Racial Code in High School: Tolerance, Not Integration

A PUZZLED look spread across 15-year-old Jennifer Barkely's face when asked about the 1960s-era idea of creating a ``colorblind'' society.

``They must have been smoking too much dope back then,'' the white girl said.

Three decades after the civil rights movement, a new generation is jettisoning old assumptions about race as it deals with its own experience of integration.

Amid growing racial diversity, violence, and continued self-segregation among youth, no consensus on race emerged from interviews with students at two of Philadelphia's most racially mixed high schools. The one goal students, teachers, and counselors more or less agreed to was to have all racial and ethnic groups tolerate each other. They said that expecting all groups to mix is not realistic, but that overt discrimination should not be accepted.

``All we can ask for is people to tolerate each other,'' said Charmaine Bass, an African-American senior at South Philadelphia High School, where Cambodian, Vietnamese, English, and inner-city slang can be heard over the din of slamming lockers. ``We can't expect them to be friends with everyone.''

Quincy Booth, an African-American sophomore, said some things have changed in the country, but others haven't. ``It's gotten better because no one is spraying us with hoses, and the laws have changed [since the '60s],'' said Mr. Booth, ``but if I go into Wanamaker's [department store], the security guard follows me.''

At Olney High School, dozens of groups of students - some racially mixed, some racially divided - fill the school's long, bustling hallways. Spanish, Hindi, and Arabic can be heard echoing off the ornate building's high ceilings. The school is 52 percent African-American, 29 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian, and 7 percent white.

``There are positives and negatives to having so much diversity,'' said Sabri ``Tony'' Ibrahim, a Palestinian student at Olney. ``You learn from the other cultures, but you see that every culture has its good and bad traits.''

Last year, neighborhood tensions between Puerto Ricans and Palestinians erupted into violent clashes at Olney. ``It happened because of ignorance on both sides,'' Mr. Ibrahim said. ``They don't want to communicate with each other, and each group wants to prove that they're stronger.''

Students said that looking at someone the wrong way, or simply bumping into someone in the hall, can lead to a fight. Even if the incident does not begin as racial, it can rapidly escalate into a racial conflict between groups, they said.

James Peak, a white junior at South Philadelphia, said fights are rarely between individuals. ``People don't fight one on one anymore,'' he said. ``It's either 20 on 1 or 20 on 20.''

At South Philadelphia, Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrant students, who often stay to themselves, are harassed by other groups because they tend not to fight back, students and teachers said. Students said the harassment was deplorable. ``I don't understand why they treat them [the Asians] so terrible,'' Ms. Bass, the African-American senior, said. ``I treat people like I want to be treated.''

Self-segregation among groups is common at South Philadelphia, students said. Asians tend to gather on the second floor, whites tend to cluster on a section of the third floor, and blacks tend to gather on a section of the fourth floor. The rest is neutral territory.

Students said it was ``natural'' to want to hang around with people that are like you, but said people should try to mix. The problem is created by the continued segregation of housing in Philadelphia, they said. ``Each neighborhood is divided up racially,'' said Booth, the African-American sophomore. ``If kids come to high school that way, that's the way they're going to be.''

Some students of all races said their families put pressure on them not to mix. ``My whole family is racist, but I do what I want,'' said Mr. Peak, the white junior. He said the first black family that moved onto his block was ``chased out'' by his neighbors.

Peer pressure not to mix with other groups still exists, according to students. Many said they are accused of trying to ``act white'' or ``act black'' if they dress a certain way or have friends of other races.

``Everybody's, like, `you want to be black' or `you want to be white,' '' said Ms. Barkely, the white sophomore girl, dressed in rap-style baggy pants and black sneakers. ``Everybody should just be whatever they want to be.''

Students said race relations may be strained, but are not at the breaking point. ``I don't think two fights a day are bad,'' Ibrahim said, ``for a school that speaks 42 languages.''

No students said they knew the answer to race relations. ``I don't know if there is a solution to this problem,'' Booth said. ``I think only God knows the answer.''

Aurelio Pontarelli, who has taught in the city's public schools since 1970, said the students' acceptance of racial difficulties stems from the experience of trying to integrate.

``Maybe people were a little naive in the '60s, and we've learned a little [since then],'' he said. ``Maybe we've learned that people can't all be homogenized, and that you do what you have to do, to get along.''

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