Last December I took a picture with two friends in front of our old elementary school: Bel-Nor Elementary in St. Louis, a little over 3 miles from Ferguson, Mo. It was the last day before Bel-Nor was closing for good; come January, its students and teachers would disperse to other schools in the area and farther afield. We were three white women, standing before a red-brick building.
Inside, nearly every student was African American.
Bel-Nor is—or was—part of the Normandy School District, the same one Michael Brown graduated from a few weeks ago. The district lost its state accreditation in 2012 (it was recently dissolved and is now the Normandy Schools Collaborative) and has been in dire straits for much longer. A variety of factors contribute to the problem, but high among them is the fact that it’s poor: Ninety percent of the students qualify for free lunch. In a system where the local tax base supports everything from teacher salaries to the purchase of books and computers, districts like Normandy suffer.
Normandy has long been majority black. And when I attended Bel-Nor more than two decades ago, I was one of only a handful of white students in my grade. Back then, singing verse after verse of “We Shall Overcome” in music class, I thought I had racial prejudice figured out: Things were bad long ago, but now we were all pretty much OK.
I didn’t understand a thing.
I was a Normandy student until fourth grade. Then, like many other families in my old neighborhood, we moved across town to a school district that had more money, more resources and a lot more white people.
When we moved, I was the youngest of three children, and my brother was just finishing eighth grade. At Normandy Junior High, gang affiliations dictated where you sat and who you walked with. And while white kids were exempted in some ways, we were targeted in others; more than once, my brother and his friends were jumped while walking home from school. Fights broke out—5 on 1, 10 on 1—daily, and several teachers flat out told my parents: Don’t send your son to Normandy High.
My parents originally settled in North St. Louis County because they wanted us to grow up in a racially and economically diverse place. They wanted to be able to buy a house in a community they loved. And they did; they stayed for 15 years. But eventually they made the decision to leave.
And they weren’t alone. Many middle-class families left Normandy, and other districts like it. Some were black, but a large number were white. It was easy to see. Moving up from elementary school to junior high and then high school, the white students all of a sudden disappeared.
Call it second-wave white flight.
Among those middle-class families who stayed, most sent their children to private schools (Catholic schools siphon off a lot of white students in the St. Louis area). One of my sister’s old classmates arranged to stay with a friend’s family so she could attend a different school. We knew only one white family who sent their children to Normandy High.
The high school I attended wasn’t exclusively white; at the time, it had one of the most racially diverse student populations in the state. I feel grateful and lucky for the education I received. But I also feel guilty, because the math is easy. When middle-class families like mine flee a neighborhood, a school, a county—a place like Normandy, or like Ferguson—they take resources with them. They take higher-achieving students—family income and educational success are inextricably linked (pdf)—right along with the tax revenue that can help struggling schools.
It’s an economic issue. It’s also a racial issue. Many of the families in my old neighborhood who could afford to move or send their children to private schools were white. Along racial lines, white poverty rates are among the lowest, and black poverty rates are among the highest (pdf). But statistics don’t tell the whole story. Neighborhoods are more than socioeconomic class and color, and the communities in North County are strong, with or without white families like mine, and the challenges they face can’t be reduced to one factor.
Individual decisions, though, can and do have an impact on communities. “I’m still glad you got the education you did,” my mother said about moving. “But it broke my heart. It felt like selling out.”
The truth is, we did.
We sold out a school district and a community, along with any notion that the kids scattered by the closing of Bel-Nor last December would have the same opportunities my brother and sister and I had. My parents made the very understandable—very human—decision to put their own children first.
But it’s also one reason that institutional racism persists. As a white, middle-class family, we had many advantages. And we used them to leave.
Molly Patterson is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.