2004-09-24 Holland Sentinel "What Brown means for whites"

What Brown means for whites
The Holland Sentinel

The landmark Supreme Court decision 50 years ago outlawed legal segregation, but most white people still stick to their own side of the tracks

In 1943, after years of struggling on the farm, my mother's family moved to Topeka, Kan., where my grandfather got a job working in a cousin's grocery.

My grandparents sold the mule and the hogs, the fields and the orchards, and moved into a home in an older, working-class neighborhood of the city. My mother, the youngest, an 11-year-old, went from a one-room country schoolhouse to a big, new elementary school with lots of rooms and lots of students. It was called Sumner School, in honor of 19th century Massachusetts senator Charles B. Sumner. Sumner fought to make Kansas a free state, and authored the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery.

Mother observed many things in her new school. What she didn't notice was that all the other children there were white, like her. There were some black families in the neighborhood. One such family, the Browns, lived close by, although Mother didn't know them.

The black children in that part of town attended a different school that was, literally, on the other side of the tracks. To get to their school, black students had to walk through the switchyards, weaving between railroad cars being moved from one track to another on their way in and out of the city.

As a student at Sumner School, Mother never really thought much about segregation. For her, as for most white students, there was no particular animosity, no overt bigotry, no sense that anything was unusual or out of the ordinary. It's just the way things were, and, like other kids, she took it for granted.

A generation later, when I was 12, my family moved, too, from the small town of Holton, Kan., to a working-class suburb of Nashville, Tenn. It was 1969, and the previously rural section of the county known as Antioch had been built up over the past decade with thousands of three-bedroom ranch houses owned by truck drivers and school teachers and secretaries and mechanics.

Most of the families were native Nashvillians -- white Nashvillians -- who had moved to the Antioch area when, after the Brown decision in 1954, schools in other parts of the city began to integrate. You might expect that it was pretty nasty, but Nashville wasn't Birmingham or Montgomery. Public facilities in Nashville were desegregated more or less voluntarily in 1960, after a series of non-violent protests led by local African-American university students.

As a student in the Antioch schools, I never really thought much about segregation. For me, as for most white students, there was no particular animosity, no overt bigotry, no sense that anything was unusual or out of the ordinary. It's just the way things were, and, like other kids, I took it for granted.

Another generation has passed. My own children have spent their lives here in Holland, in an older, working-class neighborhood.

The 2000 Census indicates that nearly half of the people in our part of town are Latino, mostly Mexican-American. We've seen that percentage rise over the last 20 years. Some of our elderly white neighbors have died or moved to retirement centers, often (though not always) to be replaced by Mexican families. Some of the younger white families have moved, too, usually to the suburbs or small towns surrounding Holland. Mind you, there's very little crime in our neighborhood -- we've had no problems since 1984, when some kid shot a BB through our front window while we were on vacation.

National surveys show that most people of color prefer to live in integrated neighborhoods. White people, on the other hand, in all parts of the country, overwhelmingly prefer all-white or nearly all-white communities. In city after city, all across America, the advent of interracial neighborhoods and integrated schools has precipitated "white flight" to new housing developments on the outskirts of town. It's been no different in Holland.

My wife and I have been pleased, overall, with the public schools here. Our children generally have had good -- often excellent -- teachers. They've made friends and have been enriched by extracurricular opportunities. Last June, however, as I watched the graduates file by in the Holland High auditorium, I was struck by how few Latino students were in the line. What happened to some of the kids I remember from Van Raalte Elementary School, the brown-skinned ones with the shiny black hair and the big, bright eyes?

A 2004 study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute found that an average of 74 percent of Michigan's K-12 students graduate from high school. Among Latinos, that number is one in three. Meanwhile, the Holland school board is trying desperately to maintain strong programs in spite of cuts in state funding to urban school districts. The suburban districts, meanwhile, are sprinkling new schools all over the cornfields and blueberry farms of southwestern Ottawa County, trying to keep up with the dramatic increase in their enrollments.

My guess is that most of the white students in those new schools don't really think much about segregation. For them, there is no particular animosity, no overt bigotry, no sense that anything is unusual or out of the ordinary. It's just the way things are, and they take it for granted.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education echoes through three generations of my family. You may not know it, but it echoes through the generations of your family, too. Our parents and grandparents attended schools before Brown that were, by law, separate but "equal."

