The Perils of Not/Thinking About Race

Can one be a white, middle-class or affluent parent who is looking out for the best educational interests of one’s child and also NOT be a racist?

I know. I’m being polemical. Or am I?

Last weekend I went to a birthday party for a young child in the affluent suburbs of a major Northeastern City. This child is a relative of mine. I goddamn love that kid. He is the best kid ever, even when he throws a fit. No really. If you met him, you’d want to give him some kind of Best Kid Award.

After I returned to New York, I went again to an inner-city neighborhood in Brooklyn to read bedtime stories to kids in a homeless shelter, the same volunteer gig I wrote about here. That’s right. I love homeless shelters so much that I have vowed to frequent them!

These two experiences were, as you might imagine, a study in contrasts.

Birthday Boy’s parents, relatives of mine, recently purchased a house in the aforementioned affluent, suburban neighborhood. The house seems pretty fancy to me. It has a vast number of rooms and a nice, landscaped yard. It is on a lovely, tree-lined street, and it is next to houses that are even bigger and fancier! The parents of Birthday Boy spent a long time looking for a house in the “right” neighborhood, and they freely admitted that “good schools” were a top priority. When you’re the parents of a young kids, good schools = good neighborhood, apparently.

So Birthday Boy’s parents bought and moved into their house and now – ­mission accomplished­­! – their kids will go to an awesome school where everybody graduates and goes to a good college and then gets a fantastic job and . . . . rinse . . . . repeat.

Meanwhile . . . back at the homeless shelter. The kids there are all black. I did not see any white people there. If someone wants to argue that race and class aren’t all mixed up together like they always have been, then they also have to explain why there are basically only black people in inner-city homeless shelters.

Most of these kids are going to have trouble, to say the least, getting the kind of world-class education that the Birthday Boy is going to get. (Do I even need to say that out loud?) The kids in the shelter were born to the wrong parents and in the wrong social class. And with the wrong skin color. I did not say that they are not smart. To me, they seem just as smart and curious and bubbling with potential as Birthday Boy and his siblings.

Maybe this is obvious. Poor black kids do not go to good schools; rich white kids do. What else is new?

What disturbs me is, of course, that this situation literally goes without saying in America. What disturbs me even more is that the racial politics of schooling and tax break schemes for wealthy suburbanites are disguised, silenced even, in a discourse that tells parents they are terrible people if their affluent white kids go to a school with anybody other than other affluent white kids.

For example, while looking at houses in not-as-nice neighborhoods, Birthday Boy’s parents would often say things like, “It’s a nice house, but we can’t send our kids to those schools.” These parents didn’t mean anything racist by this statement; they weren’t explicitly commenting on the racial make-up of those schools.  My point, then, is NOT to malign these parents because I realize that they are not thinking about race in their choice of neighborhood/school. On the other hand, my point is that these parents are not thinking about race in their choice of neighborhood/school. They aren’t thinking about it because the discourse of race and race inequality is covered up by a more familiar, more mainstream discourse of good parenting. Finding good schools for their individual children is just what good parents do.

Another couple I know in the same Northeastern city plans to home school their kid because they simply cannot send her to the public schools where they live. See, they live in a neighborhood with a white/middle-class section AND a poorer, black and Latino section. Therefore, DANGER! They cannot send their kids to school with those dark-skinned kids! To do so would make them terrible parents, and they cannot accept that.

If you are a parent, or have been around any parents of young kids, you have no doubt participated in conversations about schooling a lot, and I don’t want to simplify what is surely an important and difficult choice for people who do the hardest job in the world. They would, no doubt, not appreciate being labeled as racists. So I want to be clear that that’s not what I’m saying.

Also, it would be CRAZY of me to question the rights of parents to do what is best for their children. I personally do not want Birthday Boy to attend a “bad” school. Not for any reason. What kind of person would I be if I wanted that? However, I have another thought in my head simultaneously with the one that tells me that Birthday Boy’s parents are doing the right thing by moving to a house in a spiffy new neighborhood to make sure their kid goes to an awesome school. The other thought is this:

Somebody’s kid goes to that shitty school that you are trying your damndest to keep your kid out of.

This seems like kind of a big deal to me, even though few parents mention it in their furious attempts to insure that their kids only rub elbows with blue-bloods (or at least other middle-class kids.)

Peter Sacks, in his incredible book Tearing Down the Gates, described the problem as a conflict between public ideals and private maneuvers: “Youthful passion for equity and justice,” Sacks wrote, “is too often overshadowed by the demands of an education system that, even in the public realm, has been structured around private interests to the exclusion of the public interest. Affluent parents, it seems, have been led to believe that educational quality is a zero-sum game: that if schools help [low-income kids], then their own children will lose.”

If this were just about parents securing scarce resources for their own kids that would be one thing. But apparently, a lot of white people do not even want to contribute to the education of the next generation of non-white people. Or, as Lisa Delpit aptly called them, “other people’s children.” In fact, researcher Jennifer Hochschild wrote that, in NYC, “funding for standard students in elementary varied by as much as $10,000 per student in the late 1990s.” (I bet it didn’t get any better in the 2000s either.) Furthermore, children are sorted by race within schools. “Almost all high schools, many middle schools, and some elementary schools sort students by measured ability,” Hochschild wrote. “[W]ell-off children, who are very likely to be White and Asian, almost always dominate the high tracks” (“Social Class in Public Schools”). We frequently hear about how we need better teachers in poor schools, and how we need to test the shit out of kids to make sure they’re learning, etc. But when you’re underfunding little kids’ education by $10,000, don’t talk to me about how new “teacher-proof” curricula and fancy, new tests are going to tip the balance. I’m not buying it.

