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The High Price Of Not Learning To Live Together

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, November 10, 2004; Page B01

In her book, "The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream," Georgetown University law professor Sheryll Cashin holds up the Washington area as Exhibit A for what has gone wrong.

It is a pox on our regional house, she suggests, to have such extreme differences between, say, Fairfax and Prince George's counties. Located on opposite sides of Washington, Fairfax is 70 percent white and has an average household income of $81,000 a year; Prince George's is 63 percent black and has an average household income of $55,000 a year.

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"We have created an America premised on fear and separation instead of -- dare I say -- love and inclusion," Cashin said in an interview.

Cashin -- a former director of community development for the White House's National Economic Council and a law clerk to the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall -- lives in Shepherd Park, a fairly well-integrated neighborhood in Northwest Washington.

Fifty years after the Supreme Court ruled that separate schooling for blacks and whites was inherently unequal, such mixed neighborhoods remain a rarity.

"The majority of Americans say they support integration," Cashin writes in her book. "But this is not the reality that the majority of us actually live. Most of us do not share life space with other races or classes."

Everybody pays a price, she argues. For blacks in Prince George's, the costs of voluntary segregation are obvious.

Prince George's may be the highest-income majority-black county in the nation. But the poverty rate there is double that of Fairfax. Fairfax has one of the best public school systems in the nation, while Prince George's has one of the worst. On average, 78 percent of Fairfax County high school graduates go on to four-year colleges compared with only 44 percent in Prince George's.

Although property tax rates are higher in Fairfax ($1.16 per $100 of assessed value) than in Prince George's (96.2 cents per $100), "Fairfax residents get what they pay for," as Cashin put it in the book.

Cashin goes to great lengths not to denigrate predominantly black neighborhoods. There exists what she calls a perfectly understandable "integration fatigue," typified by a quote in her book from Sam Fullwood, a black newspaper columnist who lived in Fort Washington when he was interviewed.

"There are not many white people around here staring us in the face and trying to prove we don't matter," Fullwood said. "So much goes on at the job that we have to endure: the slights and the negative comments, and feelings that we're unwanted. When I have to work around them all day, by the time I come home I don't want to deal with white people anymore."

But that doesn't make the costs of black separation go away.

The Fairfax Web site points to thousands of restaurants and cuisine from around the world. The county has more than 200 shopping centers and designer stores including Gucci, Tiffany, Hermes and Louis Vitton. Nothing in Prince George's comes close.

Hard as it may be for some to believe, there are also costs to bear for white separatists. For instance, Cashin notes in the book, whites must pay a significant premium to live in white neighborhoods.

"For those whites committed to living inside the District, the well traveled path is to one of the two dozen neighborhoods 'west of the park' -- that coda of preference and comfort that just happens to describe an overwhelming white bastion in an otherwise majority-minority city," she writes. "Overall, in upper northwest D.C. you can easily pay $700,000 for a house that is badly in need of remodeling. In this environment, a house with a bad foundation and a bad roof can sell for $40,000 over the asking price."

A bigger cost of racial separation, though, is not measured in dollars. It's self-deception -- believing that the American dream is real and that all anybody has to do is work hard and play by the rules to get ahead. And worse, being able to deny the suffering of others because one need not acknowledge what one cannot see.

Cashin offers many solutions to these problems. But they all depend on having our consciousness raised. It's not enough for us to talk about moral values; we must walk the walk as well.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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