Thanks in large part to Brown, de jure segregation is a thing of the past. That is very good. De jure segregation -- legally sanctioned separation of the races -- is an especially invidious form of discrimination, with especially invidious consequences. But de facto segregation is stronger than ever, 50 years after Brown.

Michigan is one of the most racially segregated state in the whole country. For most of us, social custom perpetuates what the law no longer requires: White students attend largely white schools, and those schools receive more money and better support than schools that serve most of the students of color.

Did you grow up in a mostly white neighborhood? Attend a mostly white school? Worship at a mostly white church? Many of us did. That doesn't make us bigots, and it doesn't mean that the racist history of this country is our fault.Truth be told, most of us have never thought much about it. It's just the way things are, and we take it for granted.

But the white neighborhood, the white school and the white church are reflections of the fact that white people in America nearly always have set ourselves apart, preserving for ourselves the best this country has to offer. Opposition to Brown helped create the context -- the white context -- within which we were born and schooled and came of age. Indirectly, but powerfully, it helped to make us who we are.

Why should the white majority in Holland attend the Hope College Critical Issues Symposium on the 50th anniversary of Brown? Why should we go to the sessions and listen to the speakers and take in the events? Because fear of Brown among white Americans helped to spawn the white communities that shaped our view of the world. Because, truth be told, the echoes of Brown are more about us than they are about them.

Most white Americans respond to questions of diversity with a combination of apathy and defensiveness: "Who cares?" and "Just leave me be." "This isn't my fault" (which it true) quickly becomes "This isn't my problem" (which is not true). Sometime in the next few decades, white people will become a minority in this country. Are you ready for that? If not, how far will you have to go in 20 or 30 or 40 years to live, work, and worship in places that, de facto, exclude people of color? Wouldn't it be better for us -- and more consistent with the Christian principles so widely shared in this community -- for us to reject segregation in our neighborhoods, our churches, and our schools?

An implicit assumption that most white people bring to discussions of racial integration is that we have to make room for them so that they can benefit from being with us. But the research -- and there's lots of it -- shows that everyone benefits when people of differing backgrounds come together as equals in a mutually supportive environment. We don't lose in order that they may win. We all win together.

Some white people are surprised when other white people care about issues of race and culture. But given that, for example, white students accrue significant benefits from diverse educational environments, benefits that persist long after graduation, the surprise is that more of us don't insist on diverse educational settings for our children. Why settle for an essentially segregated -- and inferior -- education?

Understand: This generation, like those before, whether it wants to or not, will choose -- is choosing -- how to deal with the 500-year-old question of race in America. Will we resist the spirit of Brown? Will we continue to oppose segregation in principle while we honor it in practice? Or will this be the first generation truly to pledge its allegiance to "one nation, under God, indivisible?" Will we live out that pledge in the personal decisions we make? Will we uphold it in the political and social policies we support?

It isn't easy to go against the national grain on the issue of race, but there are several groups in Holland that can help us do that. The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, the Alliance for Cultural and Ethnic Harmony, Latin Americans United for Progress and other grass-roots organizations are working toward racial justice in this community. And while most churches around here still are very segregated, a good number provide opportunities to worship with people from other cultural groups. Crossroads Church, Maple Avenue Ministries, St. Francis de Sales, Faith Christian Center and others represent a wide range of Christian traditions but all offer intercultural worship services.

In our own family, the opportunity to be part of New Community Fourth Reformed Church in its renewed commitment to all the people in Holland's central city has been both personally rewarding and spiritually enriching. Just as the research shows, we have gained much by being part of this congregation.

Mother sold the house in Antioch last year and moved into a retirement center run by our church. Black families began moving into the neighborhood in the 1980s. Most of the newer arrivals are Arab or Kurd or Latino. The Presbyterian Church down the street is home to a Korean congregation. The white families? They're moving out to Brentwood , or even all the way to Franklin, sending their children to brand-new schools, freshly carved from the cornfields, with other white students.

Driven by their own fear and discomfort, ignorant of the disadvantages of rearing their children in a homogeneous setting, they are making thousands of individual decisions that, taken together, perpetuate our national inability to get beyond the color line.

Please come to the Critical Issues Symposium this year at Hope College on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Go to the sessions and listen to the speakers and take in the events. Learn about the context within which most of us have spent our lives. Learn about better ways to work, to study, to worship, and to live with all of God's children. Learn about the meaning of Brown for whites.

Charles W. Green is a professor of psychology at Hope College.