In a moment of global and national crisis, even the most skeptical observers have been moved by the scale, sweep and duration of protests in the name of George Floyd and racial justice. People who rightly looked at the initial show of public support for Black lives and said, “We’ve seen this before,” have now started to believe and wonder if maybe this time it is different.
This week, New York Times columnist Charles Blow asked us, as White allies, if we will still be showing up for anti-racist policy “when civil rights gets personal.”
He’s right to ask. We White people don’t have a good track record. When we are faced with irrefutable evidence of the violence and oppression Black people experience at the hands of the very same system that benefits us, we feel shame and anger. In the heat of that moment, we pledge to fight for change.
But when the news cycle moves on, and the fight for justice leads to uprooting specific policies that are closer to home, will we be in it for the long haul?
For parents, one of our first opportunities to honor our commitment to anti-racism will be in our schools. Because, honestly, nothing could hit closer to home than the welfare of our own child. And at the same time, nothing could be more just than ensuring meaningful and affirming educational opportunities for every child.
And the sad truth is that too often White people believe that these two truths are in conflict.
I think of White families in Oakland. For years, the district has known that it needs to close schools, but usually the schools listed for closure are in primarily Black and Brown neighborhoods. So the school board considered a pioneering anti-racist solution: Grant students from closed schools preference to attend the school of their choice.
Critically, this policy recommendation surfaced from the communities most affected. A coalition called State of Black Education Oakland (SoBEO), led by local activists and parent groups, listened to real concerns of families and discussed pragmatic solutions they could bring to the school board.
Called the “Opportunity Ticket,” it was an elegant solution to an urgent crisis in the district. After all, the city already has open enrollment (families can apply to attend schools outside of their neighborhood zone), and it’s geography is small enough to allow for students to travel to other neighborhoods. Moreover, the district schools in the wealthier part of town—what locals refer to as the Hills—have higher test scores and more resources. With this policy, even as families in the Flatlands were suffering the loss of their local schoolhouse, these better-resourced schools could potentially create a game-changing opportunity for their children. (Presuming—and it’s a big presumption—that the receiving schools were ready with affirming and unbiased environments in which these arriving students could thrive.)
And indeed that’s a big reason those Hills mansions cost as astronomically much as they do. While Oakland has open enrollment, it also grants neighborhood preference. Waitlists for those Hills schools are notoriously long, and the wealthy and mostly White families paid the price of admission in their mortgages.
And so we saw, in one of the most liberal enclaves in the country, the unbecoming yet utterly unsurprising protest of wealthy White people to keep their top slots in the school lottery. After all, they paid for those slots! Fair and square!
In the end, Oakland’s progressive bona fides as the birthplace of the Black Panthers managed to stay intact. The Opportunity Ticket passed. Barely.
Now imagine how a similar situation would play out in most American towns. Our suburban districts are growing increasingly Black and Brown. What’s the appetite for systemic upheaval there?
We keep reading and hearing that choosing anti-racism will be uncomfortable. That it should be hard, perhaps even painful. We tell ourselves we are ready to do the work.
I wonder how those parents who opposed the Opportunity Ticket feel now. Has the aftermath of George Floyd inspired them to take action to dismantle racist systems?
I certainly hope so. Because we’re going to need every single one of them if we are going to make the change our country and our children—all of our children—need.