Urban White Families Show New Energy for Racial Justice, but Do They Want It in Their Schools?

Aug 11, 2021 12:00:00 AM


The day after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison for killing George Floyd, writer Melinda D. Anderson tweeted that it “must’ve been a huge relief for many white liberals who can now exhale, inconspicuously remove BLM from their social media profiles, and spend their money on normal summer pastimes rather than on antiracist nonfiction they never read.” 


In our era’s racial justice activism, most white Americans’ participation is largely spectatorial. What is the problem? Police violence. Who is to blame? Derek Chauvin, white officers like him, and/or police unions. What is required of most white Americans? Angry social media posts, signs in the yard, antiracist nonfiction selections in our book clubs. 

[pullquote]It's easy to abhor violent racial injustice from afar — but that’s clearly not going to be enough to unwind the less-overt, deep-rooted racist structures shaping American lives.[/pullquote] Nowhere is this clearer than in our schools, where racial and socioeconomic segregation persist, even in communities where white liberals pride themselves on supporting wide-ranging causes for racial justice. 

In her new book, "Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School," author and activist Courtney E. Martin tells her story of trying to walk her white parent talk on racial justice. 

As I wrote in a review for the Washington Post last week:

When elementary school rounded into view for her oldest daughter, Maya, Martin realized that the students at their neighborhood school, Emerson Elementary, appeared to be almost entirely Black and brown — even as the neighborhood became increasingly white. Most of her demographic peers, it turned out, had wrangled spots for their kids in whiter, wealthier schools in other parts of Oakland. Some hammered away at school district officials until they secured a seat in more privileged public schools; others ponied up $30,000 in annual tuition to attend a nearby private school that marketed itself on its progressive values and pedagogy. As in so many cities, their love of diversity faltered at the schoolhouse door.

“Where did most of the White children go to school?” Martin wonders. “[I]n the 1980s, I went to my neighborhood school. Learn where you’re planted. No big fuss. I’d never heard the phrase ‘school choice.’”

Where Did Most White Children Go To School?

"Learning in Public" is an excavation of the layers of structures — political, cultural, social, economic, and more — lurking beneath that question. Who gets planted where? Why are our neighborhoods so segregated? Is choosing a neighborhood actually a particularly pernicious form of school choice? Does gentrification of predominantly Black and brown urban communities create school integration — and is it automatically good for children in those communities? 

Martin demonstrates that there’s plenty to learn by digging deeper into the genesis of segregated neighborhood schools. For starters, researchers and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Rothstein and Tim DeRoche have conclusively shown that American segregation — both of neighborhoods and the schools assigned to them — is largely an intentional product of public policy. Local authorities codified racial housing segregation into zoning laws. Federal authorities “redlined” neighborhoods of color as risky areas for mortgage lending, and permitted the creation of racially restrictive covenants that prevented housing from being sold in some areas to non-white families. 

So: however natural neighborhood schools might seem, the location of each child’s “planting” is generally the product of this array of structural forces, which determine which families are able to access which houses in which neighborhoods. Wealthy white children aren’t born into exceedingly wealthy and white exurban neighborhoods by some random chance. They’re brought and kept there through their families’ intergenerational wealth — and their families’ navigation of longstanding housing policies that protect that wealth. [pullquote]Privileged enthusiasm for neighborhood schools is best understood as an unreflective appreciation of these deep, historical, systemic biases favoring the wealthy.[/pullquote]

And yet, in recent years, large numbers of white families have followed the regionalization of economic opportunity into a handful of U.S. metro areas, not bucking those biased policy structures so much as complicating them. Martin’s book explores the anxious friction that results when these gentrifying white families begin the work of desegregating urban neighborhoods and encounter the manifestation of American educational inequities in their new communities. (Spoiler alert: they don’t always extend their enthusiasm for diverse urban neighborhoods to also cover their diverse new urban neighborhood schools.)

School Integration in a Gentrification Era

"Learning in Public" wrestles with the implications of this moment in the gentrification of American cities, a moment that could impose some new pressures upon longstanding efforts to advance educational equity through school integration. On the one hand, the present represents the flickers of an opportunity: as highly-educated, wealthy, often white families arrive in urban communities of color, it becomes much easier for education leaders to facilitate diverse school enrollment. As neighborhoods diversify, schools can take advantage of the new proximity of students from a wide range of backgrounds to coordinate school desegregation. In contrast to many past efforts, this new context does not generally require coordinating agreements between multiple school districts or dramatic new school transportation systems. Diverse groups of students are there, living in proximity with one another. All that remains is to help them learn together

On the other hand, gentrification is fundamentally a process wherein privileged families wield social and material capital to secure more of each. While gentrification generally sparks an influx of public and private investment in neighborhoods, most communities struggle to ensure that these new resources reach longstanding residents. Indeed, as the arrival of highly-educated, wealthy, often white families pushes up the cost of living in a particular community — particularly area housing prices — it also frequently displaces low-income families or families of color. From such a fundamentally inequitable process, few just outcomes should be expected

Further, if gentrification closes geographic proximity challenges for school desegregation, the practical gap between living together and learning together remains vast. Privileged families arriving in gentrifying neighborhoods frequently wield their material and social resources to obtain racially and/or socioeconomically segregated learning environments for their children. This dynamic operates in a number of ways. For instance, as a neighborhood gentrifies, its assigned neighborhood school can be steadily “colonized” by privileged children and families until less-wealthy families can no longer afford to purchase housing within the campus’ enrollment zone. Alternatively, privileged families may work existing choice systems to secure seats for their children in exclusive magnet schools, private schools, gifted and talented programs, or non-neighborhood public schools. 

[pullquote]In a moment when urban white families are showing new energy for supporting the cause of racial justice, it’s high time to ask if they’re ready to move past their social justice talk and start walking that path.[/pullquote] There’s plenty to do. Local leaders can expand the availability of affordable housing by following the lead of Minneapolis and other cities and changing zoning laws to make it easier to build more urban housing. Education officials can expand public school choice programs with priorities for diversity that facilitate integration and delink school attendance from families’ abilities to afford housing in particular areas. And, perhaps most of all, white, wealthy urban families can include public schools as part of what it means to fully join their diverse new communities. 

Conor P. Williams

Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Williams was previously the founding director of the New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group and a senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. He began his career as a first grade teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Dr. Williams holds a Ph.D in government from Georgetown University, a M.S. in teaching from Pace University, and a B.A. from Bowdoin College. Most importantly, he's a dad.

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