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Jewish World Review May 10, 2001/ 17 Iyar, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Segregation in the city -- THE Supreme Court decision mandating the desegregation of the public schools is almost 50 years old. This, the court confidently told us, would create better schools for blacks. A lot of us who cheered the decision also believed it promised an integrated America.

No one can turn on the television, watch videos, listen to popular music, look at the ads or watch children's shows without seeing the evidence that perceptions of black and white in America have changed. The South was the radical target but the effect was national.

The new census, however, tells another story, the proof that desegregation is not the same thing as integration. Most black and white children under 18 live in neighborhoods that are increasingly segregated, especially in the urban Midwest and Northeast. This is deeply ironic to those of us who remember the struggles that followed Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. White flight has changed America, too.

Certain cities in the Pacific Northwest, such as Portland and Seattle, are successfully countering this trend, but segregation of children in a lot of other places -- Milwaukee, Detroit and New York, for example -- has grown sharply. The implications are complex and troubling for all of us.

"It's a very big problem for white children who may think they're experiencing diversity in the country, but are only getting a taste of it,'' John R. Logan, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Albany, told the New York Times. "The problem for minority children is that, on average, they're growing up in neighborhoods where they are the majority, and that's not the world they will live in.''

Instead of understanding cultural sameness and difference through experience, black and white children are misled into thinking they understand each other when they don't. A personal anecdote makes my point.

We enrolled our daughter, then 4, in our neighborhood public school pre-kindergarten. We lived at the border where a white neighborhood became black, and as it happened, she was the only white child in her class. The teacher told us our daughter was "culturally deprived'' and suggested we find another school for her.

The teacher identified a real problem for our daughter, one that many black children experience in mostly white classes. There simply isn't an easy give and take between the races when the majority is such a lopsided majority.

Without parents mixing with parents, the children didn't mix easily, either. When I tried to make play dates for my daughter, I found that I spoke a very different language from the parents of her black classmates, which made it almost impossible for us to get together to make after-school plans. Some of this stemmed from economic class distinctions, but it was more than that. My daughter came home to a predominantly white neighborhood and the other children returned to one that was predominantly black, even though they were "zoned'' for the same school.

Desegregation of schools as policy has limits. Cities with huge public school populations have been coping, and not always well, with resegregation that has occurred in the last decade. In Milwaukee, for example, blacks make up 61 percent of the city's 60,000 public school pupils, up from 46 percent of the city's 41,000 pupils in 1980.

We usually look at academics, not the cultural nexus. We have to change that. Cultural diversity, or multiculturalism, in the schools is hip and trendy, but most attitudes are rooted in the home. We won't change them by merely celebrating different food days or holidays.

"The average white person continues to live in a neighborhood that looks very different from those neighborhoods where the average black, Hispanic and Asian live,'' says Mr. Logan, who expanded his study of the census data to include 331 urban neighborhoods.

It's ironic again that segregation is fading away in the South because many young black professionals are moving "back home,'' now that bad old days have given way to better times, and where middle class black and white are more likely to mix freely.

In the 1960s, at the height of the civil-rights turbulence, I was struck by the ways my black and white friends from the South shared a vocabulary, a love for a common rhetoric and language, even an appreciation of similar foods (barbecue, cornbread, collard greens, fried okra). They sometimes sang hymns after dinner, and they all knew all the words. I never saw any of that in my black and white friends who grew up in the North.

The Southerners didn't share everything, but they shared something important. If integration remains the goal of a desegregated America, and that, alas, is not as clear as it once was, it seems to me that it's in the South that genuine integration is likely to take deepest roots.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS