Thirty years ago, black and white students sat in different schools.
Now, they sit on different sides of the school.
Long after the federal government mandated integration in Augusta-area public schools, a mix of white, black, Latino, Indian and other students walk through the school doors each day. Today's teens have never known segregated schools.
Most students interviewed by members of the Xtreme teen board about their school's race relations said there were no big problems or tensions. Most students said they are comfortable around people of different races and have friends who are of a different race.
"Things will never be perfect because that's just the way humans are," said Heather Bacon, 17, a senior at South Aiken High School. Racial fights are rare, she said.
Heather said she doesn't see much racism among her peers but added, "I could just be naive."
"Race isn't really an issue in this school," said April Derryberry, 17, a senior at Lincoln County High School who's in an interracial relationship. "Our generation does't see black and white. It's the parents who do."
But further questioning revealed some underlying tensions. Some students reported racist language and behavior, including racial slurs. Some even said they thought teachers had let race influence grading decisions - favoring students who were of the same race or not penalizing students of a different race to avoid being seen as racist.
"The race relations are pretty good, at least on the surface, but it's everywhere," said Jonathan Marcantoni, 17, a junior at South Aiken High School. "Even though a lot of the humor people have is race-based, it's not as bad as some areas."
It's not just tension between black and white students. Jonathan, who is Puerto Rican, is afraid some students see him as "an illiterate Mexican." Lincoln County High School senior Sangini Patel, 17, has endured racist comments since last month's terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. She's of Indian descent. Muslim Bilal Yousufzai, a 14-year-old freshman at Lakeside High School, remembers being called a "terrorist" during an argument in middle school, although he said he doesn't face that kind of language anymore.
Biracial students and those who have moved to the area seem to be particularly attuned to existing tension and racism.
"I can admit I've been treated differently," said Kiley Smith, a multiracial Evans High School senior whose military family has moved around a lot. "I've never encountered race issues anywhere else I've moved. I was unaware of a lot of things. ... I have only witnessed things like this in the South. It's crazy."
The tensions are a far cry from 31 years ago, when the federal government mandated integration in area public schools. The first black pupil in an all-white Richmond County public school, Barbara Maria Gant, had enrolled in 1964. But for the system to reach full integration pupils had to be bused from different areas of the county, and many people objected.
Area residents held demonstrations and set up coffins with signs proclaiming the "death of neighborhood schools." Many participated in a one-day boycott by pulling their children out of school. Pictures from 1972, when busing was implemented, show classrooms with only one student or with everyone who showed up that day - including teachers - taking up only a small corner of the lunchroom.
Today students of all races share lunchrooms, classrooms and locker rooms. A vestigial fault-line remains: The most common commentary on race relations mentioned by students is self-segregation, in which students stick mainly with friends of their own race.
"I see racial separation in school on a large scale - not really personal attacks or racism - and separation seems to be a rather mutual decision," said Anders Martin, 16, a junior at Westside High School. "This is also not a definite division, and there's just as much a separation between intellect levels, also - race in those groups being of no importance. But all of those separations seemed to be blurred at the line."
A group of Anders' schoolmates, asked about their obvious racial separation in the lunchroom - one table of white students, one table of black students, recognized the division, although they said they were friends and would go over to the other table occasionally to talk. Many teens said that they simply stay with people they feel comfortable with and share interests with - and despite some homogenization of popular culture, there are different racial cultures.
Kent Spruill, chairman of the Richmond County human relations commission, pointed out that self-segregation isn't unusual - adults do it all the time. He agreed with students who said that interaction shouldn't be forced on them and pointed out that teens' tolerance, even when they don't interact much with people of other races, is still an important step.
He would like to see more interaction but isn't sure how to encourage it. The human relations commission, which works to improve race relations in the community, will be holding focus groups to try to find the answer, he said.
After talking with Xtreme, he plans to add teen race relations to the issues discussed, he said.
"If you went into a lunchroom and saw students of different races mixed up together, wouldn't you think race relations were better than if you saw students sitting separately?" he said.
Some teens agree: "I think it's necessary for races to socialize together because if they didn't we wouldn't have the culture we have now," said Natalie Burton, 17, a senior at Hephzibah High School.
Teen board members Michelle Callaham, Brittany Clayton, Elizabeth Holoubek, Jay James, Camden Morgante, Chidum Uzochukwu and Chelsey Willis contributed to this report.
Reach Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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