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.