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The Long Shadow of Segregation

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In 1970, the public schools of Richmond were racially integrated by crosstown busing of students. The court ordered that the percentage of black and white students in the system (70 percent black, 30 precent white) should be reproduced in every school. At the same time Richmond annexed 40,000 mostly white residents of Chesterfield County. Immediately after that annexation, the General Assembly of Virginia passed legislation applying only to Richmond that said it could not annex any more territory. The population and land of Richmond was locked into its present configuration. Thirty-seven years later, the public schools of Richmond are more segregated than they were that day in 1970.

For the entire postwar period until 1970, the General Assembly of Virginia was preoccupied with issues of race and racial segregation. Even after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation illegal, the full resources of the state were dedicated to preserving segregation. Through a series of legal maneuvers, white Virginians succeeded in keeping segregation almost completely in place until 1969, thus setting up the dramatic busing decision of 1970.

It is hard for many people born after that time to imagine the overt preoccupation with race that gripped Richmond, the suburban counties and Virginia throughout those decades. The direct way in which racial integration was attacked, the supposedly reasonable editorials that this could not or should not be done, the majestic speeches of leaders and other fine people would make nearly all of us very ashamed.

Then, suddenly, the rhetoric changed. After integration, leaders were no longer able to make the kinds of racial comparisons which had been the norm in the months and years before. But a new, seemingly coded, form of comment began to emerge. Race was not directly mentioned. But strangely, the situations addressed were always interracial. The commentators were careful to say that they didn't have a problem with race. But…

When the schools were integrated in 1970, the press and metropolitan Richmond leaders began to attack the Richmond Public Schools openly and consistently. There was hardly a good word to be said for the public schools, except in the suburban counties. Almost immediately, the Richmond schools began to be described publicly as inferior. Soon, they were described as bad.

By the late 1980s Richmond's schools had effectively been resegregated, only now the segregation was by income level as well as by race. The middle class had taken advantage of the General Assembly's lockdown on the center city and moved most white and some black children to the suburbs of Henrico and Chesterfield.

People moved their residence but not their target. Strangely, even though the population center began to shift to Chesterfield and Henrico, only the city schools remained the focus of attention and criticism.

A public myth developed. The Richmond schools would be blamed deliberately and unconsciously for all that had transpired -- the poverty, the crime, the joblessness, and the reason for keeping Henrico and Chesterfield schools separate from Richmond.

No one said what they actually saw or felt. Whites often phrased their critique of the Richmond Public Schools, which were majority black in administration and constituency, as a criticism of the "quality" or the "administration" or the "inefficiency" of the schools. Some blacks criticized whites for fleeing the schools, even while many black families fled as well.

The great Mythic Battle has continued for 37 years — from the time of Judge Merhige's crosstown busing decision until now. Most of us, black and white, would be aghast to think that our habits of thought were based in Virginia's Segregation and Massive Resistance, but the conversation has an unmistakable pedigree which should call us to serious self-examination.

Here's the data: The Richmond Public Schools are still "fair game." No other institution in metropolitan Richmond is treated with such free criticism in the press and public conversation. No other group of hard-working, self-giving people is talked about with such indifference. No other group of hardworking, experienced people is so often accused of being incompetent.

The schools are blamed for the sins of the entire metropolitan area. They are called too costly, inefficient and ineffective, then forced to cut staff and services in ways that informed parties know are dangerous and increase failure. Then the cycle repeats; they are called too costly, inefficient and ineffective and again cut.

Yet no other public institution in metropolitan Richmond has made such extraordinary strides in the last five years. No other institution in metropolitan Richmond, public or private, is working as hard to make right what isn't right here.

Maybe this persistent criticism has nothing to do with the old racism. Sometimes it comes from both black and white people. Maybe it isn't prejudice. Maybe it's accurate and constructive this time. Maybe others with more privilege or an easier or more self-serving task don't need or deserve the constant criticism.

But it seems sort of spooky to me, like post-traumatic stress. There is persistent septicity in a wound supposedly healed more than a generation ago. Whatever we call it now, it began when segregation ended. It was not true then, and it can be blindingly brutal now.

What is true is this: Our children need our help. These are the children who most need our help in metropolitan Richmond. The schools have won incredible victories, but they need major help as well: responsible, supportive, deliberate help. At the middle- and high-school levels, there is so much more to do to beat back the dropout rate and the cycle of unemployment and misery. At the preschool and elementary levels, we still need major augmentation of services, even though we have achieved a high level of competency.

The Long Shadow of Segregation will not be lifted until metropolitan Richmond honestly embraces the Richmond Public Schools. S

The Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell is pastoral director of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical Christian community and retreat center in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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