New racial climate in suburban South

Middle-class migrants from the Northeast and Midwest help heal centuries- old rifts.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It seems that everywhere along Raleigh's outskirts - near tin shacks, cotton rows, and churches with peeling paint - there are the beginnings of roads.

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.

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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.

"It's true that John Baker would not be sheriff today or Bill McNeill be where he is were it not for the many board members who are white who have come out strongly in support of them," says Mr. Price, now the pastor of Solid Rock Baptist Church. "I've seen the time that this never would have happened."

Stumbled upon more than sought, this New South integration has its roots in the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The strongest forces accelerating it today are Southern cities' proximity to colleges and military bases, their heavy inmigration, loads of new housing stock, and rising wages tied to local high-tech firms and light industry, says Mr. Frey. Raleigh itself has 7,000 newcomers each year.

"Half the city is brand-new, is the way I like to look at it," says Chapman, the planning director. "There's a high level of education here, and it's much more diverse in terms of backgrounds of its people than the typical Southern city of the past might have been."

Middle-class trend

Still, observers point out, the new trend does not encompass the whole South.

For one, segregation levels seem to be remaining constant in some of the more established Southern metropolitan areas such as Houston or Atlanta, says Douglas Massey, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Their large black populations have in many cases remained socially distant from their white counterparts, and such social distances can be more powerful than the "physical segregation" between blacks and whites often seen in the North, he says.

"Small metro areas that meet the profile are experiencing lower levels of segregation," says Professor Massey, author of "Apartheid in America." "But large urban black populations, in places like Atlanta ... are tending to remain stuck at fairly high levels of segregation."

In addition, the demographic changes have only trickled into the richest suburbs and lowest-income areas - especially those close to older black districts.

Born and raised in Raleigh, Fredrick Lassiter, with his son Fredrick Jr. leaning against his knee, says he's seen little integration in his mostly black neighborhood of Farmington Woods.

"I see a lot of white people drive through, but not many of them buying," Mr. Lassiter says.

Gone tomorrow?

Some demographers caution that these new integrated neighborhoods, fashionable today, could fade out as quickly as they have emerged. When the population of one ethnic group sinks below a certain "tipping point" - usually about 30 percent - the rest of that population then quickly moves out, says Jim Johnson, an urban studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"What looks like a stable integrated neighborhood at one particular time may actually end up changing fairly quickly," he says.

Betsy Byford has already noticed a noticed a sudden change near her well-integrated section of Eagle Chase, a five-year-old neighborhood. Though the older front half of the development is multiracial, the newer back section is now nearly exclusively a black neighborhood.

"It's not that I mind it," Ms. Byford says, "but it's not something I expected to see happen so fast."

Coming from "lily white" Scranton, Mr. Brace says he looked forward to being steeped in a richer cultural kettle.

"I never had any qualms about moving into an integrated neighborhood," says Mr. Brace. "But I had one requirement: I didn't want to be a minority."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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