Segregation and self-reflection

I wanted to thank Jody for her comment on yesterday’s post in which she talks about how Wake County’s desegregation scheme affected her choice of where to live.  I think it’s incredibly hard for people to talk about these issues, especially white people who don’t want to be labelled racist.

It made me want to talk a bit about where I live.  I just looked it up, and as of 2000, the census tract where I live was almost exactly 50/50 black/white.  But I wouldn’t call it a stable integrated community either — almost 2/3 of the population lived in a different house in 1995.  Forty years ago, it was the historic heart of black Alexandria.  Today it’s gentrifying and getting whiter, but slowly.  The change is slow both because there’s a good chunk of public housing in it, and because there are a significant number of older residents who own their own homes and aren’t moving.  But the housing prices have appreciated so much that when the older generation dies, their children are mostly taking the money and running.

We knew very little of this history when we moved here.  Our primary search strategy was that we wanted to be walking distance to the metro, and I wanted to feel safe doing so by myself at night.  We started looking along the Red line, then the Orange line, but didn’t find anything that we liked and could afford.  (And yes, everything was ludicrously cheap compared to what it’s going for now — but it still seemed like a lot of money to us.)  Our realtor convinced us to extend our search to the Blue/Yellow lines, and this was the first house we saw in Alexandria.

So, we weren’t looking at race directly when we looked for a house, but it was only a step removed.  If you look at a metro map of DC, the racial politics of transportation becomes glaringly obvious.  African-American neighborhoods are underserved by metrorail, and the disparity was even worse before the last parts of the Green line were finally opened a few years ago.  There are a few majority-black neighborhoods with metro stations (especially along the eastern branch of the Red Line), but I woudn’t feel comfortable walking alone in them at night. 

Cashin talks a little about "accidental integrationists" in her book.  She focuses on South Arlington, which is the next community over. It has a similar class mix as Alexandria, although it has less public housing and has more of a Latino population, and less of an African-American one.  I saw a lot of myself in the white parents that Cashin talked to and I found it reassuring to hear their stories.

8 Responses to “Segregation and self-reflection”

  1. Maggie Says:

    This may be more relevant to yesterday’s post than to today’s, but . . . it’s clear to me that the housing prices for family-sized houses in both Arlington and Alexandria closely track the schools’ reputations, as determined largely by SOL scores and % of kids on subsidized lunches. Identical 3/4 bedroom houses in Arlington and Alexandria had $70K to $120K price differentials based on the public school district. Generally, the highest priced houses were in NW Arlington, on the orange line, where the elementary schools were Yorktown High feeders.
    If you do the math, spending $70K+ (plus interest) less on your house over the course of 30 years may make it a break-even or better decision to buy in a less expensive neighborhood and spend the $$ for private school. Which is, it appears, what many affluent people in Alexandria are doing. The City’s annual report from 2003 lists total public school enrollment at 10,979 (K thru 12). ( That same annual report lists the total number of employed + unemployed adults at 84,675, and a total city population estimate of 135,000. 135K minus employed/unemployed – kids in public school = almost 40,000 people unaccounted for. Now, I’m not at all a statistics person so I may be way off here, but even if 3/4 of those 40K are retirees, that means that fully half of the kid population of Alexandria is in private school. And – judging from the tours I’ve taken and nothing else – the private schools are largely white while the public schools are (according to the annual report) 44% Black, 27% Hispanic, 23% White, 6% Asian, and 0.3% Native American. This public/private division is borne out in my own narrow slice of Alexandria. Of the kids that I know on my block, 6 are in the local public school – including one minority kid – 3 are in Catholic school, 4 are in what I consider “fancy” private school – including two minority kids. In fact, one of the private school goers completed 1st grade in the public school, but her parents were very disappointed in the quality of the before and after care program. Her dad, a private high school teacher in DC, then started interviewing for jobs at the fancy private Alexandria schools. He got one, she’s going to the fancy school at a reduced tuition rate, and they’re much happier with how her education is going.
    A lot of things about this bother me, but I’m out of time for commenting today! I’d love to hear your thoughts . . .

