When Angela Freeman moved to Pennsauken in the mid-1980s, she was among a wave of black teachers hired to reflect the township’s changing racial demographics.
The idea was that African American educators could better relate to the small but growing number of black students at the high school. Freeman felt welcome enough, but she noticed that any discussion of race was conducted in code, with teachers and administrators avoiding words like black and white.
It was always “the school is changing,” Freeman said. “One day I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and there was silence. But I knew what they meant.”
These days, the Camden County inner-ring suburb–where minorities, including significant numbers of Latinos and Asians, are now half of the population–is engaged in a public discussion about the role of race in its future.
The issue is how to stanch the outflow of the town’s white residents while creating a welcoming environment for everyone.
Fifteen years ago, residents began an effort to try to stem the “white flight” that had afflicted many U.S. cities in the 1960s and ’70s and was threatening Pennsauken. The strategy, as refined over the years: Market the town’s diversity as an asset.
Tours led by the township for prospective residents emphasize Pennsauken’s multiculturalism, and new-resident meetings encourage interaction across racial and class lines.
In 1980, white residents accounted for 91 percent of Pennsauken’s population. By 2000, 60 percent of the town’s 36,000 residents were white. In those 20 years, there had been a doubling of minority residents, drawn by the same relatively low property taxes and proximity to Philadelphia that had attracted families for decades.
In 1994, at the height of the white exodus–and the year the township elected its first black councilman–local residents Lynn Cummings and Harold Adams created the grassroots group Neighbors Empowering Pennsauken (NEP) to improve relations between established residents and the minority families moving in.
In 2001, the township created a commission on integration, phased out NEP, and committed public money to billboards and other efforts designed to market Pennsauken’s diversity to white families looking for an alternative to more homogenous suburbs.
“People were asking why I, a black man, wanted more white people living here. It wasn’t an easy sell,” said Adams, 50, a real estate assessor. “We were coming at it from a practical standpoint.”
According to studies, he said, the market value of homes tends to decline as more minorities move into a neighborhood. That translates into lower revenue from property taxes.
“When a town gets below 50 percent white, it makes it very difficult for the town to maintain services,” Adams said.
That spiraling down is mostly the result of paranoia, says Nathaniel Norment Jr., chairman of the African American Studies department at Temple University.
“It’s something that’s created based on white people’s fear of being close to black people,” Norment said. “There’s this myth we have that blacks’ moving in will change the social environment.”
“Some people of color had feelings that if whites wanted to leave and not live next to people of color, you should let them do as they want to do,” said resident Darlene Hannah-Collins, 53, who is black.
According to a 2008 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, the township’s white population has declined by 22 percent since 2000. The census conducted this year will be more definitive.
“When you see the low property values, you can figure people of color are living there,” Dobson [Eric Dobson, a planning consultant who has done work for the township and sits on the school board] said. “It’s troubling when you have an overwhelming number of one particular race buying in a place. That’s the sign of moving toward segregation.”
Fifty-six percent of Pennsauken High students failed to meet basic proficiency standards in math last year and 34 percent failed to do so in English–5 and 7 percentage points below the state averages. School officials attributed the scores to the influx of students who had not passed through Pennsauken’s elementary and middle school programs.