Fast forward 20 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and we found ourselves embroiled in yet another school desegregation controversy. The more things change…
It was September 1973, I was about to enter the 11th grade in a new state, a new city. A transplant from the East Coast, I moved from Queens, New York, to Long Beach, California a couple of weeks before school was to begin. Everything seemed to be different in my new neighborhood. The sights, the smells, the feeling of the air. It was warm and dry here. There always seemed to be a slight whiff of tar in the air -- air that seemed to be visible. Yes, this was very different from my neighborhood back home. Somewhat off kilter, entering school a full year after the rest of the class, I focused on finding where I'd fit in in this strange new environment 3,000 miles away from the place I longed for -- the place I still called home.
On the first day of school, my sister and I walked the few short blocks from our grandmother's house to the high school in our new neighborhood. Nervous about being the "new kids", we were both relieved when the administrator told us that we couldn't enroll in school that day. She said we'd been slated to go to a different school. Lakewood High School -- a full hour away by bus. That meant we'd have to wait another day and get my mother involved. We had no idea where this school was or how to get there. My mother had a car, would have to take off from work -- a job she had just started, to help us figure this all out.
I assumed we weren't allowed to enroll at the neighborhood high school because it was overcrowded. Having to attend a school in another community meant that my sister and I would have to get up a little earlier to catch a bus and arrive home a little later. But aside from the extra transit time, this arrangement didn’t seem too problematic. Besides, since we were new to the community anyway, I figured we’d just have to make new friends in Lakewood instead of Long Beach. No big deal -- or so I thought.
On the first day at Lakewood High, we were greeted by the principal, who ushered my sister and me into his office. I remember thinking that this is strange. I wondered if the principal had one-on-one meetings with all transfer students. I'd actually never been called into the principal's office. I didn't know what to expect. But the principal had a pleasant demeanor and a gentle voice. I've forgotten most of our conversation except for one question he posed. He told us that Lakewood High School had a student population of approximately 3,000 and that all except for two students were white. He asked if we thought we’d have a problem with that. The question threw me off guard. I didn’t know how to answer. The mere fact that it was being asked gave me pause. I began to feel more anxious.
In New York I attended a school where the student body was about 60% white and 40% people of color. But we tended to think more in terms of ethnicity than race. This is not to say that race wasn't an issue - it was just more nuanced.
One of the observations I made as I began to assess my new environment was the way in which racial identity was characterized in Lakewood, California. There was a subtle yet meaningful difference.
In New York City, our identities were more closely tied to our countries of origin. So the white kids generally characterized themselves in terms of culture or ethnicity as well as race. They weren’t just white; they were Italian, Irish, Jewish, or the newly arrived Czechs, Lithuanians, and other Eastern Europeans. In fact, none of the white kids I knew identified solely as white. This was also true with many of the Black kids, Latinos, and Asians. My high school in New York had a mix of East Indians, West Indians, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Black Americans, Dominicans, Cubans, Chinese, Pakistanis, and a host of others.
In this kind of environment, where ethnic difference was the norm, getting along with other ethnic groups was a given. No one would even think to ask a student if they thought they could get along because of an ethnic difference. We were immersed in ethnic difference. Everyone saw themselves as belonging to an ethnic group and the term "ethnic" wasn't used as a euphemism for "not white", at least not in my community in the mid-70s. So when the principal of Lakewood High School posed the question I began to think that being the new girl might not be my only problem.
The Real Reason
In the weeks that followed, it began to dawn on me that our local school wasn't overcrowded at all. I came to see that my sister and I were being shuffled across town to solve a problem that wasn't even on our radar. We had walked right into a national controversy. In the mid 1970s, the debate was over the use of busing as a tool to affect racial balance in the nation’s schools. Busing was enacted as a component of many school desegregation programs in response to federal court decisions establishing that racial segregation of public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Green v. County School Board (1968), and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), the Supreme Court established that federal courts could require schools to implement busing programs as a means of achieving racial integration.
I attended Lakewood High School from September 1973 to June of 1974. During that single school year, I learned more about the many variations of racism than all the previous 10 school years combined. To begin with, the desegregation program only bused Black kids who were new to the community. But the busing was one-way. By that I mean there wasn’t a bus that carried white students to Black high schools. Only the Black students were bused. Early on, I began to see this as an inequity, which put me and the other bused students at a disadvantage not shared by the white students. We had an extra hour and a half to two hours taken away from us daily just in transit time. I thought I'd do homework on the bus but I couldn't because of car sickness.
There was one bus that took us to school in the morning and one that brought us back to Long Beach at the end of the school day. This made it difficult for bused students to fully participate in school life. If I had an interest in any of the many extracurricular activities -- such as debate club, cheerleading, yearbook, football, the school newspaper, or drama club -- I was out of luck because most, if not all, of those groups met before or after school hours. Several of the core classes also required that the students spend some time working on projects together before or after school hours.
