White Parents Horrified by George Floyd Video Still Go to Great Lengths to Keep Their Children in Segregated Schools
One way to measure the depth of a particular element of structural racism is to check the burden of proof it takes to force the privileged to notice it. Structures are where racial injustice goes to hide. That is, most of the deep, systemic biases in American life are woven so deeply into the fabric of our daily lives that they’re not only beyond questioning, they’re beyond noticing.
These innocuous, neutral-seeming rules and norms — if an officer thinks you might have a weapon, he can pat your body — encode disparate, racist treatment of communities of color as “fair” and “normal.”
Consider: most white Americans have only recently begun to reflect on how police wield violence towards Black men. The burden of proof? Repeated video documentation of the problem, from Jacob Blake to Eric Garner to George Floyd (et al). That’s what it took for them — for us — to even begin to see it, even as the country waited some 11 hours to find out late Tuesday afternoon that a Minneapolis jury had found ex-police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts in Floyd’s murder.
What about in education? What might it take to alert the white and privileged to the profound inequities tilting the daily normal operation of public schools away from providing equitable opportunities to historically marginalized families? The data aren’t lacking. We know that our schools segregate students by race, class, language, and more. We know that this segregation facilitates a yawning funding gap privileging mostly white school districts. Perhaps most of all, we know that our system responds to the anxieties and preferences of privileged white families first — and all other stakeholders second.
A new report from the Brookings Institution reveals the depth of these systemic inequities. The study analyzed discussions of Washington, D.C. schools on a popular local discussion forum, “DC Urban Moms and Dads.” The largely anonymous online forum is ubiquitous in white D.C. parents’ discourse — it’s widely recognized as the place that hosts some of the city’s ugliest discussions of race, class, and schooling. Researchers Vanessa Williamson, Jackson Gode, and Hao Sun surveyed more than 400,000 forum messages across more than a decade of discussions.
What they found was — well, you be the judge. The forum is obsessed with real estate. Mentions of being “in-bound” for a neighborhood school “appeared in nearly two-thirds of all conversations in the forum,” that is, roughly 10,000 of the forum’s 15,000 schools conversations since 2008 included discussion of how to buy guaranteed access to particular schools. “In-bound” is the common term on the forum. Not coincidentally, “the zip codes most commonly referred to on DC Urban Moms are 20016, 20015, and 20007, the three most expensive zip codes in the District.”
As a result, the researchers write, “Within the DC Urban Moms’ forum much of the local school system is simply invisible; many schools are never discussed.” Within the pool of schools that are visible to the forum, those that get the most attention are disproportionately white and privileged. What’s more, these schools are generally discussed in terms of what they offer — services and extracurricular options, for instance — while some of the analysis found that conversations about less-discussed schools were more likely to center on student demographics.
So: is that shocking? In this deeply progressive city, where Joe Biden won more than 90 percent of the 2020 presidential vote, where Black Lives Matter signs, murals, and artwork are nearly as common as street signs, white parents are still grinding their gears to ensure that there are fewer Black people in their children’s lives.
I wasn’t surprised. I’m a white, middle-class D.C. dad, which means that I am already privy to these conversations, the ones that white people have when they think they’re unaccountable. I’ve written about these things for years. I’m not the only one.
But those of us sounding this alarm haven’t broken through. Most communities seem content to leave these educational inequities intact. Remember, that’s how we know that a bias is systemic. “Children who live in this neighborhood get to go to this neighborhood school” is innocuous enough. And yet, it lives atop a deep, broad legacy of race-driven policies that have established intergenerational wealth gaps and segregated housing and schools. In theory, anyone can buy access to a neighborhood school where housing for a two-child family runs at least $3,000 per month. In practice, that restricts access to a narrow band of wealthy — and disproportionately white — families.
Why can’t we confront the unjust systems that facilitate the toxic privileged behavior visible in tony enclaves like DC Urban Moms? It’s because structural racism in public education runs particularly deep. Consider: if (some) white Americans have learned to decry violent police acts that endanger — or end — Black lives, it’s still the case that the current moment in racial justice activism has not yet required much new behavior from most of us. We’ve been permitted to treat this as a movement exclusively about other white people.
But white supremacy is built into broader structures of American life and it’s daily reinforced by white choices. Schools are a central mechanism for its maintenance: If you are a white person who moved to a “nice,” mostly white, upper-middle class town or neighborhood “for the schools” (full of mostly white, upper-middle class children), for instance, you are following a well-trodden — but privileged — path. You are moving to a place where the schools are likely to be better funded and of a higher quality. You are weaving the thread of your family’s life into the United States’s social fabric and reinforcing its inequities.
Those comfortable choices and the structures that shaped and continue to reinforce them sustain American white supremacy. They keep Americans segregated from one another. They keep American schools, housing, society, and life unequal and inequitable and unjust. And they are much harder for most white Americans to notice, acknowledge, face, unpack, and reverse than clear acts of police brutality caught on video.
Not coincidentally, white Democrats are significantly less supportive than Black Democrats when it comes to major school integration policies, such as busing, or policies that give students access to public schools other than those their families can afford to purchase through the housing market.
D.C. isn’t unique. In almost every American community, white, middle-class progressives are unreliable allies when it comes to building affordable or public housing that might make their neighborhood schools more accessible to a wider range of diverse families. “I don’t want my kid to be an experiment,” write thousands of like-minded white parents on listservs in cities across the country, as they move to the whiter, wealthier neighborhoods nearby. “I couldn’t sacrifice my kid to my beliefs,” write thousands more. And thus, white supremacy will persist and continue threatening Black lives until white Americans actually turn and confront the perniciously hidden systems that keep us from including Black Americans in our daily lives.
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