For Whites In Prince George’s, A Mirror On Race
Lonnae O’Neal Parker, Washington Post, July 27, 2006
The swimming pool in Abby Hopper’s Bowie development was already crowded when Hopper, her husband, their two toddler girls, her sister-in-law and her two young kids arrived in a cloud of plastic buckets, kickboards and Cinderella floaties. Just settling in was a huge production. Then, sitting in her lounger, Hopper finally looked around. There had to be 75 people at the pool.
They were the only whites.
Hopper, 35, felt that stab — call it acute self-consciousness. She didn’t know the people around her, and they didn’t know her. What if Madeline made a splashy mess or Ellie took another child’s floatie — because that’s what little kids do. What if the other moms thought her girls were some entitled-feeling white kids, with their entitled-feeling white mother looking on?
Okay, what would happen?
Long pause. “Well, nothing physical,” Hopper says slowly. Maybe just a bad scene.
The pang passed as fast as it came. Hopper recognized a mom from the neighborhood toddler play group she helped organize and saw the family from down the street in the baby pool. Everything was back to being all good; just a regular these-are-the-people-in-my-neighborhood kind of thing.
Two years ago, the Hoppers moved from a nearly all-white neighborhood in Baltimore to Prince George’s County, where Abby Hopper had grown up around all kinds of people. She says she wants that for her kids. Her husband, Greg, also likes that they got a lot more house for the money.
Whites moving into black neighborhoods often follow the pattern of gentrification: The influx leads to higher property prices, displacement of residents who can’t afford to stay and lingering resentment. But the paradigm has shifted in Prince George’s, one of the few suburban counties nationally with wide swaths of black wealth.
Some white families are being drawn by the upscale amenities of subdivision life at relatively bargain prices. There’s little tension about displacement, because they move into neighborhoods with people of similar economic statuses, and by and large, they say they are being welcomed.
Decisions about where to lay your head and raise your family have been among those most resistant to the integrational ideals of the civil rights movement. But residents say the educated, affluent demographics of Prince George’s help make integration calculations, and the conversations around them, a little easier for everybody.
Hopper, who is a child support and divorce lawyer in Greenbelt, grew up in Bowie and University Park and attended Prince George’s County public schools until sixth grade. She then switched to the National Cathedral School in Washington, and went on to Dartmouth and the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore.
She says her parents exposed her and her brother, Justin Ross, now a Democratic state delegate from Greenbelt, to all the diversity the county had to offer — “the Irish festival, the German festival, the Jamaican heritage festival, we went.” The county’s racial and ethnic mix helped her appreciate differences. “I feel like I can find some area of commonality with almost anybody. Children, music, food — there’s always something,” she says. “That’s what you learn when you have to be flexible and find different ways of relating.”
Hopper thinks parents who limit their children’s exposure put them at a disadvantage; the United States will be majority minority by mid-century. “My goal as a parent is to raise kids who are confident in their skin and essentially around anyone else’s skin,” she says. “That doesn’t just happen by looking at books and videos and talking about it.”
Two years ago, they moved to Fairwood, a new thousand-acre planned community about five miles outside the Capital Beltway in Bowie, with a pool, tennis court, clubhouse and park amenities, and $500,000-plus homes. When they were looking, real estate agents would always describe the area as “diverse,” says Greg Hopper, 33, a former Baltimore prosecutor now in private practice, “but we were the only whites looking at the models.”
Politically and in terms of what they want for their families, Hopper says, he has much in common with his neighbors, but has had to make some social adjustments. He’s become better at mingling at holiday and Super Bowl parties, but the golf situation is still kind of funny. At the course on Enterprise Road, “There’s always a minute where everybody is looking around, and it’s like okay, who’s got the white guy in the cart?” Hopper, who grew up in southwestern Missouri, is not used to wondering if he’ll be accepted, or working to fit in.
“I don’t want to say this is a unique experience, because it’s not from an African American perspective. But it feels awfully unique to me at the time,” he says.
Once a white couple drove through the cul-de-sac, and Jabril, the black 8-year-old boy across the street, told the kids, there’s your grandparents . “It was kind of beautiful though,” says Hopper, “like it was the most natural thing in the world,” that all white people would be related. “It was a funny flip.”
The Hoppers say that coming from Baltimore, where Abby was held up twice, they aren’t worried about high crime stats, which seem to be isolated to certain parts of the county. But they fret about the schools. They’ve been looking at a few of the county’s magnet programs and private Catholic schools. Greg says there were only two blacks in his school system. He tries to imagine how they must have felt and wonders how his own children will feel when they get to school.
Many black neighbors say they love the neighborhood mix. Although it is majority African American, at times it can look like a mini-United Nations. Michelle Jackson, a part-time consultant and Habitat for Humanity volunteer, says her 10-year-old son “plays with a Caucasian boy, an Asian boy, a boy from the Caribbean and an Indian boy.”
According to census figures, the population of the county held fairly steady between 2000 and 2004, with non-Hispanic whites making up about 25 percent of the population and African Americans accounting for about 63 percent. There is no reliable up-to-date data, however, on demographic changes in specific neighborhoods.
State Del. Ross, Abby Hopper’s brother, says he’s lived in Prince George’s “every day of my life.”
“The impressive part of our legacy is as a majority African American county, but there’s a contingent of over 200,000 white folks still here and who are moving into this county and want to be part of this multicultural experience.”
Estepp sees the county as “absolutely the model for this grand American experiment. . . I hope that’s not sounding too idealistic.”