It may be tough to litigate an attitude, but the Prince George's NAACP feels so strongly that a change in attitude is necessary to bring about true integration of the county's classrooms that it has once more drawn the county school board into the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman.
The NAACP raises the question of "institutional racism" in the schools with a mountain of statistics showing, among other things, that black students are twice as likely to be suspended, more likely to be placed in classes for the mentally handicapped and less likely to be included in programs for the talented and gifted. The figures also show that the number of schools with high enrollments of either black or white students in 1981 was almost the same as in 1972, when the system was openly segregated.
The black concerns could probably be better answered if blacks had more power to influence school board decisions. But the courtroom lever has remained easier to pull than the one on the voting machine in a county whose black population often resembles 240,000 people dispersed about the outside of a political process.
Only one member of the school board, Bonnie Johns, is black. Black challengers for two of the nine board seats lost at the polls in 1980, despite NAACP backing in a county that is 37 percent black.
The memory of the 16,000 students, the majority of them black, placed on school buses in January 1973 as a result of Judge Kaufman's order to integrate the system remains seared into the collective consciousness of the county. School lawyer Paul M. Nussbaum, who fashioned classroom desegregation in Prince George's under Kaufman's orders and has defined it on a daily basis for the school board ever since, will never forget.
"If there's been one thing I dedicated myself to since that day, it was to make absolutely certain that no U.S. District Court judge would ever again hold that my client was operating a segregated school system," Nussbaum says with conviction. As legal counsel to the school board, Nussbaum has been concerned with preventing any overt act that could resegregate the system.
Nussbaum contends that the fact that residential patterns created by blacks moving in and whites moving out quickly turned many briefly integrated schools back into schools with a majority black enrollment did not place on the board a legal responsibility to correct the racial balance.
Judge Kaufman has disagreed with him on this critical point.
"The middle ground is that there was an obligation on the part of the school system to take acts or not to fail to take acts to prevent slippage or resegregation," Kaufman told Nussbaum in court on May 12. The school desegregation trial is now in its fourth week in Kaufman's federal court in Baltimore.
Relations between the board and the NAACP went from mutual mistrust in 1972, when blacks were 23 percent of the students, to a state of hostility last year, with blacks making up 52 percent of the pupils, in which the two groups ignored each other's existence.
"Our problem with the school board is that they would not admit they have a problem," said NAACP spokesman John Rosser, who is also one of the half-dozen plaintiffs in the suit.
The top of the NAACP's wish list of legal findings is for a Kaufman ruling that Prince George's never achieved the status of a unitary school system--i.e., one that has no vestige of the segregation that existed before 1972.
Many white parents and the school administration say they cannot see any segregation now in the system, which has been officially "color blind" since 1973.
"I don't know of a system that has brought desegregation off better than we have, and it has worked extremely well," said Superintendent Edward J. Feeney in a recent interview.
But the NAACP case asks whether leadership that sees no color is capable of seeing black students at all. They hope the statistics will show that such blindness is the legal equivalent of standing in the schoolhouse door, and that the judge will agree if he reads between the numbers.
"Yes, it is difficult, just as difficult as covert racism is to identify," Rosser said. "And when there is no public effort to combat it, it gains momentum."
Lone black school board member Johns also believes that because the attitudes of the teachers and administration have not changed sufficiently, the system is not unitary. But Johns said she has all but given up trying to communicate to her fellow board members her feeling that the system underserves blacks.
So the county is in court again, but both sides realize that this time the future of the education system is on the line.
Administrators and board members say they fear that another busing order like that of 1973 would hasten the advent of mass white flight from the schools, leading to an all-black school system that taxpayers are already hesitant to support.
The NAACP realizes that the attitudes they feel hurt black students cannot be changed by a sledgehammer approach but can only be affected by somehow working together. Rosser advocates what he calls "staff development"--training teachers to be more sensitive to the needs of black students and upgrading and examining procedures that have hurt black pupils. There is also the fear that the school system could be abandoned entirely by county leaders and many white residents in the political backlash of a new busing order.
"I don't think anybody wins," said Rosser. "No matter whether the school board is found wrong or not, it has already come out that the school system is not peaches and cream."