THE NAACP is holding its national convention this week in Pittsburgh, with some of its members muttering about giving up the long struggle for school integration. This is an echo of words spoken by many white people all their lives. It only goes to prove, when it comes to matters of race, black people can be just as wrong as whites.
"A debate has been raging as to whether [school integration] is still the position we should take," NAACP Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams declared three weeks ago.
And, though she restated the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's commitment to integration Sunday night, Evers-Williams' words opened a creaking door through which other voices are now being heard. Some are saying it's more important to strengthen existing black schools than to waste energy and money pursuing integration. Some have even asked: Whoever said black kids need to be around white kids to get a quality education? (Actually, they need it in the very same way white kids need black kids; education is as much about learning to live comfortably with all our fellow citizens as it is about reading and arithmetic.) And, though much of this talk concerns schools, there are implications here beyond the classroom.
"People are increasingly frustrated that their children are not getting the kind of education that they want," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said during the weekend. "It doesn't matter to them whether their children are sitting next to somebody black or white. If there are no resources, there are no resources."
Partly, Mfume's talking about two different things there. Resources means money; today, nobody in political power is crass enough to suggest a return to the kind of second-class schools for black kids that existed before legalized segregation was struck down 43 years ago.
The more pressing question is this: Is the NAACP getting closer to the day when it says, We're tired of white people running from us, tired of trying to force their kids to sit in schools with our kids, and we're tired of moving into their neighborhoods, only to watch them quickly move out of those neighborhoods?
The organization's entire history is wrapped around the pursuit of racial equality -- and the assumption that it required integration -- but it's clear that some feel school integration is an idea whose time has come and gone.
It is still being avoided, in ways subtle and otherwise. Ten years ago, for example, Baltimore County schools had 20 percent minority enrollment. Now the figure is 30 percent. That's a healthy reflection of county population figures, except for this: While the school figures were changing, the overall white population of the county was not -- despite heavy migration from Baltimore City.
From 1990 to 1994, the city's white population dropped by about 40,000 people. But there was a hopscotch effect. Once, whites had reflexively run to Baltimore County. Now, white population is considerably in Howard, Harford and Carroll counties. But Baltimore County's white population hasn't changed. Meanwhile, its black population, now more than 100,000, has increased by 17 percent.
But there's another difference about white flight. Forty years ago, when whites first fled integrated schools, we were a nation of strangers. Whites ran from the unknown. Now, Americans have clearly crossed a lot of racial barriers. The black middle class has tripled in the last generation. Yet white people are still running. But they're running from what they think they know, which is the daily news from the war zone.
There is a black underclass that hasn't been reached. And, while it's a small percentage of black America, it's a frightening one, and its self-destruction is seen regularly in the newspapers and the television news reports, and it's that image from which a lot of whites (and blacks) continue to run.
If it's true that many white people don't make the distinction between those black people who share their values and those whose actions routinely make the crime news -- and instead choose only to see skin color -- it's also true that black organizations such as the NAACP haven't made that distinction either, not in public, not in ways that resonate across the whole population.
And there's the conundrum: The NAACP wants to embrace the neediest of its people, while sensing that some of their troubles, such as the drug abuse that fuels crime, now seem beyond anyone's reach. It doesn't want to blame the black underclass for its own troubles; but, in the absence of such words, many white Americans still find themselves being blamed for it and find it unfair. If organizations such as the NAACP can't find ways to say, We deplore such anti-social behavior as much as white people deplore it, then it allows many white people to continue categorizing black people simply as a skin color.
So the running continues. And, until it stops, none of us can talk honestly about the things we have in common, such as the interdependence of our children.
Pub Date: 7/15/97