Salvaging Southfield

Brenda Lawrence, Southfield’s charming and hard-working mayor, was in her mother’s womb half a century ago this week, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forcing different races to attend separate schools was unconstitutional.

Brown vs. Board of Education is perhaps the most famous court decision in our history, one of the few most Americans know about. This week — in fact, all this year — there has been a flood of stories and seminars trying to assess what it all meant, and most of the ones I’ve seen indicate Brown was largely a failure.

Why? Because, frankly, the sad truth is that integration hasn’t worked, in schools or in housing. That’s because, by and large, white folks don’t want to live with black folks and they don’t want to go to school with them.

Yes, I know there are vast numbers of exceptions. Interracial dating and marriage continue to increase, giving rise to the hope that our great-great-grandchildren will all be sorta tan, ending this foolishness. But the statistics are stark. Integration, Desiree Cooper once told me, can be defined as the period of time between when the first black family moves in and the last white family leaves. If any place should have been able to buck that trend, it is Southfield, a pleasant, clean and dynamic city of 78,000 with more office space than Detroit.

There are great services, good schools and no slums. Southfield was less than 0.5 percent black in 1970. By 1980, African-Americans were 9 percent of the population. Ten years later, they were 29 percent, and by 2000, the population was 54 percent black, 38 percent white.

Kurt Metzger, who leads Wayne State University’s team of demographers, estimates that six years from now, the city will be “70 to 75 percent black.” He does have hard numbers for the schools, which are 89 percent black and 3 percent white. That’s total segregation, for all intents and purposes.

Yet the real threat is not too much melanin but too little money. Brenda Lawrence, who works two full-time jobs, both as mayor and as a manager in the Southfield post office, is very worried about a school millage levy on the ballot June 14. Voters decisively turned down a millage renewal March 29.

Now, school officials are asking for somewhat less money. If they win, the schools will have to make painful cuts, on top of those already imposed by the state because of its own continuing budget crisis. But if Southfield voters again reject money for their schools, their city’s future will be clear: It won’t have any. That’s because as the sage Metzger likes to say, cities without good school systems can’t attract upwardly mobile young families, who are an essential element of any true community. There are many problems in this country that seem to be about race, but are really more about class.

Southfield has changed complexion, but hasn’t hit a downward spiral. Yet. “We are still gaining population, and a lot of the people moving in are couples with a combined six-figure income,” Lawrence tells me, and Metzger agrees.

But if that millage goes down, that won’t be the case. Now wait a minute — wasn’t Proposal A supposed to fix all that? Well, there is always fine print, and exceptions to the rule, and Southfield got clobbered. In the old days, Southfield schools were in fine shape because of all the businesses in town.

But Proposal A eliminated them as a source of revenue. All homeowners still pay some property taxes to the schools, and in Southfield, they now have to pay more than perhaps anywhere else in the state. Some older residents without kids won’t back the millage, and some others feel they just can’t afford it.

They need to find a way. We are a curiously conflicted people. Three years ago, when Lawrence defeated Donald Fracassi, who had been mayor since 1972, I noticed something odd about the voting patterns. It was clear that a lot of whites had tired of Fracassi, who increasingly was acting as though he believed the city was his own private turf.

But some blacks hadn’t supported Lawrence. “When I was going door to door, one young African-American man said he thought I was probably better qualified, but he didn’t want a black mayor because then we wouldn’t be considered an up-and-coming suburb,” she remembers.

When she expressed amazement, he shrugged and replied, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

If Southfield can’t make it, I’m not sure America can.

Courage of their convictions: Incidentally, here’s something you may find interesting about the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the group trying to get a constitutional amendment on the Michigan ballot to outlaw affirmative action in college admissions. Whatever you think about affirmative action, the people running the movement to outlaw it are cowards.

Two months ago, I called leaders in both camps and asked them to debate the issue before a large lecture class at Wayne State. The people who want affirmative action weren’t too excited, because they don’t like to give their opposition publicity that might help them gain the signatures needed to get on the ballot. But they gamely recognized their civic duty and agreed. The anti-affirmative action people at first agreed — and then chickened out.

Reason? They were afraid, Tim O’Brien, the movement’s since-departed campaign chairman, told me. Afraid, he said, of unruly demonstrators. Most of my students in that class were adults; most were white, lived in the suburbs and were too exhausted after a day’s work and my class to even yell slogans.

I even offered to provide security, but no. After a while it dawned on me that what Timmy was really afraid of was being in Detroit with all those Negroes, especially — shudder — at night. Guess who won’t be signing their petition.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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