By Lise Funderburg
The New York Times Magazine
November 7, 1999
How many of you who are white think about being white all the time?” asks Michelle Fine, speaking to a racially integrated class of seventh graders last spring at Renaissance Middle School in Montclair, N.J. Fine, a white woman and Montclair resident, is a nationally regarded social psychologist who specializes in education issues. Today she’s wrapping up an oral history course she has volunteered to teach along with the school’s principal, Bernadette Anand.
For nine weeks, these students have considered nothing less than the meaning of race in Montclair as they have documented the town’s 40-year history of school desegregation. They have interviewed residents, reviewed court cases, read mountains of newspaper clippings and watched segments of the civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” Yet none of these students connect to feeling white, and Fine’s question is met with silence. She tries a different tack.
“White kids, when you go into a store, do you feel like you are white?”
Dust particles drift into the rays of light spilling through the classroom’s tall, arched windows. Students look down at their desks and stare into space. Finally, Kendra Urdang, a white girl with a South African mother and a Canadian father, answers yes, sometimes, when she’s in a store filled with black people. No one else speaks. Fine tries again.
“Kids who are African-American,” she says, “when you go into a store, are you reminded about being black?”
Suddenly, several students leap from their chairs, clamoring to give examples of local stores where they have been followed, searched, accused of stealing, asked to leave. Daryl Shelton, a serious-faced 12-year-old, names a toy shop in town, and three other black students nod their heads vigorously, “mm-hmming” in recognition.
“I was with him, right?” Daryl begins, pointing to his best friend in school, a tall white boy named Kyle O’Donnell. Kyle’s mother was giving Daryl a ride home when she stopped for an errand. All the kids piled out of the car. “His younger sister went into this store,” Daryl says. “Then when I try to go in, I can’t. They always bring up, ‘You have to be 18 or older.”‘
In most cities and towns across the country, Daryl’s tale of being singled out because he’s black would be regarded as sad but not surprising. But this is Montclair, a suburban enclave 12 miles west of New York City that is renowned for being racially and socioeconomically integrated, for welcoming everyone who is willing to mow their lawns and pay their taxes. That reputation has attracted blacks and whites — including the presidential hopeful Bill Bradley — who have chosen not to default into more common patterns of racial segregation. In most of the country’s metropolitan areas, 79 percent of whites and 33 percent of blacks live exclusively among members of their own racial groups: they borrow sugar from people who would check the same box on a census form or file in the same tax bracket.
All Americans are going to have to face integration sooner or later, whether they want to or not. Although in the 1990 United States census, whites made up 84 percent of the population, some demographers now project that this figure will drop to 50 percent in the next half-century. People can retreat to only so many gated communities, themed dorms and homogenous executive lounges.
For more than a century, Montclair residents have struggled to live the integrated life. When newcomers buy houses, they often assume that they have put a down payment on diversity. Yet once you get past the Kumbaya hype, self-congratulatory civic boosterism and media accolades, stories like Daryl’s appear with disturbing frequency. Montclair’s experience, then, holds lessons for the rest of the nation. Diversity is still a concept very much under construction here.
No one has defined what constitutes a truly integrated community. But Montclair (pop. 36,313) is a serious contender. In a landmark study published last year, researchers for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) identified some of the characteristics that undergird a “successful, stable, racially and ethnically diverse” neighborhood. Montclair fits HUD’s criteria; it has, among other things, a mixed racial balance since at least 1980 and the willingness of residents to identify their community as diverse.
During the last 30 years, while other communities became all black or all white as industrial decline, white flight and gentrification took their toll, Montclair has remained roughly 30 percent black and 65 percent white. A varied housing stock has helped preserve its socioeconomic mix. Home prices may average $334,000, but rambling Victorians with sprawling lawns often stand a stone’s throw from apartment buildings and tiny clapboard homes where more than 2,200 people live below the poverty line. And while most of the town’s poor are black, many of its middle- and upper-class residents are black as well.
Like many of the towns and neighborhoods in the HUD study, Montclair is older and physically attractive and has more than its share of amenities. It has a nationally recognized art museum, four movie houses, six theaters, four bookstores, 48 religious congregations, 154 acres of parkland, Montclair State University and a heavenly fried porgy sandwich made to order at the Fin and Feather. And while it’s a point of civic pride — and of tax-revenue woe — that Montclair has no mall, it does have five shopping districts, a Gap and two Starbucks.
