Thursday, March 06, 2008

A matter of black and white

Racial segregation is alive and well in Riverhead.

It's true. Neighborhoods are mostly segregated by race. So are churches. And social circles.

And while our school system is integrated, legally and technically, the student population is, de facto, quite segregated.

There are exceptions, but they are minor. By and large, we live in a world -- and in a community -- where whites and blacks live side by side, but inhabit two very separate and distinct universes.

This has been driven home for me with disturbing clarity since the day my children started Riverhead High School. Attending various school programs, concerts and plays, you'd never know that you were in an ethnically and racially diverse school. The children on the stage and the people in the audience are nearly all white. All the time. We could be in Miller Place or some other almost-all-white community, not Riverhead.

I've peppered my daughters with questions about race relations among the students. They think I'm weird, maybe even a little obsessed. Blacks hang around with blacks, whites with whites, Hispanics with Hispanics, they report. The division is almost exclusive. They find this unremarkable. I find it astonishing. They point out that I don't have many black friends. I'm sorry to say, they are right.

But racial integration, while a technical reality, isn't any more of a social fact than it was when I was in high school in the early 1970s.

Every time I attend an event at the high school I look around at the nearly all-white audience and the nearly all-white cast or chorus or concert band or orchestra, and I wonder: why?

But at no time was this phenomenon more disquieting than last week, at a Black History Month celebration at Riverhead High School. There were four black people in the entire auditorium: one member of the chamber choir, two students -- both of whom were being honored for receiving awards from the African-American Advisory Board -- and an adult accompanying one of the student honorees. That was it.

As we sat through a slide show of photos of famous blacks -- from Frederick Douglas to Nelson Mandela to Tiger Woods -- curiously, Barack Obama was conspicuously absent -- my eyes wandered around the auditorium and I turned over the possible reasons for the all-white audience at the black history celebration at the high school last Thursday. All I could think was, "How bizarre."

OK, maybe we white people are truly more in need of black history lessons. Or maybe a black history celebration sponsored and presented by our white school district administration and teachers, complete with Negro spirituals sung by a nearly all-white choir, is something blacks would take a pass on. And why not? I can buy that. But that doesn't explain why there are so few black children in the music and drama programs at Riverhead High School.

It also says nothing about why my children's classes are almost entirely white. They are in a lot of honors and AP classes. Why is the enrollment in these courses so homogenous, so white? You can't tell me it's because minorities can't do the work. Something is wrong. There is a disconnect in our schools where race is concerned. And there has been forever. The point is, it continues. Even today. Maybe it's a reflection of the larger community, but it serves to perpetuate the status quo -- a status quo of racial, social and economic injustice.

Segregation is wrong. It is unhealthy for a society, whether it's "official" or de facto. But it's a fact of life in Riverhead even as we close out the first decade of the 21st century. The sooner we face it and come to terms with it, the sooner we can eliminate it, the better off we'll all be.


Anonymous said...

This is a case of you can lead a horse to water, but can't make 'um drink.
My children are third generation students of the Riverhead schools.
Ask most any teacher in Riverhead CSD why the situation you describe exists. They will tell you off the record that this is in part a self imposed exile.
1.) It is not accepted from within their own population for students of various backgrounds to mix. Unfortunately sterotypes abound as to what types of students join the drama club, etc., and not just in Riverhead.
2.) Often the ethnic groups you describe as missing are dealing with such daily survival issues that the academic extras you mention are way too far up the hierarchy of needs to be reached by most. And just as likely, mom and dad will both be busy working multiple jobs just to keep their heads above water because of generations of limited opportunities. Ergo they are missing from the audience.

Anonymous said...


I have noticed that most of the hierarchy in Riverhead CSD have promoted racism aka teachers...How is it that some parents can just dictate what there child can pick and choose who their teachers will be white parents have done that..Those minority children who might be gifted in academics if not persude by their parents who might not know or are too busy working and making a home for their children are left with the scraps...I have always encouraged my kids to be well rounded and to participate in any extra curricular activity.. I have been told by my children that perception is the key...Kids sense when they are not wanted...aka "need not apply"....


Did any Riverhead School employee ask for any input from African American parents about the Black History Program????

I doubt it.....

Anonymous said...

This is another reason why students should wear a uniform at school. Kids are not only seperated by race or religion but also by what they are wearing. With 3 kids I've spent a lot of time in the various schools that they've attended and one thing that stands out in my mind is how kids who don't wear the "current" fashions are "lower" on the cool/popular meter than those who's parents can afford to purchase these items. Kids who aren't dressed properly are dismissed as freaks or losers before they even have a chance to try anything.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Civiletti:

You have done a great service in writing the recent “A matter of black and white” column. But the topic opens up a hornets nest. The issues are so volatile that people are afraid to touch them. But until a way is found to address the Black/White gap in Riverhead without causing an explosion, the community will suffer.
To my surprise, the atmosphere you described at Riverhead High School has not changed since I attended there in the 1970s.

Some thoughts:

Unlike the inner cities where Black students are deprived of quality resources, the Riverhead School System is an excellent one. Beside good teachers, there is a whole network of guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists that are eager to bring Black students into the advanced classes and extra-curricular activities. It is not for lack of resources that the Black students are not taking advantage of the opportunities.

White students make overtures to the Black students to join groups and socialize. But the overture is met with suspicion. I recently invited a Black Gentlemen to join a group I belong to and I was turned down. I suspect that kind of response from parents is observed by their children and the behavior is repeated.

Black students who try to excel academically are met with peer pressure that they are “acting white.” They have to pursue their efforts quietly without appearing to socialize with White students.

There is a major self-esteem problem in the Black Community in Riverhead with many families without fathers. Drugs are a problem across all groups but it especially affects Black families. This kind of emotional turmoil makes it difficult to have the calmness and clarity of mind to succeed in a school setting.

“Ghetto” is more than a fashion statement but an entire attitude. Ghetto implies a vast city where minorities are isolated. But Riverhead is a small town where students sit side by side. People have access to the same schools, libraries and jobs. The sense of separation is psychological and not based on reality.

These issues are well known. But people in the White community have a hard time bring up these topics and are afraid such an overture would be seen as patronizing and judgmental. I am a political Progressive and would like to help achieve racial equity. But the Black community is often on the edge of rage. I am a White guy who does not know how to help without being counter-productive.

Riverhead Resident

Ray_D said...

...curiously, Barack Obama was conspicuously absent...

Could be because Obama is a first term junior senator who has done nothing to distinguish himself except run a presidential campaign with no ideas but plenty of "hope" and "change".

OK, now I'm bitter. I'd better go grab my Bible and my guns and hunker down.