New racial climate in suburban South
Middle-class migrants from the Northeast and Midwest help heal centuries- old rifts.
It seems that everywhere along Raleigh's outskirts - near tin shacks, cotton rows, and churches with peeling paint - there are the beginnings of roads.Skip to next paragraph
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To real estate agents and contractors, they are harbingers of hundreds of new and neat middle-class neighborhoods, built as fast as carpenters can swing their nail guns. But for the rest of this genteel Piedmont city, they are the paths to a new suburban order.
As in Norfolk, Va.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Charleston, S.C., Raleigh has seen thousands of college-educated blacks and whites arrive from the Northeast and Midwest. During the past decade, they have altered the demographics of midsize Southern cities and changed the racial climate.
While whites and blacks remain largely segregated in old-growth cities like Houston and Atlanta, such physical and social boundaries are falling rapidly in the boomtowns of the South - and across America. Yet nowhere is the trend having a greater impact than here in Dixie, a region defined by its racial tensions since the days of the 13 Colonies.
"A lot of people coming in from other parts of the country don't have the same long-term feelings about racial issues, neighborhoods, race, and space that some locals have had," says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. "They may have other stereotypes, but now they're in a new place ... where at least the income levels are similar."
Here in Raleigh, the evidence of change is seen around the outskirts of town. Hundreds of acres of red Piedmont dirt, shorn of trees, yield to clustered 1,500-square-foot "custom ranches" and modern two-story homes. Starting at $100,000 and often promising "zero percent down" financing, these houses are home to a middle class more concerned with preened lawns and property values than racial "encumbrances of the past," says George Chapman, Raleigh's planning director.
"We may be seeing this integration trend intensify now because the population here is quickly becoming more typical of the future than of the past," says Mr. Chapman.
View from the burbs
During the past decade, for example, Florida, Georgia, and Texas have seen the largest influx of black professionals, with North Carolina ranking fifth.
In one typical new neighborhood, Battle Ridge, Gary Brace has gotten used to living in a construction zone since moving here a year ago from Scranton, Pa. - he was the first to move in.
"I'd put this neighborhood at 50 percent white, 45 percent black, and 5 percent Hispanic," says Mr. Brace, who is white. "You can really sense that the black population here is hitting its economic prime."
The rise of this new integrated middle class over the past decade has boosted "black issues" into the mainstream, while also easing lingering mistrust among ethnic groups, says Jerry Price, one of the first 50 protesters to be arrested in the 1968 civil rights unrest on the Shaw and St. Augustine College campuses in Raleigh.
In those days, "people tried to run you over with their cars," he remembers.
These days, things are different. With support from key white county commissioners, Wake County hired its first black sheriff, John Baker, several years ago. In the coming weeks, the predominantly white school board is expected to approve the ascendancy of assistant superintendent Bill McNeill, who is black, to the county's top school manager.
Recently, the school board also voted to maintain certain quotas to ensure diversity in schools, despite heavy pressure from the courts, critics, and some parents to drop the concept.