September-October 2008 | Parenting

Equal but Separate?

Are the benefits of diverse schools being wasted?

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Jake Sandler and Alex Lamothe were best friends at Westland Middle School in Bethesda. Lamothe, black, from a modest neighborhood near Rosemary Hills in Silver Spring, and Sandler, white, from tony Kenwood in Chevy Chase, swam in Sandler’s backyard pool and hung out at his 5,739-square-foot house on nearly half an acre.

The friendship ended when the teens entered high school. Except for a nod when their paths crossed at Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School, they no longer hung out, no longer spoke. Sandler was taking mostly advanced placement courses, while Lamothe was in regular classes. Late last fall, when Lamothe dropped out of B-CC, Sandler didn’t know how to contact him.

The estrangement puzzled and upset Sandler, so much so that the 2008 B-CC graduate wrote his college application essay about his lost friendship and the larger issue of self-segregation in high school.

“As I step through the gym doors, I notice a phenomenon that no longer surprises, yet still puzzles me,” Sandler wrote. “On the right side of the dance floor, there are 300 white kids, and on the left side, 200 black kids. The sight of self-imposed segregation during the school-sponsored dances at my high school perfectly exemplifies how my generation is coping with the race issue. It has become so politically incorrect to suggest segregation still exists that any adolescent who tries to delve into the topic is discouraged. More than 40 years after the forced integration of schools, segregation is still prevalent in society. But it is no longer talked about.”

Sandler then wrote of his lost friendship: “I feel as though we fell victim to expectations. Once we reached high school, it was expected that I would hang out with kids with my same socioeconomic status and Alex would act up in school, rebel against authority figures, and live life how he desired in the short term.”

The essay helped Sandler get into Tulane University in New Orleans, where he is a freshman. But writing it was painful. “I taught him how to swim in my backyard,” Sandler says. “He was really a good, loyal friend. He was just as smart as I was. He used to spend weekends at my house. I never went to his. I know black kids who are very friendly in the halls and classes. But come Friday night, I don’t see them at all. We run in completely different social circles on weekends.”

Self-segregation is a fact of life at B-CC and other Bethesda-area high schools with diverse student bodies. At Rockville High School, where the student population is less affluent and the kids come from more diverse neighborhoods, students self-segregate in school but mix at after-school parties. At Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, which draws from far less integrated communities, self-segregation is more prevalent, both in school and on weekends. At Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School, where the student population and feeder neighborhoods are similar to Rockville High’s, students also self-segregate, a division more pronounced in the competitive math-science magnet program, which is largely white and Asian-American, and the communications arts program, which is overwhelmingly white. Students in the International Baccalaureate program at Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School are selected in a countywide competition and are overwhelmingly white or Asian, and those students tend to be isolated from the rest of the school. 

Though students at Bethesda-area high schools report little animosity between the racial and ethnic groups, they also say there is only limited interaction, whether in the halls, at lunch or after school. Generally, the white kids hang with the white kids, the blacks with the blacks, and Hispanics with Hispanics etc. Why does this happen? What does it mean? What separates young people of different races and ethnicities in today’s supposedly multicultural society? Why do middle and elementary school friendships fall apart in high school? Is it economics? Geography? Racism? Peer pressure? Academic tracking?

Diversity is a hot topic among educators, along with narrowing the achievement gap between whites and minorities. But self-segregation is a subject that receives much less scrutiny, though it’s on the minds of students and educators.

“Even in the B-CC cafeteria and at school dances, de facto segregation is often an ever-present factor,” student journalist Sam Aleinikoff, a 2007 graduate, wrote last year in the 80th anniversary edition of The Tattler, B-CC’s school newspaper. “Although the current demographics of B-CC are roughly representative of Montgomery County and even the United States as a whole, it appears that integration is not complete.”

Karen Lockard, B-CC’s new principal, lives near the school and is the mother of two B-CC graduates. She says self-segregation “is not that simple and it’s not always that bad.” After stints at more diverse James Hubert Blake and Springbrook high schools in Silver Spring, she has concluded that students tend to separate themselves as much by interest as by ethnicity. “At Blake, I had eight African-American boys who all wanted to go to Morehouse [a private, historically black liberal arts college in Atlanta for men]. They’re all there as seniors. In high school, they were a terrific support group for each other. They also had a lot of white friends.”

Lockard, a B-CC assistant principal for two years and a former English teacher at the school adds, “Most would agree that people gravitate to people like them and whom they feel comfortable with.” But that grouping could be as much about shared interests as about anything else, she says. “It’s a mistake,” Lockard says, “to walk into a room and see students of all one race and assume they are all together because of their race.”

Self-segregation inspired Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, a 1997 bestseller by Beverly Daniel Tatum. An African American and a clinical psychologist, Tatum is president of Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. “It is because we live in a racist society that racial identity has as much meaning as it does,” she writes in the book.

Sheryll Cashin, a professor of law at Georgetown University who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, argues in her 2004 book, The Failures of Integration, that self-segregation results from academic tracking. Adds Eileen Kugler, author of Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids, “There’s really very little benefit to being in a diverse school if the classes themselves are not diverse.”

What is the face of self-segregation? The B-CC yearbook is one place to look. Pages purchased by students feature group pictures of friends separated largely by gender—and almost entirely by race. Lunchtime is another example. At B-CC, lunch starts at 10:54 a.m. and ends 40 minutes later. Since B-CC is an “open campus,” those with the wherewithal often leave school to eat at Cosi, Potbelly or Chipotle in downtown Bethesda. Some minority students often patronize nearby McDonald’s, while other minority students occupy the cafeteria.

In the cafeteria one day in June, there’s a table of boys of various races; a table with five African-American girls; two tables of Hispanics; another table is mixed, but the students are mostly black. In the atrium, a sky-lit interior space where the old and new B-CC buildings meet, five or six groups of girls, mostly white, hang out. Outside, other groups of kids, mostly white, sprawl all over the front lawn facing East West Highway. As the lunch hour ends, a group of 20 or so boys—all but two are white—straggle in from the back parking lot.

Naya Misa, a 2008 black graduate of B-CC, says it’s largely due to economics that “most minorities eat in the cafeteria and white kids go out.” J’Nae White, another June graduate who is also black, recalls overhearing a conversation in 10th grade: “I remember one of the white students saying they had only $5 and [commenting], ‘I guess I have to go to the cafeteria, but it’s so ghetto.’ ”

Angela K. Henry, who is black, was an assistant principal at B-CC last year and is now a principal in Prince George’s County. She has a perspective that transcends race. “When I walk into [the cafeteria] as an administrator, I’m looking at personalities,” Henry says. “I do see some [kids] grouped, sometimes by grade level, or ethnically mixed ninth- and 10th-grade boys hanging together. Then I’ll have one table of black guys who all sit together. Neighborhood kids tend to stick together. The human tendency is to group with people who look like you. So in the cafeteria, you gravitate toward people you feel comfortable with. On a [self-segregation] scale of one to 10, we’d fall somewhere in the middle. It could be a lot worse.”