Community

In Atlanta, USA, Baha'i couples buck a trend of "white flight," consciously seeking to promote racial unity

LITHONIA, Georgia, USA - With their children grown and out of the home and a solid retirement income assured, Larry and Carole Miller were at a point in their lives when they could choose to live wherever they wanted.

But when the Millers decided two and a half years ago to build a new home, they moved to this largely African-American district of southern DeKalb County in metropolitan Atlanta.

What makes that unusual is that Mr. and Mrs. Miller are white - and their move runs against the decades-long exodus of white families from this area, a phenomenon known to demographers as "white flight."

"For other people in our position, I suppose, we would be considered odd," said Mr. Miller during an interview in his new custom-built home on a quiet cul-de-sac here. "Because we could live anywhere in the world.

"But we felt there has to be a new model," said Mr. Miller, who at age 54 is now semi-retired, having recently sold his management consulting firm. "We want to create a pluralistic and diverse community in which people learn to live together voluntarily, as opposed to through government programs or intervention. And we want to show that, if people have the right principles and if they have faith, racial segregation can be reversed."

In this regard, the Millers are among a small group of people who are striving to build a new and unified society in America, one that demonstrates the possibilities for complete racial integration. They, like many others in this group, are followers of the Bahá'í Faith, which stresses the principle of the oneness of humanity and teaches a personal ethic that goes beyond mere tolerance, advocating active efforts at genuine unity among the races.

Indeed, on a national level, the Bahá'í community of the United States has in recent years launched a major campaign to promote race unity. Elements of this campaign have included the production and extensive broadcast of a video program entitled "The Power of Race Unity," the holding of intensive training seminars and workshops on how to promote race unity, and numerous local activities, such as the observance of an annual "race unity" day in many communities around the nation each year in June.

The metropolitan Atlanta area has seen much activity by Bahá'ís and others in this regard, owing to its prominent location in the southern United States where the issues of racial prejudice and segregation have for so long taken center stage. Atlanta, for example, is the home to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, a nationally recognized organization aimed at eliminating poverty, racism and war through non-violent social change.

Yet, despite years of government programs aimed at promoting de-segregation, metropolitan Atlanta remains a place where neighborhoods and communities are often quite sharply defined by race. Although DeKalb County as a whole is split roughly 50 percent white and 50 percent black, this ratio varies greatly by neighborhood. At Lithonia High School, for example, 96.9 percent of the students are black. In other districts of DeKalb County, less than 7 percent of the population is African-American. In the greater Atlanta region, there are similar divisions. The city of Atlanta itself is more than 70 percent black. To the north, Cherokee County is more than 95 percent white.

"Historically, we still continue to live in segregated neighborhoods," said Douglas Bachtel, a sociologist and demographic specialist at the University of Georgia. "While public institutions became integrated - the schools, public facilities and the workplace - neighborhoods really never became integrated."

In DeKalb County, say residents, a process of "re-segregation" took place during the 1970s and 1980s as whites fled in the face of an increasing black in-migration from urban Atlanta. "Basically, white flight revolves around education and the real and perceived problems in the school system," said Prof. Bachtel. "And a lot of that is racially motivated."

Seeking to counter these trends, and to demonstrate the possibilities for increased racial unity, are the Millers - and two other Bahá'í families who have recently relocated to largely black areas of southern DeKalb County. Jeffrey and Sarah Streiff moved into a mostly black Decatur neighborhood with their three children in August 1998. Cliff and Wendy Owens-Leech relocated to Stone Mountain in December 1995.

Although localized demographic statistics for these neighborhoods are hard to find, the Stone Mountain high school is less than 6 percent white, according to figures from the DeKalb County School District.

The Streiffs chose their Decatur neighborhood, which they say is roughly 90 percent black, because it is near the Bahá'í Unity Center. They returned to the United States in 1998 after living in China for three years, where both worked as school teachers - which is how they are currently employed.

"We moved here because it is distinctive for a white family to move into an all- or almost-black neighborhood," said Sarah Streiff, who is 52. "It seems that whenever the percentage of whites in a given community goes below 50 percent, it causes tension in whites and they flee. That is what happened here."

Both Mr. and Mrs. Streiff said living in a largely black neighborhood has forced them to confront many of the racial images they had grown up with as whites in America.

