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Legacy of Segregation Still Seen in Some US Schools

Sarah Hulett

In the half-century that's passed since the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs Board of Education decision that outlawed racial segregation in schools, many schools have integrated along with the neighborhoods in which they sit. But some communities that were early destinations for middle-class black families are part of a phenomenon called re-segregation. Over the course of just a few years, their school populations are shifting from majority-white to majority-black, as white families move away. Sarah Hulett takes a look at a school in the middle of the shift, just outside Michigan's Motor City.

A decade ago, the suburban communities outside Detroit, Michigan, were nearly all white, and so were the schools. But since then, the racial makeup of the neighborhoods has changed, and the segment of minority students has grown. In East Detroit schools, it's increased by ten-fold — to about a third. That's thrown white kids and black kids together.

As Bruce Kefgen, superintendent of East Detroit Public Schools, puts it, "We've had more or less a shotgun wedding in that regard." He says the rapid shift in the racial makeup of the community means the district's schools have had to adapt quickly to change. "You have some different thinking that comes in, different styles, different art preferences, different standards of dress. And these are all things that can be acclimated into the school. But it takes a little bit of time."

And a little bit of time is about all some suburban school districts are getting to cope with major demographic shifts. According to an analysis by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, about a half-dozen districts in the area are in the same boat as East Detroit.

That might suggest that schools are achieving a nice racial mix. But that mix has not lasted in other communities that saw black families move in in earlier decades. In Detroit suburbs like Oak Park and Southfield, there are virtually no white students anymore. White parents have pulled their kids out of the public schools, and moved. That hasn't happened yet in East Detroit.

In a classroom at East Detroit High, history teacher Lincoln Stocks leads a discussion about the War of 1812. Like almost all the staff here, Stocks is white. There are just a few black students in his class. All of them sit near the back of the room.

Stocks has been teaching at East Detroit for more than 20 years. He says the kids who've lived in the area long enough to get used to the new racial mix don't seem to have too much trouble getting along. But he says other students, who are new to the district, and new to diverse environments, are having some problems.

Stocks is also the school's varsity football coach. And he says this year, those tensions were evident when it came time to elect team captains. "The African American kids voted for the African-American captains, and the white kids voted for the white captains," he recalls. "And I didn't want that kind of representation on our football team, so we didn't elect captains. We sort of had fire captains that shifted, because I didn't want there to be an apparent division. And that worked against us all season long, that sort of split in loyalties."

And it's not just relationships among students that can be challenging. Students and teachers can also run into cross-racial problems.

Beverly Daniel Tatum is the president of Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts school for women in Atlanta, Georgia. She's written about race relations in the classroom. Tatum says fears about racial misunderstandings can mean students of color lose out on the help they need. She says she's seen situations where white teachers have been reluctant to call the parents of black or Latino children who are having difficulty in class, "for fear that perhaps the parents may be suspicious about the teacher's motive, and may even accuse the teacher of being racially biased in terms of her feedback if it's negative about the young person's behavior or school performance."

Tatum says that doesn't mean you have to take all the white teachers out of a school. But she says schools should invest in professional development to help white teachers feel more confident working with their black students.

Teachers at East Detroit High School have gone through sensitivity training, and administrators say they try to deal with problems directly.

Ella Doster is a counselor at the school — and one of the few black staff members. She says race relations require constant attention. "Well, I just left my office with a young man," she reports, "he was talking about issues relating to his teacher, and being treated fairly, and that was one of the things he said. He says: 'she has it in for me.' He says, 'I have to say this kind of low, Ms. Doster, I think it's a racial thing.'"

When Doster was hired, in 1969, she was the only black teacher here. In the nearly four decades between then and now, she says she can count the black colleagues she's worked with on one hand.

East Detroit Superintendent Bruce Kefgen says he'd love to hire teachers that look more like their students. But he explains, it's not easy. "You have union contracts, and you cannot simply move people out in order to obtain that kind of racial or gender balance that you might prefer." So Kefgen says he has to rely on attrition. But even when there are vacancies, he faces the challenge of finding teachers of color to hire.

In the years ahead, Kefgen says he hopes East Detroit can sustain the racial balance it has today. Other districts that have been where East Detroit is now haven't been able to do that. They've flipped from almost all white to all black. "I would like to have East Detroit schools evolve into something that defies simple description, because I think that would truly be much more representative of the world in[to] which these students will matriculate. Then I can do them the biggest favor possible."

Kefgen says that favor would be going beyond the academics, and teaching students how to get along with people who are different from them.

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