  2. renee Says:

    interesting discussion. i just bought my first house last year in the bustling midwestern college town that i live in, and i’ve done a lot of thinking about this topic. my neighborhood is predominantly black and lower/lower-middle class. race was not an issue when we chose the location of our home, simply because we can’t afford to be even a little bit picky. i was primarily concerned with getting in a good school district, which wasn’t difficult since there’s really only one to avoid in our hometown. however, much to my disappointment, ours has not turned out to be a family-friendly neighborhood, and i’ve been struggling to reconcile this sentiment with my desire to be open and progressive.
    part of the problem may be that it is not a stable neighborhood – most of the homes are rentals, which is pretty typical of college towns. we’re located within walking distance of downtown and all 3 colleges, as well as public housing. this is a very centralized town with a decent bus system, so public transportation issues are less critical here than in larger cities.
    so as much as i love being centrally located and walking to my office on campus every day, i’m still struggling to find a comfort level in my neighborhood. my son isn’t allowed to play at anyone else’s house, because none of his friends are supervised well at home, and most of them come from households with sad stories. you can buy drugs from young men at the other end of the block. there was a drive-by shooting one street up from mine a couple of months ago.
    my solution has been to have the neighborhood kids hang out at our house, but that comes with some complications, too. i can barely handle my own hyperactive, behavior-challenged kid, taking on the rest of the neighborhood’s problems is beyond me sometimes. we had one experience that underscored this problem, which i wrote about on my own blog:
    anyway, this is a touchy subject and one that i’m still working out in my head. one minute i’m operating under some sort of savior complex, where i want to deliver them all from evil, and the next i’m angry because i feel as though i have to make some sort of darwinian choice between what’s best for my family and what’s best for my neighborhood, when my resources are scarce. those of us that are aware of the complexities of race, class, and social issues need to ask ourselves some hard questions when those issues confront us in our own home environment.
    thanks for tackling this topic!

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks, Maggie and Renee. I really think this is an important conversation to have.
    I realized I didn’t say much about schools in my post about how we came to live here. We didn’t have kids at the time, and really weren’t thinking about schools. If we were, I probably wouldn’t have considered living in the District, to be honest. I don’t know if it would have affected our choice to buy where we are — there’s been a major redistricting since we bought, and the school served a much less economically disadvantaged population at the time.
    I do think if we move, schools will be the deciding factor that pushes us. With two kids, it’s hard to justify staying put and paying private school tuition.
    Maggie, there actually aren’t that many kids in private school in Alexandria — your math didn’t account for kids who are below school age. The Post actually ran an article about this in August, as this is the 40th anniversay of desegregation in Alexandria’s schools. They wrote:
    “In Alexandria, there is an urban legend that says that once the schools were integrated, the white middle class abandoned them. Look at the statistics, people say. The city of Alexandria is 60 percent white, yet its schools are only slightly more than 20 percent white.
    But statistics can lie.
    Alexandria is indeed 60 percent white — and, according to recent U.S. Census figures, becoming whiter. But the majority of city residents either live in single-person households or don’t have school-age children. Fewer than 20 percent of the households are families with school-age children.
    The Census estimates that there are 13,598 children between the ages of 5 and 18 in the city of Alexandria. Compare that with the total school enrollment — about 11,000 — and it’s clear that by far, the vast majority of children in Alexandria, of any race or ethnic group, attend its public schools.”
    Full article at: “”
    Renee, thanks for your perspective. My kids are too young for it really to be an issue yet, but I definitely watch the elementary school kids running unsupervised around the neighborhood, and wonder whether we’re going to let our kids run with them, and whether they can still be friends if we don’t.
    Cashin says that in the integrated schools, kids do have cross-racial friendships, but they tend to be with kids from similar class backgrounds.

  4. Maggie Says:

    Thanks for the clarification – good article! I have a feeling that my local non-statistics reflect the small triangle of Alexandria that I live in – the triangle with the “good” public schools. I think my neighbors’ experiences demonstrate a trend that may be worth exploring. It seems (again, rumor not data!) that a lot of folks who live in my neighborhood and who can afford it are choosing the private schools. Simultaneously, a lot of the parents who do not live in my neighborhood and who are motivated enough are pulling their kids out of “bad” Alexandria public schools and putting them into the school in my neighborhood. Which, the local moms tell me, is getting too crowded with too many kids at dissimilar skill levels as a result, and which has a serious impact on the aftercare programs. Which leads to more of the neighborhood kids being sent to private schools. Which bugs me, as it results in more fragmenting of the sense of community that I moved to the neighborhood to find in the first place, thinking that all the neighborhood kids would be walking to school together!

