Decades after injustices were exposed by the civil rights movement, sentiment keeps blacks and whites living apart.

Still separate

January 18, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

There seemed to be an air of fatalism in the courtroom where a landmark lawsuit alleging segregation in Baltimore's public housing was heard last month.

Consider the statement of former city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III: "Baltimore is a city of black and white housing markets. It's a segregated city."

He basically said there was nothing you could do about that: "The history of Baltimore is that if more than three or four black families move into a neighborhood, it quickly becomes a black neighborhood."

A UCLA professor told the court that segregation in housing patterns is simply the way it is in America. And presiding U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis seemed to agree. "We're going to continue to have a separated community inevitably," he said. "There's nothing you can do about it."

Four decades after the nation was galvanized by the injustices exposed by the civil rights movement, such sentiments are common. People like to stay with their own kind. You can't change that.

That is despite the fact that the same thing was once said about the Irish, about Italians, about Catholics, about Jews, about various other seemingly impermeable barriers that have long since been crossed - a process now taking place with the wide variety of new immigrants from non-European countries.

It is the same sentiment that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is celebrated tomorrow, heard when he first took on legislated segregation in the South.

Now, though, the integration that King and his allies espoused as so central to the American dream is dismissed by many as a quixotic notion whose pursuit is a waste of time and energy. Work for economic empowerment and let people live where they want to. We tried to integrate this society, it just didn't work.

Taylor Branch, now at work on the third and final volume of his biography of King, points out that the country really didn't spend much time trying to cross racial barriers.

"You had the march on Washington in 1963, and by 1968, Nixon was running for president on an anti-busing platform," Branch says. "It was a very short period of time that the nation put all its institutional weight behind these issues."

John A. Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University who testified for the ACLU in the Baltimore suit, decries what he calls "the shrinking public space" in the years since King captured the nation's conscience. "People feel they are not responsible for anything but me," he says. It was in that public space, Powell says, that the civil rights gains of the 1960s were negotiated.

Certainly there were changes during that period - the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that integrated public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave blacks access to the ballot box. And certainly racial integration is accepted as the norm in a way that it was not when King began his struggle.

"We have had a lot of integration in this country," says Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he directs the African American Leadership Institute. He points to work and recreation as areas where integration is accepted. "We have had some success, but we have also had tremendous failures."

Not long before his death in 1968, King went to Cicero, Ill., near Chicago. No longer battling the legal barriers to integration that he faced in the South, he came across the unwritten rules that kept neighborhoods divided along racial lines. "He said it was the most segregated place he had ever seen," says Branch.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, participated in King's Illinois campaign while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. "King later said that Cicero was the place where he feared the most for his life," he says.

Some changes made

King had come up against the same tough issue that the Baltimore public housing suit is grappling with - segregation in housing. Originally filed in 1995 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a group of public housing residents, the suit has led to some changes in Baltimore's housing policy, getting vouchers to help some residents move into integrated neighborhoods and changing the way the sites of the former high-rise projects were redeveloped.

But the ultimate issue - was Baltimore doing enough to desegregate its public housing? - could not be settled. It went to trial. Garbis' decision is expected in a few weeks.

Branch, for one, says the answer is obvious. "Of course the decision of where to put public housing is made because of race," he says. "It would be absurd to think otherwise. Anytime you try to put black people in white areas, it causes a huge reaction. It's a political time bomb."

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