Prince George's: a dream revised; Changes: County sees a rise in household income and education levels, as well as de facto segregation.


Thirty years ago, Samuel H. Dean was barred from renting an apartment in central Prince George's County because he is black. Now, he not only lives in the county, he lives in Lake Arbor, a tony neighborhood near Lake Arbor Country Club.

"So, you see," he says, "Prince George's County has really changed."

Dean and others in the county know the oft-repeated but striking details of this shift: Over the course of about 25 years, Prince George's has moved from majority white to majority black, with a simultaneous rise in its residents' income and levels of education.

Census statistics show it's the only county in the nation -- ever -- to have done that. And it has a national reputation as a black middle-class mecca.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is celebrated today, would have been thrilled, right?

Maybe not.

With its attractive suburban cul-de-sacs convenient to Washington, its areas of bucolic open space interspersed with rapid development, and its strong black political leadership, Prince George's is a model of King's dreams of African-American prosperity.

But King might not have been thrilled with the high rates of de facto segregation. Population data show a sharp racial divide, with whites clustered in the county's northern parts and blacks dominating the central and southern areas. Nearly three-quarters of Prince George's census tracts are at least 70 percent white or 70 percent black.

An ongoing problem

In many ways, the county underscores a racial problem that was highlighted when King marched on Washington and is spoken of in quieter tones today.

The black middle class, which is bigger and more economically solid than ever, is well positioned to integrate the nation's residential landscape. But if Prince George's is any indication, it's not happening. Some wonder if it ever will, and if King's dream of all races living together is feasible.

Bolstering these concerns is the emerging reality that many African-Americans no longer cite integration as a priority or a goal.

"There is a lot of frustration among middle-class blacks. I think young blacks are experiencing the frustration even more because they didn't grow up in an era of segregation and they believed integration was going to change society," says Bart Landry, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park who is studying the county's middle class.

"More and more middle-class blacks are saying, 'We want a good life for ourselves and our children, and we're going to pursue it single-mindedly. We're not going to wait for whites. We're not going to make it conditional on white acceptance.' "

That was not always an option in Maryland, particularly in Prince George's County.

The area once was the hub of the state's slave trade. Though Maryland had almost equal numbers of free and enslaved blacks just before the Civil War, the vast majority of Prince George's County's 60 percent black population at the time were slaves.

Segregation continued for decades, with black schools and churches cropping up alongside white institutions. Many blacks migrated to Washington. By the 1950s, about one in 10 county residents were black.

That began to reverse when the courts ordered the schools desegregated in 1973. Whites left in hordes. Today, about 37 percent of Prince George's residents are white, according to 1999 update census figures.

Last September, the school desegregation order was lifted.

Between 1970 and 1990, the county's population grew by more than 10 percent, to 729,268, largely due to the influx of blacks.

Defying stereotypes

Contrary to stereotypes and patterns in other areas, the influx of African-Americans has increased the county's household income and decreased poverty. In 1990, more than 30 percent of the county's households earned at least $50,000.

That year, nearly 65 percent of residents 16 or older -- half of whom were black -- reported that they were employed as managers, executives or administrators. Ten years earlier, that number was 41 percent.

The school board chairman, county executive and state and national political representatives are black, part of a political presence that has mostly taken root since 1990.

"We've defied the American stereotypes of African-Americans that were used to justify discrimination," says Curry, the county executive and a lifelong Prince George's resident. "There was always this fear that everything would go to hell in a handbasket if you had black people around."

Neighborhoods such as Lake Arbor buck that stereotype.

Tucked away from busy Landover Road in the midst of Upper Marlboro, its homes cost around $200,000. It has quiet streets and tidy gardens, is 97 percent black and has an average household income of about $60,000, says Dean, president of the civic association.

The development and similar ones nearby epitomize the American Dream -- and blacks around the nation hear about it.

"People know about Lake Arbor," says Dean. "When we had the Million Man March [in 1995], folks came from the Midwest, and they were quite impressed."

Dean adds, "You want to make this a model for people to emulate, both black and white. People are watching, absolutely. We are aware of that. We have to make sure we succeed."

Barriers to success

There are barriers to achieving that success. The county's crime rate is higher than in neighboring suburban, mostly white jurisdictions. There is a lack of upscale shopping and dining options, something Curry blames on "retail redlining," an apparent unwillingness by department stores and restaurant chains to locate in the county because it is mostly black.

Perhaps most embarrassing for the county is that test scores of its public school students are the second-worst in the state. About 32 percent of all its third- , sixth- and eighth-grade students scored at a satisfactory level or better on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program last year, well above Baltimore City's 16 percent score but well below top-ranked Howard County's 60 percent.

"This is one of the paradoxes of the county," says Phil Taylor, a demographer in the county's Office of Planning for Prince George's. "Why do parents have a high education level but at the same time a failing school system?"

Taylor and others say the changing demographics have led some to abandon the public schools, partly as a result of court-ordered school busing. They say the schools suffer from inadequate funding at the state and local level, and they point to a county property tax cap that undercuts school spending.

More than half of the system's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which indicates that many prosperous families do not send their children to the public schools. In 1990, household income for about 20 percent of residents was $25,000 or less.

'Still dealing with race'

Some say there's more to it.

Jan Stocklinski, a veteran educator who has lived in Prince George's all her life and is deeply committed to the schools, says: "In many ways, we're still dealing with race. I don't think we've dealt with racism straight up. We say we have high expectations of our children, but we don't always.

"In 1972, we sat down and talked about this, we dealt with it. Not today. I think we need to spend more time looking at issues of race, culture and poverty."

She says the problems often start with residential segregation. Stocklinski, who is white, says few other whites live in her neighborhood. "How many white people do you know who would move into a predominantly black area? I see the patterns," she says. "White people in my experience seem uncomfortable with being a minority. It could be 50-50 or more white than black but beyond that "

Many blacks, however, say they know the discomfort of being a minority -- and that's exactly why they love living in Prince George's County.

'No segregation'

"There is no segregation in Prince George's County," says Alvin Thornton, chairman of the school board and head of the political science department at Howard University. He draws a distinction between past, government- authorized segregation and the current situation in Prince George's. "It is apartness. Segregation is a legal thing. The state sanctioned it. Apartness is driven by things that are not adjudicatable anymore."

He adds: "There are some people who want to live in majority black communities. Why wouldn't you?"

Others acknowledge that separation but remain committed to the traditional goals of the civil rights movement.

Curry says residential integration is a main goal of his administration.

'Dr. King would be proud'

But Joe Madison, a talk radio host who broadcasts out of Prince George's County, says: "The segregation you're talking about is horizontal segregation -- who we live next to, who we sit next to in schoolrooms and lunchrooms. But I read a speech of Dr. King's, and he defined integration. He said it is the integration of power, responsibility and resources. It's not just the mixing of colors.

"I think Dr. King would be very proud of the success he would see in Prince George's," Madison says.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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