For example, I took a marine biology class but couldn’t attend the study groups. My dance class culminated at the end of each semester with a performance that required rehearsals. I missed half of the rehearsals because I had to catch my bus. Thanks to a fantastic teacher, some great fellow students and a little talent of my own I ended up with the only solo performance in the show, and an “A” in the class.
Because I was determined that I wasn’t going to let this transportation thing beat me, I came up with some creative solutions of my own. When I needed to attend a rehearsal or meeting that just couldn’t be missed, I’d often take public transportation home instead of the school bus. But this required money, which I often didn’t have. So I got to know some of the city bus drivers and they’d let me ride for free. But with every solution there seemed to be another problem. In the winter months, if I stayed more than an hour beyond the school day, it would be dark when I got to my final bus stop, meaning I’d have to walk several blocks in the dark. This brought a whole slew of problems that I won’t write about here. But, during that year, there were students, teachers, and a wonderful school bus driver named Wanda who made my experience tolerable most of the time. Unfortunately, there were just as many who made it almost more than a 16 year should have to bear.
Hard Knocks in Lakewood
It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that I experienced my share of racial incidents and yes, I did. But a couple were noteworthy and particularly hurtful to a teenager who didn’t have a clue about the deeply entrenched racial divide that exists in this country.
Here’s one such experience.
I was in an advanced social studies class that contained some of the top students in the school. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I felt more comfortable with the students in the advanced classes - especially this one. I loved this class and had friendships there. One day, I happened to spot one of those friends handing out a small envelope to the other students. Our eyes met. She saw that I saw that she was doing something that she didn’t want me to see. To her credit, she was enough of a friend to tell me what was going on. It seems she was throwing a birthday party and was handing out the party invitations. She expressed deep regret that I would not be invited because her parents would not allow me in their home. As I write this, I still feel a little of the sting I felt on that day.
Another incident put things in a whole different perspective for me. This experience helped me to see that what I was observing at Lakewood was preparing me for life in the United States.
We were working on a group project in this same advanced social studies class. We had broken up into groups of four and were given a writing assignment. One of the requirements was that the paper we wrote had to have contemporary social relevance. Research for the paper was to be conducted as a team. My group consisted of two boys and two girls.
Living in the midst of this national controversy and experiencing the sting of it first hand, I suggested that we do something on the topic of racial integration. So the four of us came up with a plan. Cal State Long Beach wasn't far from Lakewood High School. The two girls would pretend to be recent Cal State Long Beach Grads apartment hunting. The boys had cars so their job was to provide transportation, leads to apartment vacancies in Lakewood, help in tabulating the results, and input in the overall writing of the paper.
Lori (not her real name) and I would be the apartment hunting college girls. Separately, she and I would fill out and submit applications at the same apartment complexes. I’d apply first and she’d show up a few hours or, at most, a day later. We decided that the girls were more suited to play the role of college grads because although the four of us were 16, the boys didn't look as mature as the girls. We didn't think they could pass for 22, the approximate age we figured we’d be if we'd just graduated. The other advantage was that I was Black and Lori was white. Both boys were white an obvious disadvantage for this kind of experiment.
As 16-year olds, both Lori and I were excited and nervous about whether we could pull this off. Our initial concern was that the apartment managers wouldn’t believe we were college grads. Both of us decided to wear make-up, high heels, and borrowed clothes from older sisters.
In the first attempt, the four of us drove to our target. My three classmates stayed in the car a half a block away as I nervously approached the apartment building where a sign clearly advertised a vacancy. I rang the doorbell of the unit marked, "Manager". An older white woman opened the door. Through the screen I sensed a kind disposition. I believe she addressed me as "dear". Heaving a sigh relief when she didn't seem to question my age, I didn't mind when the nice lady explained that she’d love to take my application but unfortunately, the apartment had just been rented. She wished me luck as I went on my way feeling a bit victorious
When I got back to the car I told my classmates the details. We were all thrilled -- we'd pulled it off! The way we planned it, I’d go to about four places and then we'd circle back so that Lori could go to the same places. Our initial fear turned out to be a nonissue. I now had more confidence about looking older -- heck, I wondered if I could get into a club but for now I'd keep my mind on getting to the next place.
After each visit we documented things like the race, gender and approximate age of the apartment manager, the nature of the exchange (were they pleasant or rude, for example), and the look and feel of the place. The four of us felt we had the makings of a good project even though all of the places I went to had just been rented. We were simply interested in completing the process and documenting the experience. We were sure we'd get a passing grade.
I was pleasantly surprised that, without exception, all of the apartment managers were polite. They all encouraged me to keep looking, congratulated me on finishing college and wished me luck in my future. My other team members were less surprised. They never expected our experiment to turn out to be a major sting operation. They were pretty sure Lori and I would get the same treatment but they agreed that it was a good idea for a project never-the-less.
