'Separate but equal' and other untruths

April 15, 1997|By MICHEAL OLESKER

Today let us count white faces in the schools of the city of Baltimore. It won't take long. Let us begin the counting with a new report from the State Department of Education, with the clunky title "Maryland Public School Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity and Gender and Number of Schools," and then let us flip the pages of an old high school yearbook, and hope we can avoid calling each other bad names.

The new report says there are now 4,180 seniors in Baltimore's public high schools. This figure sends me to my old high school yearbook, City College, Class of 1963, where I count 749 graduates, all quite naturally bright, all quite perceptive, yet none of us imagining we were becoming vanishing artifacts in the city.

I never counted the faces in the yearbook before, nor did I ever count by skin color. But now I did, because of this new state report on race. And when I finished counting my old graduating class, the figure was 603 white faces.

According to the new state report, in the entire Baltimore school system today, with City and Poly, Patterson and Southern, Forest Park and Western, Northwestern and Northern, on and on, 18 high schools in all, we have a total of 417 white 12th-graders.

In other words, my 1963 high school graduating class alone had nearly 50 percent more white 12th-graders than the entire school system of Baltimore today.

In 1963, we were going through [See Olesker, 6c] the beginnings the frantic period of white flight. The schools had been integrated a decade earlier, and while many talked a great game about racial integration, about bright new days of brotherhood, about the great melting pot of America, you never saw so many lying white people in all your life.

"Yeah, great to see you, welcome to the neighborhood," white people told their new black neighbors, and then glanced around, wondering why their own moving vans were taking so long to arrive.

Back then, though, nobody knew the dimensions of the exodus, the vast numbers of people and years it would take to run its course, until we find ourselves in 1997 and discover it's still going on, the city's now shrunk to its smallest numbers in three-quarters of a century, and smaller by nearly a quarter-million people from its peak of 900,000 citizens in the early post-war years when the flight to suburbia commenced.

What's happening in Baltimore schools is reflected around the country. Last week, in a report titled "Deepening Segregation in American Public Schools," the Harvard Project on School Desegregation declared, "In American race relations, the bridge from the 20th century may be leading back into the 19th. We may be deciding to bet the future of the country once more on separate but equal."

Also, that little phrase - "separate but equal" - may carry about as much truth now as it did then. Equal, indeed. Notwithstanding the $254 million in state money coming to Baltimore schools, which has infuriated the great living room liberals in rich Montgomery County, Baltimore's kids are still getting less money per pupil than almost anybody in the state and aren't likely to improve that percentage as the city's population keeps shrinking and its political strength diminishes in Annapolis.

Is this why white people first fled Baltimore? Of course not. Whites fled because they'd been raised in a culture of racial separation, and hated the thought of change. And, even if they believed philosophically in integration, they feared that their neighbors - even those who talked a good game - didn't. They didn't have the courage of their alleged convictions. They imagined being the last white people on their block. They imagined being outnumbered and intimidated. Thus, they created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What they feared has come to pass: city schools that are not only underfunded but too often unsafe; where the level of learning is the weakest in the state; where the dropout rate is highest, the rate of teen-age pregnancy the highest, the buildings old and creaky and the surrounding neighborhoods frequently dangerous.

What's worse, we have a new, black political establishment in the city that glances at such problems and addresses them in the same kind of racially divisive ways white politicians once did.

So at least the generations of politicians have something in common: their mutual cynicism and manipulativeness.

Does it matter that the schools are resegregated? Of course. From separation comes suspiciousness of The Other. Children are isolated from their fellow citizens. Demons are imagined. Antagonisms are created that are reflected in the larger communities.

Years ago, the great exodus from Baltimore was fueled by real estate "For Sale" signs on the front lawns of homes. The signs heightened anxieties. Thus, they were banned for several decades.

Now there's talk of eliminating the bans and allowing "Sold" signs. Some say it would stimulate a sluggish real estate market. In a time when both middle-class blacks and whites are fleeing the city, that's one way to put it. Another is to call it Exodus II.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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