Culture, food and lattes may boost the community’s appeal, particularly to integration-tolerant ex-urbanites (and a stunning number of celebrities, from the tap dancer Savion Glover to the makeup mogul Bobbi Brown, as well as Bill Bradley). But it’s the enduring mix of race and class that sets Montclair apart from prototypical suburbia. “Racial and economic exclusion continue to be hallmarks of suburbanization,” writes W. Dennis Keating in “The Suburban Racial Dilemma.” Although most residents will argue that the town has yet to achieve the physical, social and spiritual integration Martin Luther King Jr. once described as “the beloved community,” hardly any of its streets are totally racially isolated.
The HUD study also notes that in diverse communities, schools typically offer a rallying point for people to come together — the place where “social seams” are stitched together. And indeed, Montclair’s 11 public schools are perhaps the town’s most integrated institutions. Thanks to zealous compliance with a 1976 state-levied desegregation order, the district’s 5,930 students all have significant exposure to kids of different races and classes. Montclair operates a “controlled choice” program that relies on magnet schools, a lottery and town-subsidized busing. And unlike a similar, recently abandoned program in Boston, it has largely gone undisputed over the years. But the schools are also where the pressures on racial harmony are the greatest, threatening to fray those seams beyond repair.
I need seats in the middle,” Michelle Fine calls out, trying to make room for Marvyn Rice, today’s guest and one of 25 black parents who successfully brought suit against the school district in the mid-1960’s. Rice is among a parade of subjects, most of them still Montclair residents, whom Fine and Bernadette Anand have invited to the school and whose stories have helped personalize the abstractions of the town’s history for students.
Volunteers bring chairs into the center of the room with an eagerness that probably won’t last into high school. Rice responds generously to students’ questions, carefully unfolding rich anecdotes. Between inquirers, she sits primly, hands folded in her lap. “I just want to mention that Mrs. Rice is a real, live hero,” Fine says, when the students have exhausted the list of scripted questions. “So take the moment!”
Those involved in the early days of school desegregation in Montclair still shudder at the battles fought. “Those were Armageddon arguments,” Montclair’s mayor, William Farlie, remembers. But in those days, the principle at stake — that barriers to equal education should be removed — bore a noble, if nave, simplicity. Nowadays things are messier. Fully sharing power and resources across race and class lines — often called relational diversity — is something no one has done before. The skirmishes over educational access that fill P.T.A. meetings and op-eds in The Montclair Times are inevitably complex: Is a budget cutback racist, for example, if it affects more blacks than whites? More whites than blacks? Should district resources be dedicated to keeping the school population “stable,” which is often code for “middle class” and “not too black?”
Nationwide, Fine says, perceptions of an institution’s worth shift depending on whether whites or blacks are in the majority. Consequently, the slight black majority (53 percent) at Montclair High sometimes sets off alarms for real estate agents who show prospective buyers around town and for some white and black parents deciding where to send their children. “There are a lot of whispers about tipping,” Fine says, referring to concern over maintaining current racial percentages. “I get calls from friends who say, ‘My kid’s class is imbalanced.’ I know right away that means there are too many black people in the room.”
In 1993, for instance, some parents became panicked when Bernadette Anand, then the head of the Montclair High School English department, along with some of her colleagues, devised a world literature class that was open to everyone. By jettisoning prerequisites, world lit renounced the ability-based groupings that in Montclair and across the country too often default into racial equations — advanced placement equals white; remedial equals black, especially black and male. The town is striving to close the achievement gap between black and white students (which also exists nationally).
To that end, Anand had declared war on “tracked classes,” but in so doing, assaulted the protected inner sanctum that allows middle- and upper-middle-class parents to comfortably keep their children in the public schools. After acrimonious debate, the school board voted to go forward with the class, but a swell of parents — mostly but not all white — plucked their children from advanced-placement classes and out of the system altogether.
