For blacks, a 'dream' partly fulfilled

Income and educational levels are going up, but segregation and prejudice remain.

High school freshman Latrell Harvey says he's "actually living" Martin Luther King's dream of a society in which one's prospects aren't bounded by skin color. The African-American hopes to go to college and doesn't expect much to stand in his way beyond his own ability.

By many indicators, it's never been better for blacks in America. Nearly half are in the middle class, and 80 percent graduate from high school. Some 47 percent own their own homes, many in suburbs where they couldn't have purchased a house when Dr. King stood at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. "The status of African-Americans in the United States is immeasurably improved," says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Are there still a lot of very poor African-Americans? Yes. Is there discrimination against African-Americans? Yes, especially in ... criminal justice."

This week, President Bush said, "Racial prejudice is a reality in America," even as he spoke against racial preferences in university admissions.

Other challenges too, have been rising. Violent crime is up sharply from the 1960s in urban areas where many black children grow up.

Other social indicators are also headed in a direction that often bodes ill for children. "The most important single change for children in DC is that back at the time of King's death, about 1 in 3 children were living with their mothers only; today, it's more like 4 in 5," says Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard University. Black two-parent families earn only about 13 percent less than those who are white.

The progress and challenges for black Americans are evident in the view from Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, here in Washington.

For Latrell and other students who take a study break to talk with a reporter, color lines still run deep in their views of everything from politics to shopping at a mall. They notice when they're "looked at funny." There are parts of the city where they won't go and never expect to live. They laugh about it, but there's a flash of anger. It hurts.

They also are aware of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's recent remark that seemed to endorse segregationism. They're glad he is no longer the Senate Republican leader.

But they wonder why he is still in the Senate at all.

If the country were back in those days, "I'd be in jail or dead, because when I see something wrong I say it," says Nicoisa Young.

"Back in 1956 or '58, when my mother was born, whites would be on one side and blacks on the other. If you went to the hospital, you might not get help," says Courtney Evans, who is a 10th grader.

What counts for many of the students here is that you often see black men and women on the streets wearing Armani suits. They know the stories of civil rights activists fighting off police dogs to eat at a lunch counter or cast a vote, but they also see African Americans running huge corporations or advising presidents on issues of war and peace. "We've got someone who is close to Bill Gates," Latrell says.

Like most big American cities, D.C. has become more integrated residentially since the 1960s, and federal housing laws have opened up the suburbs to black families.

Education, too, has improved. Only about 20 percent of black students completed four years of high school in the 1960s, compared with more than 40 percent of white students. By the 1990s, three-fourths of blacks and 84 percent of whites completed four years.

But national tests show a huge gap in achievement between blacks and whites. It was reduced by half in the 1970s and 80s, but again appears to be widening. The average reading and math scores for black 17 year olds is about the same as the average white 8th grader, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress - one of the most sensitive statistics in public education.

In incomes too, gaps remain. In 1967 the median income for blacks was 53 percent that of whites. The number today is 61 percent.

And while economic opportunities have improved dramatically since the civil rights era, that doesn't translate into desegregation. The students here wonder if they will ever live in an integrated environment - or want to. They feel people in malls think they're going to rob the shop or can't afford to pay for an expensive purse.

"There are no places I won't go, but when I do, I get a funny look. They look like you don't belong here, especially for me being a black teen," says Raymond Normand, who is lobbying his school to start a football team.

It's easy to tell the malls that have African-Americans living nearby, Nicoisa says. The malls in the suburbs where her aunts live keep the Coach bags under lock and key. In the malls in a more prosperous suburb, "they're just out there on a table with a price tag," she says .

None of these teens expect they will ever live next door to white people. They resent all the talk of black teen crime, and worry more that President Bush will bring the country into a war. "If a bomb hits this school, we're all dead," says Nicoisa.

The high schoolers here are split on whether color should count in college admissions. "If Martin Luther King is right, we should be judged by what's in our heads not the color of our skin," says Latrell.

Courtney isn't so sure. "I want to get into college," she says. The extra 20 points for race on the admission form could help. "Perhaps they could just give the 20 point to everyone."

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