Wanda Stewart's encounter with public-school integration was short and not very sweet.
As a teenager in the mid-1980s, Miss Stewart watched officials in her hometown of Lake Charles, La., merge her predominantly black high school with a white school nearby. The result shocked her.
"Just about all the whites left. The white teachers left too," says Stewart, who is black. "After that, the city let the school go down."
Disillusioned by that display of racism - and by others ranging from verbal abuse to paddlings by white teachers - Stewart enrolled three years ago in Chicago State University, where the student body is 92 percent black. "I wanted a black college," she says, to escape "the hidden agenda [of racism]."
Across America, many blacks share Stewart's frustration with what they view as the nation's troubled and costly efforts to desegregate public schools in the face of white resistance. This week, such sentiments are fueling a debate between critics and supporters of school integration at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention.
NAACP chairman Merlie Evers-Williams sanctioned the debate but reaffirmed the backing of the nation's largest civil rights group for integration. "The NAACP has not and will not retreat from our bedrock policy to seek full and complete equity in all aspects of American life - especially in education," she said in a July 13 address to the NAACP's 88th convention in Pittsburgh.
Supporters of integration say a policy reversal by the 600,000-member NAACP could set the stage for a dangerous backsliding into racial division.
"This would be viewed ... as an endorsement [for school districts] to evade racial integration," says Edgar Epps, professor of urban education at the University of Chicago. "No one outside the black community has the right to determine where black students go to school."
A call to redistribute funds
Yet other African-American scholars and citizens contend that money spent on integration would be better used to improve predominantly black and Hispanic schools, especially in poor, inner-city neighborhoods.
"A renewed emphasis on racial integration is the wrong response," according to Glenn Loury, a professor of economics and director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University.
"In the many districts where most students are nonwhite, it has long made more sense to address those students' educational needs directly [by reducing class size, lengthening the school day, and expanding support services], rather than to spend scarce resources trying to get white families to send their children to the same schools as minorities," Professor Loury states.
Already, data indicate that the resegregation of American schools is under way, following landmark court decisions and demographic trends that have led to a steady rise in the percentage of minorities in America's schools.
In the early 1990s, as the United States Supreme Court made it easier for public schools to end desegregation orders, the percentage of minority students attending schools where more than half the students are white fell appreciably, according to a study released this spring by Gary Orfield of the Harvard University School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.
Education experts say that many blacks, discouraged by the mixed results of desegregation programs and the greater burden they placed on minority children, are apparently not concerned by the change.
"The majority of the time it was the black students who were bused," says Rachel Lindsey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Chicago State University. "It's unfortunate that most trade-offs came from black children."
Busing ate up hours of study time and disrupted the fabric of neighborhoods, she says. Moreover, once at the majority white schools, minority students were often isolated or placed on slow learning tracks.
"The frustration [for black parents] is not just the transportation, but what lies at the end of the ride," says Professor Epps.
To remedy the problem, many minorities today want to see greater resources put into local schools in their areas, surveys show.
Most blacks and Hispanics favor more government funding for local public schools, which they rate as fair or poor, according to a national poll released in June by a Washington-based center that researches minority attitudes. By contrast, a solid majority of whites consider the schools their children attend to be excellent or good, the poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows.
Opting for black colleges
At the same time, the popularity of predominantly minority schools is growing among blacks. Enrollment in the country's 100 black colleges has increased by nearly 30 percent over the past two years, a rate of increase twice as fast as that for mainstream colleges. The number of students in black colleges has surged to 230,000 in 1994-95 compared with 179,000 a decade earlier.
Blacks earn degrees from these schools at a higher rate than they do from mainstream colleges. In turn, they are more likely to attend graduate school, especially in the sciences, according to William Gray, president of the United Negro College Fund.
Such schools hold special appeal for African-American students, many of whom say they offer greater faculty support, more relevant courses, and relief from discrimination at majority white schools.
Katrina Shepherd recalls her freshman year at the predominantly white Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill., when a white adviser tried to dissuade her from pursuing her chosen accounting major.
"He said because I was black and a woman, I would never make it," Miss Shepherd says. "It was very discouraging." The adviser urged her to take a less demanding major, law enforcement, the concentration of most other blacks at the school. Instead, she transferred to Chicago State and today is in her senior year in accounting.