Plus, as Richard Rothstein has written in Class and Schools, no matter how much we spend on public education, “no society can realistically expect schools alone to abolish inequality. If students come to school in unequal circumstances, they will largely, though not entirely, leave school with unequal skills and abilities.”

That’s why school “choice” is really about race and class; it’s about the generational transfer of wealth and privilege. And yet, white, middle-class and affluent parents’ efforts to send their kids to schools in “good” neighborhoods, or to opt out altogether by homeschooling or paying for private school, are never discussed as racial politics.

Here’s what I mean: If I were an affluent white parent who sends my kid to a largely non-white school on purpose just to make a point about classism and racism, I would surely be accused of callously using my innocent child as a political tool in my selfish attempt to assuage my liberal guilt. But if I am an affluent white parent making a Herculean effort to secure an educational benefit for my child not available to other children, I am not practicing any kind of racial politics. I am just being a good parent. And who can fault me for that?

Am I just a ridiculous bleeding heart? Maybe. But I am honestly wondering about this.

What should Birthday Boy’s parents (or any white, affluent parents) do in this situation? They didn’t create the system; they just have the resources to manipulate it.

How affluence and privilege are transferred between generations is the subject of Gary Berg’s timely book called Low-Income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality. He wrote that there is a “paradoxical tension between the public goal to educate all children, and the private goal of educating only one’s children, [which] leads to the unequal educational results.” Public institutions are supposed to educate everyone’s kids, but the dominant discourse in America tells parents they are only responsible for their own children. This dissonance results in an unfair system that distributes advantages to kids whose parents know how to make the system work for them. It’s not that these parents are better parents; nor are they inherently smarter or more savvy than working-class parents. It’s just that middle-class and affluent parents have what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital” that they can pass down to their children by modeling behaviors and values in the home (what Annette Lareau called “concerted cultivation”) that are, in turn, highly valued in institutions like schools. In making this case, Berg is also riffing off of Marvin Lazerson and Norton Grubb who wrote, way back in 1982, that “As long as parents use public institutions for private ends, the public responsibilities of the schools will remain embattled and compromised, and the promise of public education will remain distorted by individualistic ends.”

Embattled and compromised seems like a pretty good description of public education, especially in urban centers and in the suburbs that surround them. While it’s important to emphasize that individual parents cannot and should not bear the burden of addressing this systemic crisis on their own, I wonder what would happen if more middle-class parents sent their kids to the “bad” public schools. Wouldn’t the presence of those kids, and the involvement of their parents, make those schools better?

These parents say they can’t send their kids to shitty schools because they are shitty. But maybe those schools are shitty because affluent people don’t send their kids there. What I’m saying is, affluent families (white families in particular) are a constituency with a lot of power. If these parents sent their kids to the supposedly “bad” schools en masse and demanded more funding, better facilities, and better teachers, they would probably get them sooner or later.

I realize this is a long-term strategy that is not likely to be appealing to parents who want to send their kids to a good school now, thank you very much. Sure, they may agree with this strategy in principle, but they don’t want it to come at the expense of their own kid’s future.

I get that.

But I’m still wondering whether a robust commitment to community, to other people’s kids, is possible (or what it might look like) if parents can choose so easily, without censure, to eschew the democratic values that I’m sure many of them would claim to have. If merely to propose this makes me some crazy bleeding heart, then fine. It doesn’t seem crazy to suggest that parents might choose to get involved in and care about the education of all the kids in their community, in addition to their own precious ones.

Furthermore, we might ask what constitutes a “good” school anyway. Birthday Boy and his siblings will now go to a school with kids who mostly look just like them: rich, white kids being groomed to take their rightful places in the professional class. Do parents really want that? Don’t you want your kid to meet other kids who are maybe not white and whose daddy maybe doesn’t work in Finance? Birthday Boy and has no idea that any other kid doesn’t live just like he does, in a world of great abundance, and I think that’s too bad.

Because Birthday Boy is the best kid. Ever.

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2 Responses to The Perils of Not/Thinking About Race

  1. Mocs says:

    Before I go on a tangent , I must ask you this…and it can be done privately in email…where are you from and where did you grow up? Bc there is no way you grew up in NYC if you don’t get our wonderful school system.

    I ask this bc I think you are a bit clueless about NYC, as are most out of towners who have just discovered NYC and think it’s some sort of wonderland.

    I will be more than willing to give you my insight on the school issues here. I have lived in this city my entire 37 years and attended 12 years of Catholic school (plus one year of nursery school which my parents also paid for) because, quite frankly, there wasn’t much choice 30 years ago and there isn’t much choice now.

    But if you have a moment, send me an email and we will discuss the ills of a NYC public “education”.

  2. No, I didn’t grow up here. But I’ve lived here for 13 years so I don’t think I count as a newby.

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