Shifting Demographics

Jun 29, 2012

Nov. 20, 2007
Sarah Hulett
Several school districts in Metro Detroit have flipped from majority-white to majority black in a very short time. That's creating new opportunities for integration in once-lily-white communities. But it's also creating some tough situations for districts where the teaching staff is all-white, or close to it. 

East Detroit Public Schools was a nearly all-white district a decade ago.

Between then and now, the segment of minority students has more than doubled. That's thrown white kids and black kids together.

"We've had more or less a shotgun wedding in that regard," says East Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Bruce Kefgen. He says the rapid shift in the racial makeup of the community means the city's schools have had to adapt quickly to change.

"You have some different thinking, different styles, different art preferences, different standards of dress," says Kefgen. "And these are all things that can be acclimated into the school. But it takes a little bit of time."

And a little bit of time is about all some suburban school districts are getting to cope with major demographic shifts.

According to an analysis by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, about a half-dozen districts are in the same boat as East Detroit.

That might suggest that districts are achieving a nice racial mix. But that mix has not lasted in cities that saw black families move in in earlier decades.

In suburbs like Oak Park and Southfield, there are virtually no white students anymore. White parents have pulled their kids out, and left.

East Detroit High School history teacher Lincoln Stocks says the kids who've been in the district long enough to get used to the new racial mix don't seem to have too much trouble getting along. But he says some kids who are new to the district, and new to diverse environments, are having some problems.

Stocks is also the varsity football coach at East Detroit High School. And he says this year, those tensions were evident when it came time to elect team captains.

"The African American kids voted for the African-American captains, and the white kids voted for the white captains," says Stocks, "and I didn't want that kind of representation on our football team, so we didn't elect captains.

"We sort of had fire captains that shifted, because I didn't want there to be an apparent division. And that worked against us all season long, that sort of split in loyalties."

And it's not just relationships between students that can be challenging. Students and teachers can also run into cross-racial problems.

Beverly Daniel Tatum is the president of Spelman College, and she's written about race relations in the classroom.

Tatum says fears about racial misunderstandings can mean students of color lose out on help they need.

She says she's seen situations where white teachers have been reluctant to call the parents of children of color who are having difficulty in school, "for fear that perhaps the parents may be suspicious about the teacher's motive, and may even accuse the teacher of being racially biased in terms of her feedback if it's negative about the young person's behavior or school performance," says Tatum.

Tatum says that doesn't mean you have to take all the white teachers out of a school. But she says schools should invest in professional development to help white teachers feel more confident working with their black students.

At East Detroit High School, teachers have gone through sensitivity training, and administrators say they try not to tap-dance around problems.

Ella Doster is a counselor at the school - and one of the few black staff members. She says race relations require constant attention.

"I just left my office with a young man," says Doster. "He was talking about issues relating to his teacher, and being treated fairly, and that was one of the things he said. He says: 'She has it in for me, he says I have to say this kind of low, Ms. Doster, I think it's a racial thing.'"

When Doster got hired, in 1969, she was the only black teacher in this school. In the nearly four decades between then and now, she says she can count the black colleagues she's worked with on one hand.

East Detroit Superintendent Bruce Kefgen says he'd love to hire teachers that look more like their students, "but you have union contracts, and you cannot simply move people out in order to obtain that kind of racial and gender balance that you might prefer."

So Kefgen says he has to rely on attrition. And even if there are vacancies, there's the challenge of finding teachers of color to hire.

In the years ahead, Kefgen says he hopes East Detroit can sustain the racial balance it has today.

Other districts that have been where East Detroit is now haven't been able to do that. They've flipped from almost all white to all black.

"I would like to have East Detroit schools evolve into something that defies simple description, because I think that would truly be much more representative of the world in which these students will matriculate," says Kefgen. "Then I can do them the biggest favor possible."

Kefgen says that favor would be going beyond the academics - and teaching students how to get along with people who are different from them.