The Unwhitening of America Is Upon Us, and Our Public Schools Are Proof

As the country’s political pundits reach for euphemistic ways to describe Donald Trump and his supporters’ primal screaming, Larry Wilmore, the host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show, puts his finger on the prevailing mood of the country:
The “unblackening” is Wilmore's pithy way of describing his sense that so many White Americans are eager for more than an end to Obama's presidency but what they sense is the ascendancy of nonWhite Americans, their concerns, interests and experiences. “unblackening” is a political moment, like Reconstruction or the final years of the Cold War. And according to Wilmore, the “unblackening” is happening now.
It’s hard to ascertain a causal relationship between demographics and demagoguery, but the “ascendancy of non-White Americans” to which Wilmore alludes is not hypothetical. As Sarah Carr points out in the introduction to a recent Slate series on the changes in American schools:
For the first time, there are more students of color than White students in our public schools. How we confront this change will determine the fate of this generation—and the country.
In other words, while the White House undergoes an unprecedented “unblackening,” the long predicted “unwhitening” of America is upon us. For years policymakers have foreshadowed a majority non-White America, and while a significant portion of the country seems committed to denying that demographic inevitability, [pullquote position="left"]public schools already reflect the more colorful future. While some of us celebrate the diversification, Carr is sober, as the demographic changes make a discussion of socioeconomic integration inevitable:
How can we create integrated school communities at a time when many White parents, long accustomed to various forms of privilege and preference, fear their children being in the minority, and when schools already struggle to meet the needs of diverse students and learners? Sixty years ago, when school desegregation began, White families fled public schools en masse, decamping to private schools and suburban communities. Throughout parts of the south, Whites formed so-called private “segregation academies” well in advance of desegregation orders to avoid White children mixing with Black children. In New Orleans, all but two White families left within hours of the first Black students enrolling at two of the city’s elementary schools in 1959. In Boston, residents responded violently to forced bussing that aimed to integrate the public schools.
It’s hard to discuss integration without talking about the behavior of White people, which shifts between the shadows and the main stage throughout the history of school segregation. Until the 1950s, White folks practiced unvarnished oppression with slavery, followed by civic racism and post-reconstruction policy “solutions” like Jim Crow. By the 1970s, “White flight” was the term of art for families departing cities to avoid integrated schooling, and while the expression itself is barely euphemistic, conventional wisdom treats the phenomenon as the natural consequence of racial mixing, rather than a battle cry of White privilege. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the mid-2010s, American schools are more segregated than they have been since desegregation efforts peaked in the late 1980s.

The Act of Giving Up Privilege

Despite the centuries of overt oppression and discrimination that preceded our current era, we trip over ourselves to find explanations for the contemporary state of affairs that do not include the words “White privilege” or “White supremacy.” In the meantime, White families, and even families of color with greater financial means, use a litany of excuses to justify educating their children in isolated environments. They say things like: Statistically my child will perform better in a mostly White school, or majority low-income schools will have too many resources dedicated to the unique needs of children unlike my own, or schools with high concentrations of non-White students will deprioritize the bonus features that we have come to think of as indivisible from schooling—and other creative divestments of personal responsibility. The cumulative effects of these personal choices reinforce segregation. The sentiment underlying each of these excuses is the idea that socioeconomic integration for the privileged involves self-sacrifice, which makes the idea of unearned privilege a self-fulfilling prophecy. If putting a child in a socioeconomically integrated setting means “giving something up,” we reinforce that Whiteness, or wealth, confers upon a child an unearned benefit that must be abdicated. In the very act of giving up privilege, we validate its existence. The downstream effects of that privilege, whether racial or socioeconomic, are the same throughout history: The gifts of the parents, whether earned or not, visit the next generation in the form of starting life further up a not-so-imaginary socioeconomic ladder. Unlike the rising tide that lifts all boats, the expanding ladder of unearned privilege puts more and more rungs between the haves and have-nots the more it grows. There’s another catch-22 of unearned privilege: Reaping its benefits without concomitant shame means denying its existence. White America, in particular, has a vested interest in maintaining unearned racial privilege, rather than confronting institutional racism head-on. Preserving that vested interest means finding other reasons to explain the dreadful inequities in American schools, including blaming the values and mores of communities of color. While technocratic explanations for inequality are slightly more charitable, to the extent that they ignore institutional racism, they also are bound to be inadequate.

Bringing America Into the Future

And so America is at a crossroads. It might be inevitable that the “unwhitening” of the populace unleashes the foulest sort of racism, as White Americans must give up the very real, but very socially constructed, notion of privilege. There is hope, though, in the fact that the public schools are the canary in America’s demographic coalmine. Educators are some of the most emotionally intuitive, relational and empathetic people in our culture. They are in a position to help usher America into more just its future, but only if they are outspoken about the urgency of that endeavor. Educators must embrace the oracular gift that they enjoy by glimpsing the future before it is here. They are the beneficiaries of information asymmetry of historical proportions and shouldn’t waste the opportunity to use it. Writers like Nikole Hannah-Jones join a coterie of policymakers in suggesting that we need to revisit the idea of using public policy to drive integration; while the experience of the last generation should be humbling, there is emerging evidence that nudging people in the direction of greater integration is a more promising way to learn the lessons of the late 20th century, without repeating its mistakes. Another way to harness the foresight is to ensure that the education institutions serving our children are representative of their communities. From a practical standpoint, it is impossible for public institutions to reflect the will of the governed unless the beneficiaries of public services have their interests represented in those institutions. While race is not the only heuristic that matters in representation, our country’s uniquely shameful history of racism means that we cannot avoid making race a critical factor. Having greater diversity in public education leadership will mean stronger ideas, more resilient political coalitions, and dynamic policy discussions. The alternative is a country whose public and private leadership remains lopsidedly White, while its population continues to diversify. That’s what we have now, and it cannot last.
Justin Cohen
Previously, Justin Cohen was president of Boston-based education nonprofit Mass Insight Education, where he helped cities and states around the country rethink how we serve our most vulnerable children. Justin has also worked in the D.C. Public Schools and was on the education policy committee for President ...

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