Many liberals in town characterize those who left the system as cloaking their racism in a pro-meritocracy argument. But Brenda Farrow White, an African-American woman whose husband, Herman, was the school board president for two years, and whose children attend Montclair schools, is more generous toward parents who put their own needs in front of larger social justice issues. “Parents are, by nature, not objective when it comes to matters regarding their children,” she says. “All that matters to them is what is good for Johnny or Susie. Or Laquesha or Tanesha.”
The board of ed also noticed that an increasing number of students — again, mostly but not exclusively white — were leaving the district, particularly at the middle-school level. Many transcript requests indicated parochial- or private-school destinations. The white kids were clearly middle and upper middle class. (Montclair’s white working-class stronghold virtually disappeared during the 60’s and 70’s.) But black kids also departed, and administrators surmised that they, too, were from well-heeled families. People in town have come to call this exodus “bright flight,” unwittingly equating economic standing and intelligence.
With the explicit goal of “stabilizing” the district, the superintendent and school board opened a third middle school in 1997, which became Renaissance. This one would be smaller than the others — 75 children per grade versus 200 — and would offer educational innovations normally identified with private schools. The hope, says Michael Osnato, the superintendent, was that these components would “retain and return” the education-savvy middle class. The school was designed, in other words, by the district to stanch bright flight, but this goal created new tensions.
Anand, for one, was interested in creating a learning environment that valued achievement and equal access for all students. She remembers how white attrition dominated school board discussions. “That’s what they cared about,” she says. “They felt that if the whites left, the whole town would go down. Then we’d have a whole bunch of blacks here, and I’d be perfectly happy to teach them.” Anand’s first planning meeting was with Fine, whose older son is now a Renaissance seventh grader. The two women quickly became allies, promoting their vision of the school. “We’re people you don’t invite to parties,” Anand jokes, referring to their fierce commitment to social justice.
Fine says that together they decided that the school would only succeed if its curriculum tapped the talents of every child — a familiar tenet of progressive education. The tendency to value certain kids over others is so endemic to school systems, Fine insists, “it’s in the air-conditioning.” Disproportionately, she explains, “kids who have had the cultural capital and the social reinforcements for getting it right tend to be elite kids, and in this town, that means white — or some middle-class black — kids. And then kids who learn that they don’t quite get it right, who would be more hesitant in the class, who wouldn’t feel as entitled to speak their minds, tend to be working-class African-American kids.”
In its third year, Renaissance offers rigorous instruction, longer school days, innovative field trips and an extensive community-service program. This is an increasingly complicated endeavor in the jumbled classrooms of Montclair, as a new wave of poorer blacks move into town, and children who can’t afford class outings sit next to the children of millionaires. Anand’s strategy has proven popular, but at a potentially disturbing price. As of last year, Renaissance was the only middle school in the district with a majority of whites. If the school continues to attract whites disproportionately, Osnato’s aim to “recapture the market share” may be met, but Fine counters that the school will have failed in a different way. “What does that say about poor and working-class kids?” she asks. “Are those kids not valued as much?”
Others voice different concerns. One white parent, who describes herself as “an old leftie,” complains that Renaissance’s good intentions have gone too far. She says her child has “gotten lost” despite Renaissance’s small classes and links this neglect to race. “I’m happy that race is an issue in a positive sense, as a topic of discussion,” says the woman, who asked not to be identified for the sake of her children. “But there does seem to be a feeling that if your child is white, he or she doesn’t need any extra help. Now, it’s a correct assumption that if you’re white, you’re likely to be privileged; but it’s also assumed that you don’t need any support in learning.”
And middle-class whites aren’t the only ones who are worried about their kids getting lost. Debra Jennings, 41, says that the African-American parents she knows have different reasons than whites for pulling out of the public schools. “I would say only one out of 10 feel like their supergifted child is not going to be sufficiently challenged,” she estimates. “The other nine are worried about teachers’ low expectations, particularly if the child is a boy. Those parents will tell you that their child was being painted with a certain brush, and they did not want that to happen.”
