Anxiety impedes promise of integration

May 02, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TWO WEEKS from tomorrow marks the 48th anniversary of the most famous U.S. Supreme Court decision on the public schools. Nobody will be running any victory laps. The schools, declared racially desegregated May 17, 1954, have their little moments of integration, which then disappear. If history is any barometer, it's about to happen again in Baltimore County.

A decade ago, the county's overall African-American population was about 10 percent. Now it is about 20 percent. A decade ago its public schools were 18 percent minority. Now, more than 40 percent.

Educators used to call this the tipping point. Nobody stands outside a schoolyard hollering racial epithets; nobody with brain cells burns crosses on lawns. But, as they notice all the new black kids around the school building, white families commence an anxious ceremony of self-delusion resulting in polite resegregation.

This white family decides that private school, with its $14,000- a-year tuition and its exhausting 40-minute ride each way, suddenly looks better than the public school just down the street. The next white family suddenly discovers cultural roots previously overlooked and opts for religious school. And the next white family finds itself on a first-name basis with real estate agents specializing in housing developments somewhere near the Pennsylvania line.

In an article Sunday, Pikesville Middle School Principal Barbara Walker told The Sun's Stephanie Desmon, "My school is a microcosm of what the world is going to look like when these students graduate from college. It's a wonderful blend of races, religions, socioeconomic strata."

These are buoyant words to cover the tremble of the heart. Walker's school, 23 percent nonwhite 15 years ago, is now 54 percent nonwhite. The tipping point has been reached. Walker gives us language reflecting the America of our dreams, in which we are not blind to our differences but learn from them and ultimately celebrate them. But she also knows the pattern of these things -- in the schools, and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In the 48 years since the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court declared "separate but equal" schools to be unconstitutional, we have arrived at a place where 40 percent of all American public schools are "racially exclusive" -- meaning 90 percent or more white students. And 40 percent of U.S. urban public schools are "intensely segregated" -- meaning 90 percent or more nonwhite students.

In the city of Baltimore, for example, the schools are now about 90 percent nonwhite. From the time of court-enforced desegregation 48 years ago, to the time of white families leaving the public schools and their surrounding neighborhoods, the schools had maybe a decade of real integration.

In his two years as mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley has often talked of the great promise of the city's schools. But, when asked about possibilities of a return to any semblance of real racial integration, he shrugs, completely perplexed. It's a subject that seems beyond change in any foreseeable future.

In his eight years as Baltimore County executive, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger often expressed concern about the mirror image of his county today and the city in which he grew up. When Ruppersberger graduated City College in 1963, the school was about 60 percent white; within half a dozen years, it was nearly all black. It reflected scores of city neighborhoods where the first huge wave of white suburban migration was under way.

That suburban exodus has continued, but with variation. In the past decade, Baltimore County's African-American population increased by about 150,000. That's 15,000 people a year (coincidentally, about the same average of overall city population drop each year over the past decade).

Those black families moved to suburbia with the same desires as white families: nice neighborhoods, good schools, less crime. And they're now part of a school system that looks like 40 years ago in the city. But that was the first time the Baltimore area faced such a sea change.

The question is: Has no one learned anything over these decades? Today, county officials are uncomfortable talking about the subject in public. To address it out loud is to stir up already anxious people. The next question is: Anxious about what? Anxious about kids at their own children's schools with the same desire for a good life?

Because, somewhere along the line, the running has to stop. And, 48 years after the Supreme Court imagined it was making a difference, the lessons of history, and the country's ideals, have to count for something.

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