W hile Rosa Parks made her final journey across Washington to a memorial service at Metropolitan AME Church yesterday, I boarded the 92 bus in the opposite direction. All the way from Shaw to Congress Heights, as nearly a hundred passengers came and went, I was the only non-black on the bus. If Jim Crow were still around, there'd be no need to tell anyone to move to the back of the 92. Like some other Metrobus routes in this city, it pretty much carries black people.
It was a chilly morning, and people who depend on the bus know they will be spending hours standing on street corners, so they came aboard bundled and quiet in the thin, early sun. There was no talk of Rosa Parks; not a single person along the route read a newspaper. A few buried their heads in prayer books and inspirational volumes. The bus wasn't taking them far enough.
There were men in custodial uniforms and women in hospital gear and children heading off to school. A few kids carried book bags; too many went empty-handed.
The 92 lurched and rattled through the narrow streets of Capitol Hill, where soaring housing prices are altering the complexion of the neighborhood, and over the 11th Street Bridge to Anacostia, where rusted plates cover the windows of the shuttered Good Hope Liquors shop and it's hard to tell abandoned businesses from heavily fortified survivors.
A bunch of kids hopped off at Stanton Elementary School, where all 140 of the children are black, 70 percent come from low-income households and only 31 percent of the third-graders were found last spring to be "proficient" at reading. We passed four D.C. elementary schools on the route through Anacostia; every one of them has a 100 percent black student population. At the best of the schools, barely more than half of the students were reading at grade level.
The heroes of the civil rights movement forced dramatic changes, and you need only look at the faces of the people who run this country and populate its corporate and public institutions to see the change. But here where the 92 rolls, what was once separate is separate again, or still.
As the bus picked up speed along Alabama Avenue SE, a few passengers started up a conversation, a grim review of the Redskins' shellacking at the hands of the hated Giants, which was interrupted by a low whistle as we passed some half-built suburban-style ranch houses taking shape at the edge of Fort Stanton Park.
"Man, those are gonna be sweet houses," said a middle-aged man off to the store to buy candy for Halloween.
"Not for you," grumbled the gent across the aisle.
The two talked about how their neighborhood is changing, how someday soon they may be forced out by the prices and the taxes.
The city is changing, but it is primarily more well-off blacks who are moving into Anacostia, and just beyond the 92's terminus lies Prince George's County, the nation's most affluent majority-black jurisdiction.
Parks and the others who took a stand for what was right thought that separation was the key barrier. Segregation was inherently unequal. Now we have what academics call "apartness," rather than segregation. Supposedly, we separate by color because we want to, not because the law tells us to.
"The rate of decline in racial segregation in the metropolitan areas where the majority of black Americans live has been unimpressive," writes Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown and author of "The Failures of Integration." Blacks who choose to be apart seek a fast track to political power and a sense of comfort in living as a majority, Cashin says. But she notes that that choice comes at a high cost in higher crime rates, lower school funding and greater poverty levels.
A Harvard study a couple of years ago found that more than half of the black children in Northeast states attend schools that are more than 90 percent black and that the achievement statistics for those schools lag well behind the averages.
Rosa Parks would be confused by the trip on the 92 bus today. She would see how separate we remain, and she would know that something is wrong. Yet there would be no one to stand up to on the bus. The people to confront would be ourselves, and it's hard to exercise civil disobedience against yourself.