Jennings has sat on the school board, run for mayor and co-founded a watchdog group called Concerned African American Parents (CAP). She’s currently the associate executive director of an education support group, the State wide Parent Advocacy Network. In Montclair, many blacks are reluctant to discuss the tensions of intraracial class divisions, and Jen-nings is known for specifically representing the town’s working-class and poor blacks. “There’s no such thing as ‘bright flight,”‘ she says with a scowl. “It’s ‘I-can-afford-it flight.”‘
On the theory that power lies in the hands of the informed, CAP focuses on information dissemination — mostly through a quarterly newsletter and a biennial Parents’ Expo. Jennings says even white parents rely on CAP’s school-budget analyses to understand how money is being spent in the district. Yet communication gaps between the races persist.
Despite Renaissance’s explicit mission to raise the bar for everyone, CAP had serious reservations about the district’s starting a new middle school. “We had two questions,” Jennings recalls. The first was about how, in a year of draconian budget cuts, the district could afford a new program. The second, she says, was why Renaissance didn’t do a better job of including poor black parents when planning the school. “There were attempts made to reach out to African-American parents,” she concedes, “but most of the parents they reached out to were middle to upper middle class. There was really no outreach to African-American parents who were more typical — more working and middle class.”
Socioeconomic status matters, Jennings says, because wealthier families often have the luxuries of time and resources to lobby on behalf of their children’s needs. “When I look at the parents who are at Renaissance,” Jennings explains, “I don’t criticize them, but almost all have been heavily involved in their children’s education. I felt like that kind of energy should have gone into some of the other schools — because we need more African-American parents in the other schools. We don’t need a concentration in one school.”
Elliott Lee is part of that concentration. An Ivy League graduate and a senior program officer of a locally based foundation, he has a daughter, Andrea, who is an eighth grader at Renaissance, and has been an involved parent, joining Anand’s curriculum development committee and participating in a loosely organized lobby against budget cuts. He has even considered seeking a seat on the school board.
Thirteen years ago, when Lee and his family moved onto a predominantly black street in Montclair, he wasn’t prepared for the chilly reception from his new black neighbors. “I thought because we were black and they were black, they would welcome us,” he says. “But we weren’t just black people, we were the outsiders driving up property values and forcing the old folks out.”
Class-consciousness is creeping into all of Montclair, he contends, and no one wants to admit it. “Most people are willing to talk about the folks with resources coming in and supplanting those who’ve been here a long time,” Lee says. “What isn’t talked about are the new black folks coming in who aren’t well off, trying to get their kids into better schools. That would send the wrong message about Montclair. A lot of people — white and black, but maybe more white folks — want Montclair to be less diverse than it is. They want it to be middle class. It’s one thing to have poor people who’ve been here for years, but it’s another thing to be known as a place that attracts them.”
A teacher’s aide walks through the Renaissance hallway last spring, ringing a hand bell to signal the period’s end. It’s lunchtime, and students in the oral history class lunge for the door. Kids fill their plates — it’s pizza day- and then make a beeline for their seats in the basement cafeteria. Day after day, the long tables fill up according to a carefully worked-out calculus of race and class.
“I sit at the semipopular/unpopular white girls’ table,” explains Susana Polo cheerfully.
“I think it has to do with the music people listen to,” says Trevor Sage-El, the student council president at the time and a biracial boy who sits at the popular black boys’ table.
“My friends are 75 percent black and 25 percent white,” says Ashley Carter-Robinson, who is black and chooses to sit at a table that’s all black and all girl, except when Daryl Shelton’s friend Kyle O’Donnell invites himself over, seemingly oblivious to whether he’s welcome.
“Four of my black friends sit with us,” says Kendra Urdang, “and the rest of us are white at my table. I have mixed friends, but honestly, my best friends, more of them are white because in this school it is a bit more separated. When there’s a clique of only black people, one time I went over to that crowd and they just ignored me.”
In these social striations, the children are not much different than the adults. Despite all that Montclair has going for it, despite the widely expressed desire for relational integration, if you ask residents, black or white, whether people cross the color line socially, most will say no, not really, or not very often. Maybe at Watchung Booksellers or Sharron Miller’s dance studio or the Luna Stage theater — but they’re exceptions. Even supermarkets have the reputation of being patronized along racial lines. (King’s is white, Pathmark is black, Fresh Fields is for anyone with a full wallet.)
Not even the HUD researchers could calculate whether living together leads to social integration. But as community life atrophies everywhere, true relational integration seems ever more difficult to imagine.
