Volume 17 Number 6
If Every Child Were My Child
01 December 2004

A white liberal baby-boomer rose to protest the trend: ‘We are proud of our diversity in this school, but we don’t want to have too much diversity!’

Last June, Andrew, our youngest son, graduated from high school. The end of our 20-year involvement with the public schools in Richmond, Virginia, coincided with the 50th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court ruling on segregation. But a scan of the 1,000 graduates at the city-wide convocation revealed hardly a white face.

White student participation in the Richmond school system plummeted from 35 per cent in 1970 to less than 10 per cent by the 1980s. Twenty schools have less than 10 whites in their student bodies. Segregation by race is strongly linked to economic disadvantage: 38 per cent of all children in the city live in poverty. In recent years, the African American middle class has joined the exodus to the suburbs.

In August I joined a forum of scholars and practitioners at the University of Denver to consider inter-group relations 50 years after the 1954 ruling. ‘Integration has not failed America; America has failed integration,’ said social psychologist Thomas F Pettigrew in his keynote speech. A 1974 Supreme Court ruling which allowed suburban schools in Detroit to be protected from a metropolitan desegregation plan set the stage for a national trend that allows local jurisdictions to act as ‘racial Berlin walls’, he said. Since then we have seen ‘a persistent use of non-racial reasons for anti-black attitudes and behaviour’.

When we came to live in Richmond we knew that our commitment to racial reconciliation in the city meant investing our own family fully in the community. Choosing to place our three boys in public schools was part of that commitment. It was a choice that we do not regret. Each of our sons received an excellent education; they also learned invaluable lessons about what it is like to be in a minority. But over the years we have had to confront in our family the insecurities, fears and pressures which drive so many decisions in the white community.

One incident at our sons’ school stands out. It had been founded as a model diverse school, with students chosen by a city-wide lottery (partly in an effort to retain white middle class participation in an increasingly black system). But later it became a neighbourhood school and the socio-economic mix began to reflect a greater percentage of minorities from lower income levels. At a heated meeting of the Parent-Teacher Association, a white liberal baby-boomer rose to protest the trend: ‘We are proud of our diversity in this school, but we don’t want to have too much diversity!’

While white Americans are becoming more accepting of diversity in general, we are ambivalent about the implications of creating a national community in which real opportunity is open to all— particularly when this impacts directly on our own lives and choices. National housing patterns and school demographics suggest that a 20 per cent (especially black) minority presence is the tipping point at which white flight begins.

Educational competition has become intense with many parents in a frantic rat race to secure the best opportunities for their children. As was noted in Denver, what we are seeing is not necessarily racism, but ‘privilege hoarding’. The speaker, jon powell—who always uses lower case for his name—is an internationally renowned scholar of civil rights, race and poverty.

‘People make choices based on what they think is possible,’ says powell. ‘Have we been too cautious in our vision? Even Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest visionaries, who foresaw the end of slavery, could not imagine black and white living together as equals.... We need a clear moral vision. A public discourse grounded in human potential and spiritual values.’

In Richmond, Hope in the Cities is launching a three-year initiative to strengthen the community’s commitment to the children of the metropolitan region. By bringing together citizens from all jurisdictions and sectors we expect to forge a new level of collaboration among educators, parents, students, employers and community organizations within and across school districts. We will ask the Richmond community to consider the question: ‘If every child were my child, what would I do?’

Today Andrew is a college freshman in Washington DC and recently secured an internship with our Congressman, an African American. He wrote home: ‘I am starting to realize how ignorant some people are of other races. Everyone is shocked when I tell them I’m from a black school or even that I’m working for a black Congressman. I don’t think they are racist, just that they’ve never been exposed... it’s a different world. I’m trying to educate but it’s hard.’

Sheryll Cashin of Georgetown University Law School accurately states the challenge for white Americans in a powerful new book*: ‘I think the possibility for integration could be much enhanced if more white people and more middle- and upper-class people could become comfortable with not always being overwhelmingly dominant in numbers. This does not mean that their interests would necessarily be subordinated. It does mean that they would have to share power, resources, or influence. This is what it means to be part of a larger community.’

Rob Corcoran is US Director of Hope in the Cities, a programme of Initiatives of Change.

*’The Failures of Integration: how race and class are undermining the American Dream’, PublicAffairs, 2004

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