At graduation, reflections on race

A white family's experience in a predominantly black school.

My wife's daughter Kaley just graduated from Cleveland Heights High School, a fine school in one of America's best inner-ring suburbs. She's our third child to graduate from Heights High. During the first two graduations, I found myself engaged in an odd activity, best described as counting.

The sentimentalists among you will assume I was counting my blessings. And we, as a family, have many to count. The parents of overachievers will assume I was counting the honors my children have won and calculating their place in the academic hierarchy. Nope. I was counting the numbers of whites, blacks, and Jews receiving diplomas.

This is a habit I've had since my first kid entered kindergarten 15 years ago. I counted my way through second grade recorder recitals, field trips, choir concerts, school plays, baseball games, and awards assemblies.

Conditioned to count colors

It's a conditioned response to sending your white, Jewish children to large public schools that are predominantly black. Conditioned by neighbors who are planning to move to a community with "better" schools. By empty nesters who wonder what happened to the schools they sent their children to. By the local media who mention the racial makeup of the schools every chance they get.

Even by the dumbest of standards – state standardized tests – Cleveland Heights High School is solid. By more reasonable standards – such as quality of teachers, number of Advanced Placement classes, and extracurricular activities – they are excellent.

But when a school system is predominantly black (the high school is 80/20 with a tiny fraction of Jews) in a community where whites are still the majority, racial makeup is the elephant in the room of almost every conversation about the schools. For white parents and for black parents.

And so we all count, wondering where the tipping point is amid an influx of low-income black families. Many middle- and upper-middle-class families, both black and white, flee the schools early on. Others keep their kids in the elementary and middle schools, where there's more racial balance, then bail out at ninth grade.

Many of my white friends who have kept their children in the schools are self-described liberals who desperately want to be colorblind but find themselves counting, like a tic, against their will.

What we've learned is that it's easy to talk about ideals such as a colorblind society when you're in the majority. But minorities know that being blind to color isn't an option. And because of our decision to keep our kids in the schools, we are minorities. And so we keep counting.

I'd like to list here the many rewards our kids have received from experiencing minority status, but I'm not sure they're very tangible.

Getting to know black culture

They certainly got to know black American culture. Unlike their counterparts in mostly white suburbs, our kids know that black culture is far from monolithic. Blacks are as diverse as whites. (And by extension, I hope our children have learned that the same is true of every minority group). They come in all the same shades of rich and poor, artsy and athletic, religious and nonreligious, nerdy and cool, gay and straight, with collars that are white and blue.

This idea, that blacks aren't a homogenous group, seems so obvious. But for most whites who've led segregated lives, it's something they understand only intellectually, which is to say they don't understand it very well at all.

I know. It's taken me years to learn. And I learned it slowly, from interacting with black parents at school committees, play dates, and sports events. By working together on school levy campaigns and local not-for-profit boards. By complaining together about a baseball coach; by working side by side at fundraisers. I learned slowly, but I'm glad I got to learn.

Our daughter Kaley's graduation represented something of a graduation for me, too. Instead of counting the students' skin colors as I used to, I began to count the students I knew.

I counted graduates who were bound for Ohio universities versus the number of kids going out of state. I counted honor students and jocks, artists and slackers – all of them just kids who grew up with our daughter, who went to our community high school with her. And it was the most beautiful graduation I've been to yet.

Jim Sollisch is creative director for an advertising agency.

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