One Class of 1980 recalls life with 'Brown'

Race was the elephant in the classroom that no one talked about. In September 1973, I entered sixth grade with the mostly white classmates who had been with me since kindergarten and African-American kids who for the first time had been bused from other neighborhoods.

The resulting social experiment - busing as a way to remedy segregation - made a lasting impression on me, my classmates, and the city of Indianapolis where I grew up. The effects of desegregation continued through to our high school graduation in 1980 and are still felt today.

I tracked down fellow students and teachers to ask what role they thought race had played in our education. Because the Indianapolis school board had fought desegregation, few efforts were made to teach racial sensitivity. Students were thrown together without any idea what to expect.

Petra Perkins, one of a handful of African-American students who had attended my mostly white elementary school since first grade, remembers thinking when busing was announced, "Thank God, I won't be the only one." But her relief turned to shock. "Many of the blacks who were bused did not share the same expectations about what they could achieve," she says.

The children bused to School 84 came from predominantly poor and working-class families to a neighborhood school where most - though not all - families were middle and upper-middle class. Ms. Perkins's mother taught her to understand the different environments between home, school, and the community in which she and her siblings moved. She learned to adapt her communication style.

"These kids would say, 'You talk so proper,' " Perkins says.

As classrooms became integrated, the rowdiness level went up. Teachers spent more time trying to keep order.

At the same time, we were absorbing a bit of black culture, and the African-Americans picked up elements of white culture. In seventh-grade English class, a skinny, brainy, white kid named Adam Bain recited the words to an Earth, Wind, and Fire song for an assignment on poetry. He did it in rhythm, like rap, and we all cheered. The black kids loved his performance - here was a white guy putting something over on a teacher, and at the same time validating the music they listened to.

But the moments of levity were underscored by an edginess. The African-American kids were understandably angry to find themselves on someone else's turf. Perkins says they resented busing; they felt they were being punished. The tension spawned rumors and misunderstandings.

One conflict had to do with personal grooming. The popular black hairstyle was the Afro, and the kids took pride in theirs. But, in an example of ignorance, some whites feared the Afro picks, 3-to 4-inch-long metal combs with handles. Kids walked around with picks sticking out of their hair. I can't imagine they would have dented so much as a desktop, but many times I saw a pick raised in a threatening gesture to other blacks as well as whites.

The curiosity went both ways. Brian Smith, a white friend, remembers in junior high when an African-American classmate asked to touch Brian's hair.

We were so awed by each other, and yet we didn't want to ask questions that might make us look stupid. Teachers and staff thought they could make race a nonissue by not talking about it. But that only drove the tension underground.

By the time we were freshmen at Broad Ripple High School in 1976, racial tension was like a buzz in the ear, something that didn't go away but could be ignored. The school had undergone busing turmoil earlier. Its population had changed from mostly middle-class white students in the late 1960s to about 70 percent black, 30 percent white.

Errick Peck, now assistant pastor at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, remembers in 1977 when "Roots" aired on television. The vivid depiction of slavery fanned feelings of injustice. "When 'Roots' came out, there was more tension in school," says the Rev. Mr. Peck. He describes turning a corner in the hallway during this time and seeing a black guy slam a white guy into a fire-extinguisher case for no reason, breaking the glass. He says, "Today, I've got morals. I would maybe have tried to stop it. But I was angry, too."

Race wasn't the only issue. English teacher Doris Young, who still teaches at Broad Ripple, says the real dividing line was socioeconomic. "Race was the most obvious difference," she says, "but it was really about class."

Stephanie Carpenter Hisle, a white friend, describes the social pecking order in high school: "The kids fell into four basic groups: the Compton Street [white] hoods, the black hoods, middle-class black, middle-class white."

Group identification dictated where people sat in the cafeteria, which was voluntarily segregated, with blacks sitting wherever they wished and whites staying on the right.

