wealthier neighborhoods. Where that bright student lives tells us so much about family background, the state of the high school, the quality of the teachers -- and the extent to which politicians give a damn.

''Where you live'' in America is partly a factor of poverty and wealth, but it remains an indicator of institutionalized racism within banks, real-estate companies and the general population. When I came to this city in 1961, Rock Creek Park was the great racial divider. Blacks just weren't supposed to live ''west of the park.'' That has changed here, and blacks now live in suburban and other once-forbidden neighborhoods.

Still, despite the Fair Housing Law of 1968, black families see their property defaced or burned, crosses set aflame on their lawns, if they dare to buy property where they are ''not wanted.'' The recent outrages in Bensonhurst show that in some areas owning property is not the test -- that blacks don't even dare walk in those neighborhoods after dark.

South Africa's laws that gave all the good land to the white minority and mandated racial segregation in all residential matters are worse than any legal requirements this country ever had. But housing bigotry is still so rampant in America that we can't look down our noses at Mr. de Klerk.

We ought to be asking why the South African leader can move to make historic changes while American leaders won't take a feeble step toward wiping out the housing discrimination that circumscribes the horizons of so many millions of our children.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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