After I'd gone to four rentals, we circled back so that Lori could follow the same sequence. At the first apartment complex Lori was greeted by the same apartment manager who called me "dear". The same nice lady opened the door but, unlike my exchange which was held as she talked to me through the screen door, Lori was invited inside. The same woman who told me that the vacancy was filled gave Lori a tour of a vacant apartment. She handed Lori an application and asked her to have a seat at the kitchen table to complete the application. This same woman promised Lori she’d get back to her within a week. Lori left the unit buoyed.
When she got back to the car, the boys and I were ready to document the exchange. When Lori told us what happened, the three of us were over the moon excited. What seemed like a project that would get us a passing grade was quickly looking like a guaranteed "A". We knew we'd hit a home run. All of us, myself included, were academically competitive. We wanted to get an “A” and this outcome almost assured us of that.
In the end, all four of the places that told me they had just rented the apartment -- all four, took Lori’s application. The first time this happened, I was just as excited as the rest of my team but with each new revelation, I felt as if I were being kicked in the stomach. My team mates were oblivious to the depth of my disappointment, disgust and despair. We were all taking a glimpse into our not-too-distant futures. Mine looked a lot bleaker than theirs through no fault of any one of us.
But here's the thing. None of us had a hand in creating the climate that fostered the kind of outcome this experiment yielded yet, we were all beneficiaries of it. I received unearned disadvantage -- Lori received unearned advantage. Whether it's a job, an apartment, a part in a play or the thousands of other opportunities not afforded to a person because of their color, this is illegal and unfair. They don't deserve this disadvantage. And the white people who fill those positions or rent those apartments etc are receiving an unearned advantage. This is what we mean when we talk about White Privilege -- unearned advantage.
My fellow students' only concern was getting an "A" in Social Studies -- another white privilege. They were free to see the project as nothing more than a social studies assignment while I was weighed down emotionally and psychologically with the realization of what being Black would mean for my future. The weight on my shoulders couldn't have been further from their consciousness even though we were "friends" and they had just witnessed what I'd witnessed.
To make a long story short, my study group was awarded an “A” on our project. We went on to do another group project, this time the topic was interracial dating. This one was just as successful, a lot less painful for me and a little comical. It involved a hidden camera, a white young man (one of my classmates) and a Black young woman (me) shopping for engagement rings at the Lakewood Shopping Center. Needless to say, with the help of a very talented team member who was great with the camera we got some fantastic candid shots of the locals expressing their extreme dissatisfaction as my “fiancé” and I shopped for wedding bands.
It’s been 35 years since I attended Lakewood High School. I'd like to think the classmates who participated in those projects were somehow enlightened by the experience. Perhaps their lives were changed in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had they not witnessed, first hand, what many minorities in America experience on a regular basis. I have no way of knowing since I did not maintain contact with those students. But based on the life experiences I've had in the past 35 years, I wouldn't be surprised if the project had little impact on those students.
In her book, The Failures Of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream, author and Georgetown Law Professor Sheryll Cashin points out that the civil rights revolution “put in place laws that attempted to guarantee that no one should be restricted in their access to education, jobs, voting, travel, public accommodations, or housing because of race.” However, throughout the book she sites case after case where the laws have not produced the desired outcome. In fact, according to Cashin and many respected social scientists, racial segregation in educational settings is more pronounced in the United States today than at any time in American history.
My very first experience in trying to gain access to housing demonstrated that the law provided me with little or no protection in terms of preventing discrimination. The "one-way" busing policy implemented by LBUSD in the seventies resulted in me having limited access to the full high school experience while the white students were unimpeded by the busing policy. And more than 40 years after the Civil Rights movement most Americans continue to live and work under conditions that are just as racially segregated as they were before the Civil Rights movement. This leads me to wonder if taking down "whites only" signs like the ones displayed across the south had any impact at all.
Although most Americans say they support integration, the lives they live tell another story. When asked if I think things are getting better, I don't have an answer. While I’m less likely to experience the kind of overt racism experienced in the south in 1957 by the Little Rock Nine, at least the Little Rock Nine knew who was for them and who was against them. I can't claim to know who is for or against me.
In the 1970's, although there were laws in place that prohibited landlords from discriminating based on race, my high school project experience demonstrated that it didn't take much effort to find places where the law was blatantly violated. And, the burden was on me, to prove that the law had been violated. The same is true with employment discrimination.
Today it is socially unacceptable to openly admit to racist feelings. So people don't come out and say what they think. If it weren't for the numbers you'd think the United States had finally overcome its racist past. But alas the statistics tell a very different story.
The disparities that continue to exist between Black Americans and white Americans in every area that is measurable i.e. economic, health, education, life span, etc. tell a story of two different Americas. And in terms of America's school desegregation efforts the numbers tell us that this country has made no progress.