Eugene Anderson, who graduated in 1979, navigated both groups. An African-American, he was bused from an all-black working-class neighborhood to Broad Ripple, where he excelled at football. He is now an assistant deputy mayor of Indianapolis. "That experience set the foundation for dealing with people who are different from me," he says.

Classmate Linda Kohlmeyer Aktar was one of the few white players on the girls' basketball team. She and Brian Smith, who played football and baseball, agree that being on a team helped lessen the us-versus-them mentality. "The African-American players would tell their friends that I was cool, I was OK," Ms. Aktar says.

It turns out that the Class of 1980 holds particular interest for people studying the aftermath of the civil rights movement.

"The Class of 1980 is important because the graduates are old enough to remember the promise of Brown but young enough to be influenced by the more conservative policies of the 1980s," says Amy Stuart Wells, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her group interviewed Class of 1980 students from six urban schools and published the report "How Desegregation Changed Us: The Effects of Racially Mixed Schools on Students and Society."

While Aktar remembers that "the racial tension in the [school] atmosphere pulled my focus from learning," she says that "overall, it was a good experience." She pauses for a moment. "It wasn't an experience I would have chosen, but it was an eye-opener."

A reporter's afterword

Working on this story about students from my graduating Class of 1980 turned out to be a more daunting task than I had envisioned. But it also became a life-changing, or at least thought-changing, event for me.

From the start, it was hard to locate these people, most of whom I hadn't seen in 24 years. Working from a 1995 reunion contact list, I called former employers, Googled names, and spent hours looking in online telephone directories. I was sensitive to the fact that I had a stronger bond with my white classmates, whom I had known longer.

Because of these ties, the white graduates were more willing to be interviewed. The African Americans, who were more acquaintances than friends in high school, understandably were reluctant to speak about such a sensitive topic. Phone messages to them went largely unreturned.

As Errick Peck, the African-American pastor with whom I spoke, says, "From the time you're born, your parents say, 'Be careful around white folk.'"

I came to realize that, as a white person, I am free to move through the world without much thought as to how I will be perceived. But, as Reverend Peck says, "Blacks realize that society has one strike against them. You don't want to believe that people still hold those kinds of feelings toward you, but then [racism] rears its ugly head."

It grieves me now that I did not make more friends with black students. I wasn't that courageous, nor were many of us. Freshman year, I remember looking around art class and seeing I was one of the few whites. Within a year, I switched over to the music classes, in part because that's where more of my white friends were.

If anyone needs further proof that the makeshift, integrated world of high school quickly fell apart after graduation, it can be seen in the fact that those interviewed each gravitated back to their own communities to live and raise children.

Many of their comments echo Amy Stuart Wells's findings in her study of 1980 grads. You can read it online at: Wells found that the African Americans were more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods today (as Eugene Anderson and Petra Perkins do), while the whites are more likely to live in exclusively white areas (as Linda Aktar, Stephanie Hisle, Brian Smith, and the others I interviewed do). In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that after living in multicultural Boston neighborhoods for more than a decade, I moved in 1993 to an affluent, mostly white suburb with good schools.

This is the issue that troubles me most today. Mandatory busing, especially one-way busing of mostly African Americans, can wreck neighborhoods. But in our case, integration forced us to confront our prejudices every day in school. Today, the emphasis is on accountability and test scores rather than racial tolerance. Parents naturally want their children in the best schools with the most resources - and that usually means white schools.

Mary Lou Rothe, a white school board member in Indianapolis during the 1980s, says integration never received support by local educators or politicians. "The white community never said, 'This is the right thing to do.' They just said, 'What are the home prices in Carmel [an affluent suburb]?'"

The difference between 1980 and 2004 is that the moral arguments in favor of integration have largely been abandoned.

Opponents of busing say there's no evidence that students who are bused do better in school. Cities all over the United States are scrapping their busing plans. Indianapolis has embarked upon an 18-year phase-out of busing that, ironically, will bring an influx of students back into a system that is already struggling with budget problems and weak student test scores.

What did busing achieve, and was the goal worth it? I wonder if we gave up the dream too quickly.

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