Where we live fuels a divide

There was a time when Walter Sondheim Jr. held fast to the notion that racially desegregated schools would give way to a racially integrated society. That was 1954. He admits now that he "should have known better."

Sondheim was president of the Baltimore school board a half-century ago when in its Brown vs. Board of Education decision the U.S. Supreme Court found the racial segregation practiced within the public schools of 21 states to be unconstitutional. He moved quickly to comply and went about the thorny task of readying city schools for both black and white children by fall.

"I thought, and so did other people, that we had the problem solved, that as soon as black and white kids went to school together they would recognize that skin color didn't make any difference and that we'd grow up a new generation of people without racial prejudice," the venerable civic leader, now 95, recalls with 50 years of hindsight. "It's not what happened."

Indeed, five decades after the school desegregation decision, Americans appear to coexist in much the way Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed in 1835: "Almost insurmountable barriers had been raised between them by education and law, as well as by their origin and outward characteristics; but fortune has brought them together on the same soil, where, although they are mixed, they do not amalgamate, and each race fulfills its destiny apart."

Social scientists say nowhere is de Tocqueville's observation more true than at the residential level, where the country remains physically divided by race and class, the level where people become neighbors, kids make friends and school defines community.

The average white person in a metropolitan area, which includes city and suburban dwellers, lives in a neighborhood that is about 80 percent white (down from 88 percent in 1980) and 7 percent black, according to a 2002 analysis of Census Bureau data by the Lewis Mumford Center at the State University of New York at Albany.

By comparison, the average black person lives in a neighborhood that is 33 percent white (up from 30 percent in 1980) and 51 percent black. In general, the analysis found that blacks, Hispanics and Asians lived in more integrated neighborhoods than did whites.

Where we live matters 50 years after Brown, urban experts say, because racially segregated neighborhoods produce racially segregated neighborhood schools. And given the continued economic inequality between whites and minorities - a disparity Brown was never meant to remedy directly - such schools are also economically segregated with disproportionately high numbers of students from low-income families.

"It's all tied together," says Columbia University law professor Jack Greenberg, 77, who argued several desegregation cases that were combined in Brown vs. Board. "You're going to have to have better education in order to have better income. You're going to have to have integration to have better education. All this talk about equalizing schools is a lot of garbage. The only equality is integration."

The residential separateness occurs even though, when it comes to where we lay our heads, majorities of blacks, whites and Hispanics say they would rather live in a racially mixed neighborhood than surround themselves with only members of their own group, according to a Gallup poll conducted last year, one of many that suggest American platitudes and realities don't square up.

Why haven't we moved closer together, as those such as Sondheim hoped?

Sociologists point to ingrained attitudes about where certain races should live; economics; and discriminatory practices in the housing industry and public policies that perpetuate residential segregation.

Perspectives vary as to the primary cause, but the consensus seems to be that integration is about people, not laws, and the will to integrate is not fervent.

Indeed, many people are hesitant to call the separateness "segregation," pointing out that it is not sanctioned by law and claiming it largely reflects the personal preferences of those - of all races - with means and mobility. But the evidence suggests that prejudice plays a strong role: Blacks are more willing to live among whites than whites among blacks.

When middle-class black families move to the suburbs, white families often leave. Randallstown, for example, was 70 percent white in 1990; it is now 72 percent black.

The poorest families simply get left behind, creating concentrations of poverty that government housing programs have done little to alleviate. Today, two of every three African-Americans in the six-county Baltimore metropolitan area live in the city, according to an analysis of census data by Thomas Hylton, president of Pennsylvania-based Save Our Land, Save Our Towns Inc., which advocates for communities that are inclusive of all ages, races and incomes.

In the 1950s when white flight was fueled by such attitudes, Sidney Hollander Jr. stayed put in Northwest Baltimore's Windsor Hills neighborhood and fought against unfair housing practices like the "blockbusting" tactics used by real estate brokers to scare whites into selling their homes as blacks arrived.

Now his son, David, lives in the predominantly black neighborhood with his Chinese-American wife, Teri, and their 8-year-old daughter, Clara. Like his father, David believes in integration but says that Baltimore will remain racially segregated until it rebounds from what fueled white and, later, black middle-class flight: crime, poor performing schools and deteriorating infrastructure.

