04-29-2006, 11:18 AM
Jonathan Kaufman writes "The Wall Street Journal
Feruary 8. 2001
Racial tension in Maryland suburb: Some whites resent wealthier blacks in Bowie, Md.
BOWIE, Md., Feb. 8 — When Jason Fenwick, a black lawyer, woke up one Saturday morning last summer to find “KKK” spray-painted in red foot-high letters on a neighbor’s garage, his first reaction was: Not here.
“YOU HEAR ABOUT IT at family events — how it happened to my parents, to my grandparents, to my great grandparents,” says Mr. Fenwick, who is 33 years old and lives in a $350,000 home. “But then you see it right across from your house. I was stunned.”
It couldn’t happen here in Bowie, Mr. Fenwick reasoned, because he and his black neighbors aren’t pioneers. Well-to-do blacks have been moving in significant numbers into this prosperous bedroom community near Washington, D.C., for five years. Today, they make up about 30 percent of the population of the city and surrounding subdivisions. For decades, blacks have been migrating to the suburbs of such cities as Washington, Atlanta, New York and Chicago.
The white anxiety and prejudice often stirred by these arrivals have typically reflected fear of increased crime, lower school standards and depressed home prices.
But Bowie residents are facing an unusual and, for many on both sides of the race line, unsettling role-reversal: Tidy, middle-class white neighborhoods are being encircled by predominantly black subdivisions with larger lots, grander homes and a growing number of black families making more than $100,000 a year.
Many of the blacks moving to Bowie belong to two-career couples with college and graduate degrees. Bowie’s median household income, which was about $60,000 in 1990, before a lot of blacks began buying homes, now exceeds $70,000, according to an estimate by city officials.
Bowie’s leafy streets have become the unlikely scene of growing racial conflict. In October, several hundred whites rallied in front of City Hall, protesting school budget cuts. Some protesters demanded that this city of 50,000 secede from surrounding Prince George’s County, which is predominantly black, and join neighboring Anne Arundel County, which is mostly white. Racial epithets have been scrawled on the homes of several upper-middle-income black families. And in an incident three years ago, crosses were set aflame on the front lawn of the local high school.
“It used to be that whites didn’t like you because you’re dirty, you don’t work, you’re poor,” says Mr. Fenwick. “Now I have more money than you, more education, a bigger house — and you still don’t like me. Where else do you have a class war like this? If we were white they would be happy.”
Almost all of the 53 homes in his subdivision are owned by upper-middle-income blacks. “If you drive through Bowie and see a big house, chances are an African-American owns it,” Mr. Fenwick says. “If you see a small house, there’s a 70 percent to 80 percent chance a white owns it,” he adds. “Their 1,400-square-foot house would fit into my basement.” The lawyer and his wife, a hospital administrator, together make more than $200,000 a year.
Politically, whites feel their power slipping, as increasingly black Prince George’s County is dominated by black officeholders. The rise in value of whites’ smaller, older homes hasn’t kept pace with housing prices in the region, making it difficult to move. And on local issues ranging from who runs the school parent-teacher association to who runs for City Council, new black residents are challenging whites who have dominated Bowie’s institutions.
Whites “feel more and more powerless,” says Jo Bolig, a white special-education teacher here. “They have less and less control and influence. Whites feel like they’re losing their grip. It’s provoking a kind of racial angst.”
Bowie, which has 19th-century roots, launched its life as a suburb in the 1960s, when the developer William Levitt began building 11,000 homes that today make up about two-thirds of the city’s residences.
Like similar Levittown developments in New York, the new homes in Bowie were modest and affordable — four models, each built on a concrete slab without a basement. The homes were laid out on curving streets, featuring neighborhood schools and pools and easy access to stores.
Bowie was also effectively segregated, as many suburban developments were at the time and some remain today. In the 1960s, city officials acknowledge, the Levitt sales force and local real-estate agents marketed homes exclusively to whites, many of whom were government workers commuting some 20 miles to Washington. Bowie’s small black population lived in an older part of town, near the railroad tracks.
When Bowie and the rest of Prince George’s County were ordered by a federal judge in 1972 to bus students to desegregate the area’s schools, many whites in Bowie pulled their children out of public schools and put them into private or parochial schools. In the late 1980s, Bowie resident Teresa Smith, who is white, recalls her real-estate agent telling her not to buy in the city because Prince George’s County was attracting more and more blacks.
