Census offers stark facts on integration in new century

March 22, 2001|By Michael Olesker

THE NEWEST Maryland census figures raise the oldest of American social questions: Can we learn to live with each other as human beings instead of ominous tides of skin colors and cultures?

The white exodus that began about 40 years ago in the famous blossoming of For Sale signs on front lawns all over the city continues in the new century - only now the suburban trek has been joined by black families, thus changing the exodus only by degree: Baltimore County's black population has increased 77 percent in the past 10 years, a remarkable growth of 66,000 people. And white families are leaving Baltimore County (or hopscotching it from the city) for more distant (and whiter) suburbs.

Those were among the starkest items arriving with this week's release of the state's 2000 census data. Baltimore County's growth in black families - the figures have tripled since 1980 - is the fastest of any county in Maryland and brings two names into focus from yesterday and today: Dale Anderson and C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Anderson, Baltimore County executive during the 1970s boom years, became a symbol of white suburbia. Anderson wasn't George Wallace standing in a schoolhouse door, but he used code words understood by everyone. Low-cost housing, for example. Never mind federal money that would have financed decent housing for poor and working-class people, Anderson grabbed any convenient microphone to declare he wanted no part of it.

To him, low-cost housing meant black people moving in. He figured that if blacks moved in, whites would move out. For years, whites constituted more than 90 percent of his county's population. In the time of Ruppersberger, the new census figures tell us, African-Americans are about one-fourth of the Baltimore County population.

Ruppersberger doesn't issue such code words. He has a different mindset: If we haven't learned from our mistakes, then heaven help us. He was coming of age when the city's public schools had their one great flirtation with racial integration. It worked for about a decade - not just in the statistical mix of youngsters, but in kids learning that they had more in common than their isolated neighborhood experiences (and ancient laws of segregation) had led them to believe, and that it might be possible to learn to get along with each other.

Americans still tend to mouth beliefs in an integrated culture - but the census figures indicate we don't put our roots down next to our platitudes. In the past decade, 27,000 whites vacated Baltimore County. In most cases, they moved even farther from the city.

While this was happening, black families were moving into the county - most heavily, into a couple of areas. Woodlawn and Randallstown show remarkable increases in middle class black families - and simultaneous decreases in whites. The Liberty Road corridor, once almost all white, is about 70 percent black, according to the census.

It isn't like 40 years ago, where Realtors exploited people's fear and entire city neighborhoods changed color within a year or so. The same panic isn't in the air. But the pattern itself seems similar: We're still settling in by color.

Where are so many white Baltimore County families going? Here's an educated guess: Carroll County. In the last decade, Carroll gained about 500 blacks - and 25,000 whites. That county's about 97 percent white. Harford County's about 91 percent white. Howard County's 86 percent white. Anne Arundel's 84 percent white.

Those white families who once left the city and went to Towson and Owings Mills and Randallstown are going toward Westminster and Bel Air and Columbia and the suburbs of Annapolis.

And it brings us back to the old question: Are people always going to avoid The Other? It is one thing to accept that cultural similarities offer emotional comfort - and another to keep a distance from each other because of our differences.

One afternoon a while back, over an afternoon cup of coffee in Hampden, Mayor Martin O'Malley was talking about improvements in the city's public schools. The mayor seemed genuinely hopeful. Then he was asked: Do the schools show any new signs of racial integration?

The question seemed to startle him, as though not fully on his radar. The city's public schools are roughly 90 percent black.

Improving the schools was one thing, O'Malley said. "Integration," he said. "That's a tough one."

But he also knows this: For all of the middle-class yuppies rediscovering the city, they tend to stay until they marry and their children reach school age. Then they find private schools - or head for the suburbs.

Thus do we reinforce our unspoken segregation; thus do we reach another generation's contribution to the new census.

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