Schools' resegregation portends an 'Us vs. Them'

September 30, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Bill Clinton sang the praises of Arkansas last week, and wisely went mute on Baltimore. He remembered the public schools of Little Rock, four decades after the arrival of racial integration there, and kept his mouth closed about the schools of Baltimore, three decades after the arrival of resegregation here.

The president wishes a national conversation about race, and points to Little Rock as a symbol of healing. Once, that city was a repository of hatred. He might take a glance at Baltimore, whose schools were briefly, and fairly peaceably, a symbol of racial cooperation years ago. Now they're not only a symbol of separation, but apparent indifference about it.

Of the city's 26,701 public high school students today, only 10.6 percent are white. This is what comes from 35 years of white flight, crumbling city academic standards, fear of school violence and, not to be overlooked, modern leadership that shrugs its collective shoulders on race and asks, "So what?"

The quick answer to such a question is this: It does us no good to isolate kids racially for 18 years, while suspicions set in, and prejudice calcifies, and then thrust them into an adult world where they've never had contact with people who aren't just like them.

We used to say we understood this, but now we don't. There was a time when schools such as Forest Park and Northwestern, and Edmondson and Northern and City College were integrated schools that seemed poised to mirror an alleged American ideal of racial cooperation.

Today, in Forest Park's student body of 879 kids, there are 869 who are black and two who are white.

At Northwestern, there are 1,494 blacks and 25 whites.

At Edmondson, 1,284 blacks and 17 whites.

At Northern, 1,710 blacks and 138 whites.

At City College, 1,141 blacks and 133 whites.

In the entire city public school system, which has 108,759 kids, just 14,626 (that's 13.4 percent) are white. You can walk into one school after another where every kid is black, and ask teachers how these children are doing, and they'll tell you, "Oh, they're doing great, they're learning a lot."

And when you ask, "Do they have any contact at all with white kids?" the answer is a shaking of the head: "No, not really." And the connection is no longer made that this is an important part of education for all kids, or that we're establishing patterns of Us vs. Them for the future.

The great political and moral leaders, many of whom grew up at a time of grand hopes for racial conciliation, many of whom once trumpeted the need for integrated schools, now say, "Big deal."

They say this because they have no idea how to turn things around at this late date, and they also say it because it's become generally unfashionable to suggest that racial integration is so important to anyone.

We're now looking at a long history of white resistance to integration, which continues to drive the emptying-out of cities. And we're also looking at a black cultural nationalism thatdeclares, "Who needs whites?" So each new generation learns to nurture its antagonisms.

Bill Clinton went to Arkansas to say that Americans need each other. It sounds like a sappy throwback to a time of imagined enlightenment when people talked of brotherhood without quite imagining the pain that might be involved while we tried to work out the details.

In Little Rock 40 years ago, they had to call out the military for the simple act of enrolling nine black kids into the previously all-white Central High School.

What America quickly discovered wasn't just school kids trying to work things out in the sanctity of their classrooms and playgrounds -- but politicians, whites and blacks, looking to cash in, looking to further their careers at the expense of community peace.

The argument is now made that integration was a phony dream from the start. Black conservatives blame white liberals for what they now see as racial condescension and sometimes forget the sheer against-the-tide courage it took to argue for integration. White conservatives blame white and black liberals for force-feeding school integration so overbearingly that it led to the breakdown of entire neighborhoods. White liberals say that if everyone had stayed calm for just a little while, all of this turmoil might not have happened.

And maybe, they might add, there are interesting things happening in suburbia -- ironically, the very place where so many whites ran in the first place.

In Baltimore County schools, there's a 69 percent-to-26 percent white-black ratio. In Anne Arundel County, it's a 78-18 ratio. In Harford County, it's 83-13. In Howard County, 74-16.

All of these are reasonable reflections of the overall population.

The question is: Will the county schools continue to reflect their communities, or is this merely the first echo of the Baltimore City situation of 35 years ago -- a few years of integration, followed by tension and flight and reisolation?

The city seems to have blown it. The counties are lucky enough to have three decades of city failures to examine, and perhaps avoid.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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