by Justin Cohen
Earlier this week Gothamist posted a video of a white jogger in Brooklyn, yelling at another white guy, claiming that his pioneering spirit had made it possible for other white people to live in that rapidly gentrifying borough. While I jokingly dubbed this “Peak White Privilege,” it reminded me that as our American cities have become more white, our schools remain stubbornly segregated. While the Supreme Court made segregation in public schools technically illegal in the 1950s, it took decades of active de-segregation policy and politics to make sure that the law of the land was reflected in the racial composition of America’s classrooms.
What school desegregation never solved, though, was the fact that it’s almost impossible to decouple residential segregation from schools segregation, particularly in a country that has historically and systematically destroyed the potential accumulation of black wealth through racist housing policy. Most integration efforts since the 1980s have been lopsided ventures, wherein black families send their children on buses to mostly white schools in other communities. While many individuals will attest to the positive personal benefit of these programs, they’re logistically challenging, emotionally draining, and affect a relatively small number of children.
The kind of integration that almost never happens, which is even more striking given the recent wave in re-urbanization, is white people actively educating their own children in a more integrated setting. One of the fastest ways to get a nominally progressive white person to lose his mind is to suggest that he put his money where his mouth is on social justice and send his kids to a mostly black school. The most common response I hear when I suggest this is something like, “I believe in equality and everything, but I’m not experimenting on my own kid.”
The uncharitable read of that sentiment is, “Damn, that’s sort of racist, and a little classist.” The slightly more forgiving read is to look at the reams of data that suggest predominantly black and brown schools consistently underperform schools with higher concentrations of white kids, and begrudgingly admit that your white progressive friend has a point.
But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wealthier people, many of them white, have surged into America’s cities in the last generation, causing an upsurge of prices in cities, while condemning the suburbs to being tumbleweed-filled dystopias of closed K-Marts and Best Buys. Once those families have children, though, they often fight to protect the overwhelming whiteness and privilege of their new enclaves, and in some cases retreat back to the more predictably privileged suburbs. If the wealthier, and whiter, new residents of America’s cities viewed integration not as an act of self-sacrifice, but as a collective act of self-righteousness, we might have a fighting chance at a more egalitarian future. In other words, if you’re paying a premium to live in a vibrant city, why not abdicate some of your unearned privilege to its schools.
Fortunately, that’s what some families are doing. In the last week I’ve spoken with parents in DC, Rhode Island, and Texas, all white, all of whom are sending their children to schools that are predominantly non-white. The most amazing thing about these conversations is the consistency with which folks describe the choice. Quite the opposite of the experimentation narrative of their peers, they view themselves as giving their children a leg-up in a much more diverse, interconnected, heterogeneous world. As one mother described, “I wanted an environment for my kids where they realize that the world isn’t all white people with $400K houses, three cars, and vacations every school break on the Cape.” That doesn’t look like the real world, so why should we teach our children that it is?
The last generation of Americans was raised to view colorblindness as a value, and we’re still living through the hangover of the wrongheadedness of that concept. If we embrace our kids’ – and this country’s – diversity, we’re a lot more likely to unleash our collective greatness. But that will never happen if wealthier, whiter people continue to view integration as a great risk to their own privilege, and not a gift to their own children.