"If you deal with schools, economic development and what makes the city attractive, the integration will flow," says Hollander, 62, acting registrar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

His father, Sidney, who is now 90 and lives in the Roland Park Place retirement community in North Baltimore, has a different take: "For myself, integration isn't of itself important except as a personal matter. What we were really doing was fighting enforced segregation, which is quite different. I think it's been counterproductive to confuse court orders that said 'thou shall not segregate' to mean 'thou must integrate.'"

An integrated existence is all Barbara Russell, who is white, has known since she moved to Columbia in 1967 - the year Maryland legalized interracial marriages - with her former husband, Charles, who is black. It's clear to Russell why the will to integrate across race and class lines is not fervent.

"Most people want to remain in their comfort zone, and there has to be a reason to push yourself outside of your comfort zone," said Russell, 59, who was among the community's first residents. "For blacks, there was better housing, better jobs, better education. For whites, what reason was there? They already had good education, good jobs, good houses. So why would they have to push themselves?"

When Russell gave birth to Columbia's first baby, the biracial newborn, Charles III, became symbolic of the integrated community that its founder James W. Rouse sought to create. Today, Columbia nearly matches the diversity of the state - 66 percent white, 21 percent black, 7 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic.

But Russell has noticed how economic disparities have led to class divisions in Columbia. Older villages, built with affordable apartments and townhouses, have come to have higher concentrations of blacks or Hispanics or both, compared with the newer villages where the housing is pricey.

"People are not kept out because of their race because in those neighborhoods there are some very wealthy black, Hispanic and Asian families," Russell says. "It's just there are fewer [minority] families in that economic range."

Russell's observation underscores what National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's President Kweisi Mfume says the country needs to pay more attention to: class.

"What we're faced with in the future is coming to grips with the issue of class," says Mfume, who grew up in mostly black Turners Station and now has homes near the Inner Harbor and in an upscale development in Catonsville. "If you are in a certain class, you have the same risk of finding yourself separated as when you heretofore 40 years ago were of the same race. And in that instance you're not necessarily treated differently, but you treat others differently."

While whites may not stay in neighborhoods that are as integrated as blacks would like, experts note that some African-Americans value living in a racially homogeneous setting, much in the way other ethnic groups may have initially chosen to live together.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, says many of the premises of the Brown vs. Board brief - that black culture was negative, that separate implicitly meant unequal, that blacks wanted to assimilate - were flawed.

"Black culture is very old in this country; it's as old as blacks in America, and it turns out that black people didn't want to stop going to predominantly black churches, they didn't want to stop eating soul food; and it wasn't that they wanted to live with white people, they just didn't want to live with poor people," Gates explains, speaking of blacks with mobility. "They wanted to live with their class counterparts."

Brown failed to distinguish between enforced segregation and willing association, he says.

But studies show that discrimination in real estate and mortgage lending practices - not personal choice - affects housing options: Middle-class blacks live in less affluent and desirable neighborhoods than their white counterparts.

Lewis Mumford Center director John Logan says that while residential segregation continues to decline decade after decade, the current rate of change is so slow that 50 years from now, when his grandson is his age, blacks will be only marginally less segregated from whites.

"The principal reason why there hasn't been more change since Brown is because neighborhoods are so central to many aspects of people's lives," Logan explains. "People feel they have a lot at stake in their neighborhoods, and they're very defensive about change," he says, "especially racial change in those parts of the country where the reputation has been for a long time that a black neighborhood is a bad neighborhood."

Gates says that to bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots will require a federal jobs program, reform of the educational system and a "revolution in attitude" in America.

But Herman Hines, 57, of Mitchellville in Prince George's County, says it will take more than that. For the past 14 years, he has attended the Largo Community Church across the road from his majority-black subdivision. Pastor H. Jack Morris and his wife, Corin - both white - started the church 32 years ago.

Once mostly white, the congregation today numbers 1,000 and is nearly all black. Unlike his former congregants, Morris stayed put and says he has "never enjoyed pastoring more." It makes no difference to Hines and other members that their pastor is white. They say it is his spirit, not his color, that they see.

America "has bridged a lot of gaps, but we still got people stuck in the past," explains Hines, program manager at NASA Peer Review Services in Washington. "You can write all the laws you want, but the change has got to come from here," he says, putting his hand on his heart.