We Can't Keep Ignoring the Suburbs and the Black People That Live in Them

Jul 29, 2016 12:00:00 AM


L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy first came to my attention at this spring’s Education Writers Association (EWA) national conference in Boston, where he served as a panelist talking about school integration with the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, Century’s Rick Kahlenberg, and Education Post’s Chris Stewart. He’s an associate professor in sociology and Black studies at The City College of New York (CUNY) and author of the well-timed 2014 book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. While Kahlenberg and Hannah-Jones are advocates for desegregation, and Stewart is something of a skeptic, Lewis-McCoy comes out somewhere in the middle. “Most schools are at best desegregated,” he says. But the desegregated schools he’s studied are “very much not integrated” in terms of  friendship networks, kids and parents, information flow. “Many white families are hoarding opportunities from other families,” he argued at the EWA event.
I found middle class and affluent white families organizing to limit access, taking the good teachers, in the principal’s office daily advocating that ‘my kid gets the good programs.’ Wealthy Black families would rather pay their money and send kids to private schools.
Covering school integration and desegregation efforts is appropriate, he seems to be saying. But it needs to be much more nuanced. At the EWA event, he urged reporters to “look up” where education resources were being gathered and to find out how and why outcomes are so often inequitable.

Ignoring Suburban Transformation

Just as important, according to Lewis-McCoy, is that reporters take a more regional view of their reporting. Spending too much time focused on big cities and urban school districts leaves rapidly changing suburban school districts out of the picture, argues Lewis-McCoy, with whom I spoke last week. “Cities and suburbs are both transforming, but clashes over gentrification are more popular right now,” says Lewis-McCoy. Today more than one-third of all suburban residents are people of color. At the same time, suburban districts are least likely to offer choices to parents. And yet, “there’s less conversation about suburban schools, inner- and outer-ring suburbs.” What’s being missed, he says, is that board members, district leaders, and school heads are more likely to be white than the communities they’re serving. The district demographics have changed, but the district hasn’t kept up. This is especially true for inner-ring suburbs near big cities. “They’re now majority minority, with significant numbers of poor people, but local control has not flipped,” notes Lewis-McCoy. “So you have predominantly white leaders governing Black and poor students.” In some places, ethnicity is as much an issue as race. African-Americans and African immigrants might show up as the same on a demographic breakdown, but there are many differences and tensions between similar-seeming groups “that people are not thinking about,” says Lewis-McCoy. Alas, there’s not nearly as much attention given to these kinds of places as there should be, according to Lewis-McCoy. Big-city reporters tend to exclude what’s going on in adjacent suburbs, even as teachers, students, and issues cross boundaries. Southfield is having an effect on Detroit. Oak Park is having an effect on Chicago. But reporters don’t generally think regionally, and so their concerns end at the district boundary.

Leaving Out Poor Minority Voices

Asked about media coverage of education more generally, Lewis-McCoy notes that he’s keenly aware of “which venues are writing [about schools], and which voices get selected [to talk about what’s going on].” A recent New York Time's article about race and student achievement gaps seemed to lack key voices. “None of the parents from the district were spoken to—none of low-income parents, none of students,” he says. The assumption, according to Lewis-McCoy, is that affluent parents are creating an achievement gap by “doing everything right.” But such journalism leaves out what low-income parents are doing, or trying to do. As such, “They don’t actually speak to the subject of the article.” Somehow, concerns about the plight of certain students and families doesn’t translate into their voices appearing on the page. “Which voices get lifted and which are silenced?” he asked the audience of reporters at the recent EWA event. White families who oppose integration, or minority families whose children’s needs have not been met under the current system? “A full discussion of what Blacks’ needs and desires are has been silenced.”
An earlier version of this post appeared on The Washington Monthly as EdReporters Ignore Fast-Changing Suburbs & Silence Minority Voices, Says CUNY Prof.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who currently writes at his blog, The Grade and the national news site This Week In Education He has created several long-running blogs such as District 299 (about Chicago schools) and LA School Report.

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