Our feature story this month on the push for diversity – both racial and economic class – in the major private and parochial schools in Oakland County should stand as a testament to the modern-day efforts to change both the prevailing attitudes in schools and ultimately the view of students as they enter the world after graduation.
But the effort in the schools is just the start of a process that has been many years in the making given the history of Oakland County, which mirrors most other areas of the country.
My time here in Oakland dates back to the early 1970s, when prevailing attitudes on race, ethnicity and economic class were marked by exclusion, bias, and in many cases, outright racism.
Probably the most demonstrative incident I can remember was the public outcry in the city of Walled Lake in the late 1970s time frame when local government leaders were considering a possible application for federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for use in the community. The CDBG program had existed under a variety of other names until 1971 when the Nixon administration proposed consolidating 129 different federal programs that benefitted low- and moderate-income residents, including affordable housing and other anti-poverty programs. Eventually President Ford was able to gain passage in 1974 and implementation in 1975 of what we now know as the CDBG program that exists today.
Residents opposed to the CDGB program in Walled Lake made no bones about their fear that taking the federal funds would force the city into subsidized housing, which was really a code word in those days for African-Americans who might move into the community. City leaders at the time rebuffed this thinking and went ahead with the program.
Keep in mind that at this time most of Oakland County was inhabited by a strictly white population. This was a time when deed restrictions in many areas of Oakland County actually contained language aimed at preventing the sale of land/housing to non-whites, as evidenced by the deed restrictions on the first lakefront home I purchased in Oakland in the western lakes area of the county.
The prevailing thinking at the time was not just an anti-black attitude. In the Birmingham/Bloomfield area, for example, you could often find deed restrictions that prevented the sale of land/housing to those of the Jewish faith.
And then there is the newspaper trade rumor, fairly reliable but unconfirmed all these years later, that some publishers in Oakland County were approached with the request that homes in the Birmingham/Bloomfield area not be advertised in the Southfield area so that the Jewish population would not migrate to this part of the county. As the rumor goes, those requests for a red-lining approach to advertising were soundly rejected.
But African-Americans and those of Jewish faith have not been the only members of the population that have faced discrimination. Like other ethnic and religious groups who have come to the shores of this country and more specifically Oakland, we should note that the Chaldean residents faced similar obstacles and attitudes as they brought their entrepreneurial spirit to several areas of the county, where many set up businesses. But the list goes on further with other groups from around the world who have sought the American dream in this area.
I guess for the most part, I was fortunate to come from a household where race was really not an issue, despite the fact that our world was mostly white once we hit the suburbs. Prior to that, we were like everyone else in Detroit – you took the bus on Saturday with your parents to Hudson's, ate lunch at the counter of Sanders and experienced a mix of people from all backgrounds and races.
During my early college summers, I worked the factories of Ford and Chrysler, where my co-workers included an equal number of African-Americans and white workers, so I was accustomed to a diverse population. It was during one of those summers when the Detroit riots occurred and my parents offered to open our home up to a couple of African-American college students who worked the line at the Ford plant with me so that they would not have to travel through the turmoil each evening to make the home-to-work trip from Detroit to Shelby Township. This was against the background of a neighborhood where residents proudly talked about arming themselves in case the riots moved beyond the city's borders.
So we have made substantial progress in some respects, at least with the younger generation that appears to view the world more inclusively than some from my generation or certainly from the generation that included my parents.
But I am also reminded by a recent incident in one of the communities we cover that attitudes still have a ways to go with some people, as one of our reporters relayed an incident where the Commerce Township Supervisor at a recent municipal meeting referred to residents of Detroit, which is around 83 percent African-American, as a group that “burns everything down,” only to attempt after the meeting to dismiss his comment as an intended joke. Insensitive at the least; certainly inappropriate and, to some, racist.
Progress, yes, there has been some. But we have a considerable distance to go, which makes what the private schools are attempting in Oakland so reassuring. Broadening the perspectives and world view of the younger generation can only benefit us all.