  5. merseydotes Says:

    Oh, boy, is this all close to home…We weighed these issues earlier this year when we bought a new house. We were motivated to move because of space constraints and a terrible parking situation, but the criteria that got the most weight in evaluating potential new houses was school district. I came up with a list of ‘acceptable’ districts based not so much on test scores, racial breakdown or subsidized lunch percentage but on teacher turnover, discipline frequency, teacher/student attendance and extra curriculars offered. Some of that info came from public sources, but much came from conversations with people who know/work in the Alexandria schools. Like Jody, I wanted a school where we could connect with teachers and administrators and be sure that (a) they’ll be in school most days during the year and (b) they’ll be at the school long-term.
    In the end, we stretched ourselves financially a little thin to get a house in one of the top-tier (and very white) districts in the city. In talking with parents/educators, I hear that teachers/administratos clamor to get into this school because of its reputation, and that’s the kind of enthusaism and dedication I want for my child.
    If our contract hadn’t been accepted on this house, we probably would have moved to Alexandria’s west end, which is more diverse (especially with a significant immigrant Hispanic population). But as it is, we are in super whiteyville – I can’t think of a single minority family on our street.
    Of course, having moved out of Del Ray – which is often held up as this bastion of integration – I am skeptical about the label. On my old street, there was a mix of African Americans and Caucasians who had been there for 30 years, some renters (mostly minorities) and then climber/yuppie young professionals (childless or with very young children) like us. I can tell you it wasn’t all sunshine and roses in terms of how everyone got along – not so much based on racial lines, but on socioeconomic/class lines. There was definitely some tension and resentment about what many would call ‘gentrification’ of the neighborhood.
    Anyway, diversity played a huge part in our selection of a preschool (which DD will start in spring), and I’m pleased to know that our elementary school is 49% white, 28% African American, 18% Hispanic and 5% Asian-Pacific American. It’s not perfect, but it’s at least something to ensure that our daughter doesn’t live in a white bubble all her young life.

  6. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks, Mer. Re: your comment about Del Ray, one of the things that I liked in the Cashin book is that she acknowledges that, yes, even in the stable integrated neighborhoods, there are going to be tensions and clashes. She quotes the mayor of Montclair NJ, William Farlie, as saying “You either believe in diversity and are prepared sometimes to be disappointed and other times be elated, or you move to suburban Connecticut.”