But Ms. Smith, like many whites, valued Bowie’s reputation for good schools and old-fashioned community. Bowie prospered as residents upgraded their modest homes, adding extra rooms and porches. Many whites who grew up in town returned to buy homes themselves so they could be near family.
If the white neighborhoods of Bowie seemed in some ways unchanging, the surrounding area was unmistakably transforming.
Black attorneys, doctors and government administrators flocked to suburban Prince George’s County.
The proportion of blacks in the county grew to about 60 percent in 2000, from about 20 percent in the early 1970s.
Political power shifted, too. In 1994, the county elected its first black county executive, Wayne Curry, who has held that powerful post ever since.
A WHITE ENCLAVE
Throughout these changes, Bowie remained a white enclave. In 1990, with the black population in surrounding Prince George’s County topping 50 percent, Bowie was just 6 percent black. Its mayor and six city council members are all white.
But beginning about five years ago, new luxury housing subdivisions began blossoming in Bowie, and blacks began moving in. As schools and institutions like the local Boys & Girls Club quickly became integrated, some blacks chafed at the city’s all-white power structure.
Gail Booker-Jones, a black lawyer, went before the city council to talk about traffic problems in her high-end, majority-black subdivision. Looking at the all-white council, she recalls thinking, “Have we gone back in time?” Prodded by her black neighbors, she made a long-shot, last-minute bid for a council seat in 1998 but lost. (Racial issues didn’t dominate the contest.)
One white Bowie resident who says she welcomed the influx of well-to-do blacks was Mary Nusser. She had grown up in the Levitt section of Bowie and returned in 1988 to buy a $129,000 Levitt home with her husband. Her late father, a union organizer, had taken her as a child to labor and civil-rights rallies. A picture of her father and civil-rights leader James Farmer hangs in the hallway of her Bowie home.
“That I’m alive to see this kind of transition, where people might be treated equally and given opportunity — I rejoiced in that,” she says.
Although she has no children, Ms. Nusser, 45, became active in the Bowie High School Parent-Teacher and Alumni Associations. In June 1997, when three crosses were burned on the high-school grounds, she personally offered a $100 reward for information about the culprits. “I was sick” about the racist act, she says.
No one collected on her reward offer, but four young men, two from Bowie, were charged in 1999 with violating the federal hate-crime statute. Prosecutors said the cross-burning was an attempt to intimidate blacks at Bowie High after an interracial student fight. The cross-burners, who also, according to prosecutors, discussed hiring someone to kill black students, all pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 27 months to 10 years.
“Mary was on the right side of the issues,” says Howard Anderson, a black minister who lives in town and became friends with Ms. Nusser. “She’s been committed to integration.”
But relations between black and white parents at Bowie High deteriorated. White parents and residents became increasingly critical of Principal Patricia Brooks, who in 1995 had become the first black to hold that post. Ms. Nusser says many whites were upset with what they saw as a lack of discipline at the school, including student smoking and fights.
Ms. Brooks and many black parents saw the confrontation differently. “It was about power and who had it and who didn’t,” says Ms. Brooks, who left the high school last June and now works as an administrator in Prince George’s schools. “I was the first African-American principal at Bowie High School, and that was difficult for some [white] people.”
Some black parents objected to the way they thought the high school PTA was ignoring their views in the clash over Ms. Brooks. “It engendered a lot of resentment among black parents that they were going after a black principal,” says Rev. Anderson.
Byran McReynolds, a black credit manager for an apartment-building-management company who lives in one of the high-end subdivisions, began showing up at PTA meetings, demanding to know why more blacks weren’t involved in the group. By the late 1990s, half of the students at Bowie High were black — the children of new black residents as well as blacks bussed in from other communities.
White PTA members responded that blacks hadn’t been excluded. Traditionally, few blacks had shown up for meetings, the whites said, although several had been elected to the association’s leadership.
Mr. McReynolds, whose son attended the school but has since graduated, decided to take action. Last May, during what was supposed to be a routine meeting to elect new PTA officials, he filed in with 35 black parents, nominated a new slate of officers from the floor, with himself as president, and voted the whites out.
