Ain’t integrating no more

Mar 24, 2004 at 12:00 am

After laboring mightily, the U.S. Supreme Court finally decided Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation case, in May of 1954. I was born four Mays later, a post-Brown baby, supposedly entering a world that would be irrevocably different from what had been before.

Then, as now, Denver was a predominantly white city. Then, as now, the neighborhood where I grew up is all white except for the house I grew up in, where my mother still lives.

At age 45, I’m living in a city that is more than 80 percent black. I don’t know how many times friends and acquaintances in Denver have asked why I don’t come “home,” and why I would remain in a place like Detroit. Despite its drawbacks, I love Detroit for a number of reasons, and I must confess that the city’s overwhelming blackness is one of those reasons. After a lifetime spent integrating schools, swimming pools, summer camps, ski slopes, newsrooms and just about anywhere else I went, I’ve retired from the integration business. For all those determined to soldier on, God bless ’em. As for me, the hell with it.

You can’t force people to want to be around one another or to love one another. It ought to be obvious that nothing you or I can ever do will bring Americans to embrace our racial diversity to the point where we feel truly comfortable around one another — or at least comfortable enough to want our children at any school that has too many of “those other folks’ kids” enrolled.

I’m not just spouting off. Click onto the National Public Radio Web site ( and listen to the lengthy segments prepared for the upcoming Brown vs. Board anniversary. Then consider the landscape in which you and I live today one half-century later. Ask yourself what has been gained.

For starters, consider this from the executive summary of the Harvard University Civil Rights Project: “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, American public schools are now 12 years into the process of continuous resegregation. The desegregation of black students, which increased continuously from the 1950s to the late 1980s, has now receded to levels not seen in three decades. Although the South remains the nation’s most integrated region for both blacks and whites, it is the region that is most rapidly going backwards as the courts terminate many major and successful desegregation orders.”

Closer to home, did you know that between 1967 and 1978 alone the Detroit Public School District lost 74 percent of its white students? Today, trying to find a white kid in the Detroit Public Schools is like trying to find a calm drop of water on a hot skillet. According to the most recent data available, from the 1999-2000 school year, the district is 91.1 percent black and 3.7 percent white, which translates into 147,740 black kids and 6,074 whites.

Back when the University of Michigan was defending affirmative action in its admissions policies, historian Thomas Sugrue submitted expert testimony on the racial divide in this area. The tri-county area, he wrote “offers a particularly striking example of the lack of diversity in primary and secondary education.”

Sugrue found that roughly 90 percent of area white students are schooled in districts where blacks are less than 10 percent of the student body, most often much less than 10 percent. More than 80 percent of area black students are in three nearly all-black districts: Detroit, Highland Park and Inkster.

Sugrue’s data is more than 10 years old, but things haven’t changed much. Wayne State University demography guru Kurt Metzger told me in an e-mail that there has been “significant” movement of African-Americans into suburban districts over the past five years. But the bottom line remains: “Educational segregation is still a fact of life in Southeast Michigan.”

Like I said, I’m not just spouting off. Furthermore, as if the “resegregation” of America’s public schools were not depressing enough, it is also apparent that those school systems, for the most part, remain separate and unequal. In Brown vs. Board, the Supreme Court declared that “separate but equal” schooling was inherently unequal. Today, America’s public schools are most definitely separate and unequal, and nobody seems to have the energy to care.

When I was a 6-year-old kid, my parents moved from a nearly all-black neighborhood that was in decline to the upper-middle-class white neighborhood of Hilltop. I went to all-white (except for me, a kid named Johnny, and a teacher named Mr. Wilhoit) Steck Elementary for first grade. Johnny and I just may have been the first black kids to ever attend Steck. My father — who was president of the Colorado Urban League — and my mother occasionally heard whispers from blacks who wanted to know why we had moved “out there with the white folks,” suggesting that perhaps we didn’t want to be around “our own.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. My parents wanted me to have the best education possible and they wanted me to grow up in a nice neighborhood. They wanted me to see that I had the ability to compete with whites and succeed, to learn that whites were not superior, an attitude that my parents had battled all their lives.

I will be forever grateful for what they did, and unlike many movies about integration we experienced no cross burnings or anything dramatic like that. For several weeks, however, I used to hate recess because that was when a group of kids would always gang up on me while my teacher looked the other way. When I finally caught the gang’s leader alone and roughed him up I got in all kinds of trouble.

Steck was more meaningfully integrated during my second-grade year and my teacher responded by placing the black kids — all bused in except for me, Johnny having left the school — on one side of the room and then teaching only the white half. After third grade I was transferred to private school where I was once again one of two black kids in the entire place. I watched from a distance as Steck quickly became almost all-black as white parents pulled their kids out. I remember, too, when white parents congregated across the street from the nearby junior high to protest integration. These were the parents of kids I had gone to school with.

So yeah, I’m retired. Integration hasn’t worked — particularly in terms of where we live and school our kids — and I don’t know if it ever will. This is a country of islands, and we may as well face that fact and figure out a way to make the best of it.

At least for schools, separate but equal may be our only choice.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]