Race, Class Tensions Underly Unease At Annapolis

March 29, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

The boys from Bywater sit in the far corner of the noisy cafeteria.

They're joking and arguing at the top of their voices, but the students eating at nearby tables don't pay any attention. An invisible but obvious barrier separates the dozen black teen-agers from their Annapolis High School classmates at lunch.

"A lot of people are scared of us," says Dario Jones, 16, one of the teens from Bywater, a subsidized cooperative town house community.

The class photos in the main office show row after row of smiling students -- blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians, all standing shoulder-to-shoulder. But in the halls and cafeteria, the diversity breaks down as students band into tightly knit groups.

Even though the paths of the privileged, middle-class and impoverished cross daily, the groups rarely mingle.

Annapolis High is one of the most racially mixed and socially diverse public schools in Maryland, but distrustand stereotypes linger, students, teachers and administrators say.

Black students complain that their white classmates eye them nervously. White students say they feel threatened by taunting comments. Students of both races feel some of their overtures have been spurned. And Hispanic and Asian students often are caught in the middle.

Fights between blacks and whites are rare, students agree. Yet when they're asked about violence, most students end up talking about racial and class tensions instead.

Students interviewed last week agreed that the widespread feelings of unease can spill over into the fights.

In the words of black 16-year-old student Wendell Williams, "Thefights aren't racial, but a lot of feelings are."

"A bunch of people wanted to join the Unity Club, this all-black club, and they almost got beaten up," says 15-year-old John Spigler, who is white.

Karimah Sampson, a junior who transferred to Annapolis High from Colorado in September, was taken aback to find white students acting frightened of her. "It makes me upset," she says.

Students who have beeninvolved in some fights insist they're "personal conflicts" over territory, clothing or relationships. Girls clash over boyfriends. Boys beat each other up over territory and clothes.

Black students fromlower-income neighborhoods often fight over turf and "who has the best clothes," Wendell says.

He and his buddies from Bywater like tosport matching athletic jackets, black Champion sweat shirts and black Levis. They stick up for one another if somebody scoffs at their favorite clothes.

A March 10 brawl between rival groups from Newtowne 20 and Eastport Terrace, two public housing communities, began with taunts over who dressed better. One fight led to the next after Eastport Terrace teens called the Newtowne 20 youths "dirty" and insinuated everybody in the drug-plagued community was hooked on crack cocaine.

But when Annapolis Housing Authority officials arranged a meeting among the suspended students, they discovered the seven teen-agers shared the same problems.

They were upset at being labeled "ghetto kids" and thought teachers and administrators treated them with contempt because they live in public housing.

"I can understand that. It's the same situation, you know, when a black kid is tall, he's automatically a basketball player," says Joseph "Zastrow" Simms, a community activist who helped counsel the seven students.

Principal Laura P. Webb believes the diversity at Annapolis High can be painful.The school's 1,647 students live within a few miles of one another but come from vastly different back grounds, she says.

Most of the school's students are white; 37 percent are black and 3 percent are Asian or Hispanic.

The modern, two-story school pulls together the often-isolated communities within Maryland's capital. Rich teen-agersfrom waterfront homes open lockers next to poor teen-agers from public housing projects. Daughters of doctors walk past sons of carpenters.

"The only thing they have in common is this building," Webb says.

At a time in their lives when fitting in means everything, students from poor backgrounds discover a huge gap between "the haves andhave-nots," she says.

They want to wear the right clothes, drive expensive cars and pull out credit cards in the mall. But when they show up in flashy clothes and gold chains, they sense that classmates and teachers look at them with suspicion.

"From my point of view, I don't know who they are and have no idea where they live, but obviously there's a feeling there, a real feeling, that they're being treated differently," says Webb, the school's first black principal.

Some of the students who have been involved in fights say they want toprove they're tough and get a reputation. When they win, other students look at them with respect, they say.

"I feel people look down on you if you live in the projects," says "Scoop" Jones, 16, who lives in Eastport Terrace. "The teachers say, 'You wanna learn?' But if you're bad, they leave you alone."

Simms and others hope to start aprogram to increase interaction between black and white students.

The idea has the support of the principal, who received several letters since the most recent fracas from students concerned about racialtensions.

"Unfairly judging kids has become the norm," one white student wrote.

Meanwhile, the seven students involved in the fracas are downplaying it.

One student from Newtowne 20 called it "a little personal conflict."

"This was over-hyped," he says. "Definitely."

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