"I was afraid to stay by myself at first," confessed Mrs. Streiff. "I brought with me all of the stereotypes about what a black neighborhood would be like." Those preconceptions included the idea that crime and violence would be a daily threat.

But living here for two years without incident has put those fears to rest. "It's just like any other middle class neighborhood," said Mrs. Streiff. "It's not what most white people expect it to be."

They have also discovered a great diversity within the African-American community itself. "Now we are having the best time here, because it is so rich in culture," said Mrs. Streiff. "There are Africans from every country living here. From Senegal, from the Congo, from the Caribbean, from the East Indies. You can't make assumptions about anyone you see."

A sign of their commitment was their purchase, in August 1998, of a three bedroom, 2,200 square foot home here. They also send their three sons, ages 15, 12 and 9, to public schools in the region.

"The Bahá'í Faith has given me a desire to get over the problems of the past and to get to know my neighbors, whatever color or culture they come from," said Mr. Streiff. "To get to know and love them. And my hope for my boys is that they will grow up not even thinking in terms of color."

Cliff and Wendy Owens-Leech

The Owens-Leeches are the only white family on their street, in a subdivision of 1,500 homes with a population that is 90 percent black, 5 percent white and 5 percent other ethnic groups.

"The purpose was to model race unity," said Mrs. Owens-Leech, a 52-year-old freelance photographer. "And part of that is to show that white people can live here and nothing untoward will happen to them."

Unlike the Streiffs, both Mr. and Mrs. Owens-Leech had lived in areas with large African-American populations previously, and so they did not have as many preconceptions to overcome. However, they have faced many comments and questions from white friends and family who, according to Mrs. Owens-Leech, have said things like: "'Aren't you worried about your property values?' or 'Something is going to happen to you,' or 'You'll get broken into,' or 'You're not safe there.' "

"But the reality has been fine," said Mrs. Owens-Leech. "Our neighbors have been wonderful and very friendly towards us. We watch each other's homes when we're on vacation. We mow each others lawns."

More than a good place to live, the couple sees their action as part of a lifelong process of personal growth, one that in this case is partly aimed at overcoming any lingering feelings of racism or prejudice that they may unconsciously harbor.

"The other benefit of living here is that you are able, as a white person in this country, to work on the sense of racism that is taught to you from the time you are a child," said Mrs. Owens-Leech. "As white people we have been taught that we are part of the privileged class, rather than a part of humanity.

"The whole idea of racism is that one part of humanity is superior to the other, and that is simply not true. God created us as one humanity and we are the ones who create the divisions."

"So moving here for us is part of a journey through life," Mrs. Owens-Leech said. "You have to be willing as a human being to stretch yourself. If you are always in your comfort zone, you are not going to be growing and you are not going to be dealing with the disease of racism."

Adds Mr. Owens-Leech, a 48-year-old financial advisor and insurance agent: "Racism is a disease, one that humanity is afflicted with. For us, one way of confronting this disease is by demonstrating our commitment to the oneness of humanity by moving into an all-black neighborhood."

"An incredibly simple thing"

Likewise, the Millers saw moving to Lithonia as a way to put their beliefs on the line. Before moving here in January 1999, they lived in Alpharetta, a wealthy and largely white suburb north of Atlanta.

"To me, it is actually an incredibly simple thing," said Mr. Miller of their decision to move here. "If you are a Bahá'í and you have any notion of what the Faith is about, you would naturally look for ways to put your principles into action. And of course there are many ways of doing that. But for us, we want to live our lives in a way that promotes unity in diversity."

The Millers looked extensively at various homes in the area but finally decided to build a custom-designed 5,000-square-foot home. Most homes in the area are smaller and less expensive.

"We thought about buying a less expensive home but we decided that that wasn't 'us,'" said Mr. Miller. "Diversity means accepting others for who they are and accepting yourself for who you are. We didn't want to pretend to be someone else. We built the house that met our own taste and financial ability."

Like the Streiffs and the Owens-Leeches, they have found much to appreciate about moving to an area that would ordinarily be outside their cultural norm.

"We feel very fortunate at this time of our lives that we can, hopefully, be of service to this community," said Mrs. Miller, who is currently Director of Domestic Projects for Mottahedeh Development Services, a Bahá'í-sponsored social and economic development foundation. "And, frankly, if we had stayed in our other community, there wouldn't be as many opportunities for service, for setting an example."

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