ONE NIGHT two years ago, I was stunned to watch more than 400 students climb to the stage at a Fairfax high school, each shaking the hand of a school board member and receiving one or more county awards for achievement in the arts, civic affairs or academics. I was stunned because in a school system with 10,000 black students, only two of them got on stage that night.
At my high school, black kids were class presidents and student government leaders. They dominated the debating team and held first-chair positions in the orchestra. I dated the president of the math club, whose 3.8 average made him number four in his class and a member of the National Honor Society.
My high school was McKinley, in Northeast Washington. The difference between McKinley and that Fairfax County school is integration. And, unfortunately, in the minds of many black youngsters, that difference often mandates what one should or should not do, can or cannot be.
A black student at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria once told me that black kids don't do things like joining the French club or playing the violin.. "Black kids are cool, they hang out," he said as his peers nodded agreement.
To do otherwise, it seemed, was traitorous. The only black student on the school's crew at the time complained that he was scorned because his interests went beyond break-dancing and basketball.
This is not a conversation I enjoy reporting. But whether I like it or not, this is the world that these black kids and thousands like them live in.
For me, the issue has suddenly become an intensely personal one. I have a 13-month-old son, who as a young black male will in time be faced with similar attitudes and pressures.
The issue bears study now as educators and parents in Washington's suburbs are facing new charges of racial tension and alienation of students -- black and white -- in schools where one race is in the overwhelming majority.
While they are exploring charges of racism, they should examine what most informed adults overlook: Kids often buy into racial stereotypes and impose racial limits on themselves. And my guess is that a lot of black youngsters in places like Fairfax don't get on stage because they are too busy being only one thing -- black.
I know. I once made the same mistake.
When my friends from McKinley went off to black colleges more than 10 years ago, they joined the school newspaper staffs, choirs and marching bands. When I went off to predominantly white Syracuse University, the only thing I joined was the Black Student Union.
In high school, I had been in the French club and Honor Society and had spent most of my time before and after classes in the band room, where I played flute in the concert and marching bands. The fourth child of working-class parents, I had been brought up on Stravinski and John Philip Sousa. But at Syracuse music was suddenly not color-blind; it was white, like most of the kids in the band.
That was a milestone in my life, the first time I identified myself by race in my everyday activities. And for four years I wrestled with self-imposed rules about what I would and would not do because of race:
I dropped out of advanced French courses because I'd be "the only one." (It's interesting that my counselor, without question, accepted my ruse that I thought I couldn't keep up.)
I shunned the all-white daily school newspaper staff, despite the crucial importance of the experience for a budding journalist.
Out of racial solidarity, I hung around with black people I would not have otherwise.
I leaned on race like a crutch. It became an excuse for not doing better, not doing more.
On the other hand, self-imposed limits aren't the only ones thrust at black youth.
Years later, an editor at U.S. News and World Report, interviewing me for an entry-level position on the international staff, was curious about why I was interested in foreign affairs.
"Why don't you apply to Ebony or Jet?" he advised. "You could write about the plight of black women or life in the ghetto."
The conventional explanation for situations in which black youngsters lag outside the mainstream is that a white educational system is slow to encourage -- indeed can discourage -- black youngsters from participating at all levels.
But another factor is an insidious peer pressure and immature code of racial pride that defines blackness in terms that often exclude excellence in things beyond song, dance and sports. How many talented black youngsters ignore their gifts in favor of "hanging out?"
This way of thinking gets set very early. A seven-year-old I know, attending school outside of Memphis, rebelled against his assignment to a gifted and talented program. Black kids weren't in that class, he told his mother.
Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond, writing on black underachievement last year in The New Republic, attributed it in part to what they called a tendency of capable blacks "to avoid intellectual engagement and competition. Avoidance is rooted in the fears and self-doubt endgendered by a major legacy of American racism: the strong negative stereotypes about black intellectual capabilities."
At McKinley, my classmates and I never acknowleged racial stereotypes because we never fully realized that we were different. Different from what? Virtually everyone was black, and our interests and characters were as varied as those of any other part of the population,
In the security of the all-black environment, not having to worry about "being a credit to our race," we were free to be successes or failures, winners or losers, bookworms or all-night partyers. We got all the honors and all the demerits.
That non-threatening environment produced a sense of racial pride and identity that I dare say was stronger than that felt by a lot of dashiki-wearing dreadlockers. We did not feel compelled to prove how black we were, or how black we weren't. But more importantly, race neither benefited nor limited us.
But in places like Fairfax -- where one out of 12 students is black, yet where many classrooms have no blacks at all -- race is a burden, a limit. At a time when defining one's self-concept is crucial, integration reinforces the notion that black kids in this country are different. It confronts them with stereotypes that frequently do not invite them to participate and expectations that do not challenge them to excel.
Those black youngsters who do participate are often the confident children of the middle-class who find easier acceptance and more encouragement than the less privileged and whose families have the money and time to support their interests. Although my son, Cameron, could someday find his place among them, that is little comfort.
Educators need to do more than examine the attitudes of adults and society; they need to directly address those of the children. Where do these vestiges of inferiority complexes and misdirected black consciousness begin, and how can they be ended?
The reasons elude us, but I suspect the more obvious ones have to do with a nation that is explicit in the expectations and places in society it has for certain people and the way that message is communicated.
Television, for instance, tells black kids they can't be corporate presidents. So, in some predominantly white schools at least, they may not join Junior Achievement.
In today's world, I fear that my child will, at too young an age, know the pangs of being different, of being brushed with black male stereotypes (unemployed, criminal, violent, illiterate, absent father) that have nothing in common with any of the men in his family. If I could, I'd shelter him in a strong, positive, all-black environment, with many opportunities for sharing and mixing outside of it, and hope to delay these terrible lessons that integration too often teaches, openly or implicitly.
I don't need to go far to debate the issue. My husband raises important points like:
The need for blacks to compete in the mainstream with opportunities that might not otherwise be available.
The need to demystify race through integration, and to teach children that individuals are different because they are individuals.
The need to prevent the use of anti-integration attitudes by racist segregationists.
The importance of learning to get along in a pluralistic society.
I expect that my son will go to an integrated school. And I'm hoping it will be the closest thing to the ideal -- racially balanced, with progressive, open-minded people, no matter their income or address; a place where teachers know what the kids can do because they know the kids themselves, not just their race. Such a setting would make my fears moot.
But for now, I take a mother's prerogative: Not my child, not yet.
Leah Y. Latimer is a reporter for The Washington Post who covered education in Northern Virginia for three years.