“There’s an impoverishment in relatedness in America,” says Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a public health research psychiatrist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Where we once raised barns to build commonality, we now pay property taxes. Normal patterns of socializing have eroded because people no longer live, work and socialize in the same place. Overlay race, and the challenge of integration is heightened.
“I find communities like Montclair hopeful,” says the sociologist Douglas Massey. “But the sorts of forces that produce segregation in American society don’t happen at the community level. Basically, places like Montclair are forced to adapt to a racially segregated world and undertake heroic efforts, often, to keep themselves these islands of integration in the broader sea of segregation.”
Renaissance’s principal, Anand, says, “School is the one place where you can really break down the patterns of sameness that exist within our communities.” But perhaps because it is one of the town’s few arenas for change, progress continues to come slowly.
“It’s not our fault if we don’t like people,” says Susana Polo, who is half Irish and half Puerto Rican. “We want to sit with our friends. I’m not saying this racistly, but black people are brought up different, because of persecutions and slavery and stuff — they’re brought up to feel different things than white kids, which makes their personalities different. I don’t get along with the black kids in my school. I get along with my friends, who are mostly white, and Michelle, who’s black. And it’s just like that.”
A seating chart Anand implemented to break up the cafeteria’s race- and class-based groupings stood little chance against the undertow of elaborate and steadfast allegiances — kids who live in Upper Montclair as opposed to those who live in Frog Hollow, who listen to rap as opposed to Hanson, who come home at night to play basketball as opposed to Battle Squad. After less than a month, Kendra Urdang observes, “everyone was just sitting back where they wanted to.”
Still, Montclair offers reason for optimism. One of Daryl Shelton’s classmates, a white boy named Ian Bandes, tells me the most important thing he learned in Fine and Anand’s oral history class was about the relationship between time and social progress. “I learned that very recently, maybe 20 years ago, the town was very racist. And it’s kind of scary, but it also taught us that we’ve come so far in that short time.”
Renaissance, one suspects, deserves only partial credit for Ian’s enlightened attitude. After all, many schools, even in the most segregated neighborhoods, teach racial tolerance. If Montclair’s white students are more open to racial diversity than other kids, it’s probably because their families are, too; that’s why they chose this town in the first place.
Absolute integration may still be unrealized in Montclair, says Joan Pransky, the white mother of a 12th grader at the high school, but that’s no reason to despair. “I don’t think it happens in your lifetime,” she says. “The long and short of it is the contribution you make along the way and the fervor you bring to it. The fact that a lot of things around here are wrong doesn’t mean for a minute you change doing your best to do right.”
The town is still very much a work in progress. True integration, Mayor Farlie observes, demands an acceptance that no town will ever be perfect and that people will always disagree. “One of the challenges of suburban and urban life these days in America,” he says, “is you either believe in diversity and are prepared to sometimes be disappointed and other times be elated, or you move to suburban Connecticut.”
A week after Daryl tells his story in class, I ask him to talk about the episode at the toy store. “I was distressed that they were singling me out because of my race,” he says as we sit on the stairwell outside the cafeteria. “It’s never happened before. I thought Montclair was perfect.” Now, partly because of the class project, he says: “I’m starting to notice that other people are looking at me more often. I don’t think it’s very fair.”
On his own, Daryl has come up with a plan for returning to the store, a combined appeal to human decency and market forces. “I was thinking I should just go over there and talk to them about it and tell them how it makes people feel,” he explains. “And tell them how many kids actually don’t want to come to their store.” He is thinking about the profits, he says, because the store should want to attract as many customers as possible.
His resolve fulfills Fine’s goals for the class. “Young people need to know that they can produce history,” she says, “and hopefully, that’s the legacy of this town. It’s not just about raising kids to be good citizens or good boys and girls, it’s actually a town committed to raising young people who know how to live in a multiracial, multiethnic community.”
Daryl’s tale of hometown discrimination makes a case for Montclair’s failure — that even in such small moments of interaction, the community can’t break free of segregationist, prejudiced patterns. But a stronger case can be made that, here, the stage for real progress is continually being set. With Daryl’s plan, the town takes one more small but meaningful step toward the beloved community.