Whatever Happened to Integration?

Can all of Philly follow the example of one Mt. Airy church?

As Philadelphia readers and the rest of the city have been reminded again, bridging the worlds of black and white in this city is a particularly tricky task. So many times, it seems, we talk past each other or remain ensconced in our own worlds—even in places known for racial comity.

Recently, a white friend of mine who lives up my way wanted to bend my ear about personal stuff and invited me to meet him at a popular Mt. Airy bar. When I walked into McMenamin’s, I recognized a scene that was very Mt. Airy: About half the patrons in the bar were black and half were white, and everyone was enjoying themselves.

My friend recognized something else. He pointed out to me that the two groups of patrons, while in the same space, weren’t really interacting with the other. Rather, they were enjoying themselves separately together. Ours was the only interracial dialogue in the room.

Perhaps, had we walked in when a Phillies game was on, the scene might have been different. Sports in this town have a rare ability to surmount the various divides of race, class and culture that few other activities do.

And that’s a shame.

How much better would this city be, how much safer, how much more pleasant, if we regularly crossed those dividing lines with others around us?

I’m particularly sensitive to this subject because I’ve straddled those dividing lines all my life as part of the first generation of African-Americans who could truly grow up integrated if they—or their families—so chose. My mother made that choice for me. I grew up in a Kansas City neighborhood that had gone from middle-class white to middle-class black by the time I entered grade school, but went to school in overwhelmingly white schools on the other side of town. I’ve counted both blacks and whites as friends for as long as I can remember.

But it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve both been on the receiving end of ritual humiliation by black classmates—at Harvard, of all places—for “acting too white” and had to admonish white friends I cherish who told me they didn’t “see me as black.” Both incidents speak to what I consider a pernicious stereotyping that equates “blackness” with a certain set of attitudes and behaviors way too many blacks do not possess for me to accept the notion that only those make one truly black.

I’ve since learned that this sort of straddling, while perhaps common in the world of work, remains rare in the social sphere. And those who try, find it a challenge to achieve.

But that doesn’t keep some from trying. Another friend of mine, the Rev. Kevin Porter, black, is a minister at a church near me. The First Presbyterian Church of Germantown faced the same choice other churches in the area faced as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s: Pull up stakes along with their parishioners, who were fleeing the advance of Those People, or stay. The First Presbyterian congregation chose to stay, knowing full well what it would mean for the church’s survival.

Walking into a service at First Presbyterian is an eye-opening experience. Like the crowd at McMenamin’s, the congregation is just about half black, half white. But when the members gather for post-worship social hour, they don’t go off into their respective corners. White parishioners, some with long family histories at the church, converse with their black fellow worshippers, and vice versa.

Getting to this point didn’t come easy, Rev. Porter told me. But the fact that the congregants had made the good faith effort and reaped the rewards drew him to become part of the church. There aren’t many like it: FPCG states that only one-half percent of all Presbyterian Church congregations are this thoroughly integrated, and by and large, Sunday at 10 a.m. remains “the most segregated hour in America.”

Back when I was in college, I stumbled across a book called The Education of a WASP. Written in 1970 by Lois Stalvey, a white woman who grew up in Omaha with the prejudices of her day, it chronicled her awakening to the reality of racism and her efforts to combat it, ending with her settling in Mt. Airy because of the community’s commitment to integration. Toward the end, she expressses the hope that some day the races would mix as they should: “We would, some of us, be dark brown, and some of us pink, but most of us would be the golden color that would at last distinguish the genuine American.” I found that hope touching yet naive when I read that passage in the late 1970s. The rise in interracial marriages such as the one that produced our President makes it perhaps less naive now than then. But it remains an elusive goal, largely because most of us still aren’t willing to leave our comfort zones to truly engage one another.