  7. Jody Says:

    The other place we could have bought was Durham (enough messing around with details anyone can figure out). We bought in Chapel Hill — and paid about 150K more than for a similar house in Durham. In Wake County, we might have paid about the same as in Chapel Hill, at least in North Raleigh and Cary/Apex.
    BTW, Cary/Apex has now supposedly surpassed Chapel Hill as the area with the highest percentage of PhDs in the state. It’s the place where all the Research Triangle Park folks live and the schools are EXCELLENT. One of our neighbors used to be a junior-high counselor down in Wake County — she took a long-term leave to stay home with her kids just this summer — and she raves about the community support for its schools. Wake County clearly is doing a LOT right.
    Anyway, points being (a) we bought exactly where you’d expect an academic in the Triangle to buy — we’re a white liberal “no money where our mouths are” cliche; (b) almost all the higher-paid academic families living in Durham send their kids to private schools (I couldn’t vouch for the humanities profs, though); (c) the Durham school test scores and racial profile didn’t scare us, at least not until middle school, and in fact, we were all set to make an offer on a house in Durham. But then we discovered that the schools are all overcrowded to the tune of 850 kids in buildings built for 600, and right after we moved, the funding mechanism for the TEN SCHOOLS in the planning stage was declared unconstitutional. Good teachers can do many things, but they can’t relieve cafeteria, hallway, and playground congestion or remediate the endless disciplinary problems that come with that overcrowding.
    Where was I? Oh yeah: even parochial school tuition for three kids times thirteen years was going to be a lot more than 150K. We’d have to expect to pay less than $3900 per kid per year from kindergarten through graduation to make buying in Durham and using the private schools a good alternative to just shelling out for Chapel Hill housing. We could have sent the kids to the public schools in Durham, but they would have been social outlyers, and we’d already done that for seven years in our old neighborhood. It gets a little old, being the only eggheads on the block and the target of not-so-subtle jokes about your professional uselessness compared to carpentry, plumbing, and waste management. (I know, I know, cry me a river.) Our kids would have experienced some of that in school, and I just balked. Also, I might as well just confess that we didn’t want my husband’s colleagues whispering about our “idiot” choice, to “risk” the public schools. (We almost made the Durham offer right after a long conversation with a 1970s-era faculty member whose kids did just fine in the Durham schools. I cannot emphasize enough how generally strong their test scores and teacher turnover rates are, especially considering the poverty rates in the district.) To a family, though, all of my husband’s generational cohort are paying the tuition not just for parochial schools but for the fancy private schools. Two families are sending their preschoolers to $14K half-day preK programs to ensure their continued enrollment in schools that will only get MORE EXPENSIVE. (The third family with kids the same age as ours opted to homeschool.)
    If Durham had ended up being our only option, the kids would have had to deal with trailers and crowded cafeterias and eroded playgrounds and my illusory ideas that 8 year olds care about their parents’ professions. (Although, as Renee points out, parental professions are a proxy for all sorts of behavioral expectations and supervisory situations that would have affected us directly.)But $14K for half-day preK is a monstrosity.
    Still, there’s no escaping the fact that ultimately, we opted to buy in the whitest part of the Triangle, and census figures estimate that it’s only going to get whiter. That’s disturbing in all sorts of ways, not least because we started out specifically looking to buy in another racially integrated neighborhood.
    Something else that’s worrisome: the second of Chapel Hill’s two high schools just failed NCLB because its black student population didn’t meet mandated testing standards. This in a district that reports 40-45% of ALL STUDENTS score in the 97th percentile or above on standarized tests. 35% of them are labeled as “gifted.” (Don’t get me started on that issue.) There’s a black homeschooling Chapel Hill mom who writes absolutely damningly about the racial issues in the education culture here. I’ll have to see if I can find her link again.
    Another way of thinking about these issues, before I stop hijacking your blog: We privileged a certain kind of “class consciousness” (the kind that makes it possible for every single mother in the neighborhood to attend and host the Friday afternoon playdates, including the working moms) over racial integration, knowing full well and damningly that the two are inextricably linked. Not a good model for our children at all.

  8. Jennifer James Says:

    This is a great conversation! So many issues, so little time. By the way, I’m the black Chapel Hill, homeschooling mom Jody mentions in her comment above.
    I guess I’ll start with my earliest memories of neighborhood integration when my parents bought our family home. We moved from Jacksonville Fl to Charlotte and immediately found a nice neighborhood and a great home. I was probably five then, and didn’t know much, but I remember it was a happy time.
    We moved into a neighborhood that was predominately white, but there were also other black families scattered throughout. After a while, though, all of the white families vanished. (That’s how it seems to a little one) and the neighborhood pool was filled in with dirt and gated off. Now, as I look back on all of this, it’s really hilarious. You have to find humor in the saddest things.
    My husband experienced the same thing when he was growing up. He was living in Charlotte, but on the other side of town. His parents moved into a predominately white neighborhood just to see the golf course gated off when the blacks moved in and the street sweepers stop coming through. It’s the little things like that that we never forget.
    Neighborhood integration is such a touchy subject for me. In fact, we are still renting until we find the perfect housing situation; one where when we move in there won’t be immediate white flight. I think we may be holding out in vain, though.
    About local education here in Chapel Hill: I really don’t keep up with much of it because I do homeschool my girls. In fact, we have little choice. I can’t figure it out: In one of the wealthiest school districts in all of NC, the black students just can’t achieve.
    A reporter from the Chicago Tribune once asked me why I don’t send our daughters to the great local public schools. I had to tell her that the schools aren’t great for black students. In fact, they’re pretty dismal. And, I doubt it’ll get any better anytime soon.
    So, we do the best we can for the moment: school our girls at home away from the low achievement of black students in our local public schools and long for the perfect neighborhood.

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