Ms. Nusser, who had served as a PTA officer even though she wasn’t a parent, went home and cried. Mr. McReynolds “aligned blacks against whites,” she says.
“What would it have looked like if I did the same thing they did?” Ms. Nusser asks. “People would claim that we were trying to keep black people out.”
Mr. McReynolds is unapologetic. Although he now busies himself with mundane PTA tasks like selling prom tickets, he says the takeover sent an important message to Bowie’s whites.
In recent years, Bowie has annexed several adjacent affluent black subdivisions, increasing its tax base, in exchange for providing services like trash pick-up. “People here want our money, but they don’t want our input,” says Mr. McReynolds. “Well, you can’t take our money and say you don’t want our opinion.”
Ms. Nusser continues to help at the school. She recently raised money for holiday gifts for teachers and staff members. She says Mr. McReynolds and his supporters represent a minority among Bowie’s blacks. She opposes the idea of secession, which is advocated by some angrier Bowie whites.
“If they ever do secession, I’ll ask for the dividing line to end where my house is,” says Ms. Nusser. “I’m happy with the changes taking place. I want the town to work. I refuse to believe that blacks will be as bigoted as whites once were.”
Now, a new series of racial controversies are convulsing the city, reinforcing the view of some whites that black county politicians favor black constituents over Bowie’s whites. Last fall, the county school superintendent, who is black, announced she was cutting money from affluent districts like Bowie and tranferring it to poorer, blacker parts of the county. At the same time, while Bowie High is severely overcrowded, a new high school just opened in a neighboring, predominantly black community.
County leaders “care most about the wealthy African-Americans,” says Lynn Beiber, who is white and grew up in Bowie. “Where the money goes, the power goes,” adds her husband, Doug, who owns an auto-repair shop. County school officials say the decisions had nothing to do with race. They say the budget cuts corrected an earlier funding error, which affected numerous schools, not just those in Bowie, and that new schools will be built and renovated throughout the county in coming years.
In the months since the budget cuts, whites have held a series of meetings and protests. The discussion of secession, which even proponents concede is unrealistic, has caused some whites to worry that Bowie’s image will erode further in the eyes of black county politicians. “We are in a position where we are a predominantly white city, and we’ve got to deal with [a black county] power structure that is in place,” says Doug Peters, a member of Bowie’s all-white council. “We need to be more active in getting African-American residents involved.
The more people see Bowie as not just this white enclave, the better for Bowie.”
‘I WANT TO MAKE BOWIE WORK’
Some blacks agree. Paul Scott, a senior manager at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development whose two sons attend Rockledge Elementary in Bowie, is working with Bridget Senecal, the white head of the school’s PTA, on school finances and other matters. Mr. Scott is also urging black parents to attend more PTA meetings. “The concerns we have are no different than any white parent would,” he says. “I want to make Bowie work.”
But some blacks say they are losing patience. Mr. Fenwick, the black lawyer who awoke to find “KKK” spray-painted on his neighbor’s garage last summer, says he and his wife moved to a neighborhood of well-to-do blacks in Bowie “to insulate our children against racism.”
After reporting the racist graffiti to the police, Mr. Fenwick, who heads his subdivision’s homeowner’s association, was quoted in local newspapers. But he says he received only one call from a white Bowie resident expressing sympathy and concern.
Three weeks after the incident, Bowie’s city manager, David Deutsch, sent an e-mail to local newspapers, asserting it was “unfair” to say the incident took place in Bowie because Mr. Fenwick and his neighbors live outside the city’s official limits. The neighborhood is an unincorporated subdivision, but the deeds to residents’ homes, their property-tax bills and mail all bear a Bowie address. Children from the area go to Bowie schools.
“I wasn’t minimizing the incident in terms of its impact,” says Mr. Deutsch. “But as a representative of the city of Bowie, it made sense to sent the record straight.”
Mr. Fenwick was enraged. “I assumed the city would say, ‘This isn’t what Bowie is like.’ But the message I received was that they don’t care that this is happening to us. And it’s hard to care for the other person when you know they don’t care about you.”
Mr. Fenwick says he doesn’t need to interact with whites in Bowie. He plans to send his two small children to private school. “I get no benefit from white Bowie,” he says. “Why don’t they [whites] just move — like they do in other communities when blacks move in?”
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc."
User(s) browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)