Beliefnet
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."

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