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The Problem With ‘Nice White Parents’

New York Times serial podcast tells riveting story of white liberal hypocrisy and public education. But its 'blame whitey' focus leaves out crucial elements
Preteen schoolgirls waving from school bus

(Warning: long, digressive blog post ahead!)

When I saw that The New York Times was about to launch a five-part podcast serial titled “Nice White Parents”, my back went up. The line is sarcastic; the basic theme of the serial is that well-meaning white parents are why public education is not integrated and suffers from inequality. Progressives today give themselves permission to criticize white people in thoroughly racialized ways — ways that they would never, ever do to non-white people. You can speak of non-white people in racialized ways, but never to criticize them; only to speak of them in positive ways, or as the victims of white people. I deeply believe that The New York Times and other liberal-run institutions are promoting anti-white hatred.

However, I know the work of the reporter of the series, Chana Joffe-Walt, from her broadcasts on This American Life and Planet Money. She’s very good. Maybe the premise of her new series is racist, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be valuable insights in it. I’m the guy who is constantly telling his readers that it’s short-sighted and foolish to dismiss entire books and so forth because they may be morally problematic in one way. Knowing Joffe-Walt’s work in other areas, I figured that her serial would be a standard white liberal  take — there’s no way the Times would have published it to their site if it in any way contradicted the acceptable left-liberal racial line — but I also figured that there would be some important insights in it.

I was right about both.

I am not much of a podcast listener. I have waited a few weeks to allow the episodes (released weekly) to accumulate, hoping that there would be transcripts I could read instead of having to commit myself to five hours of listening. I checked in today, and saw that the four available episodes do have transcripts. Episode Five will be out next week. Still, I have enough information based on what’s been broadcast and posted to form an opinion.

Let me say here at the outset that even though I have sharp disagreements with Joffe-Walt’s conclusions, and see shortcomings in her reporting — I’ll be getting into that below — I strongly encourage you to read and/or listen to “Nice White Parents.” It’s genuinely textured and thoughtful, and she explores important and difficult questions. Note well that her target is not white conservatives. It’s white liberals. And she’s often right.

Joffe-Walt (henceforth in this blog entry, “CJW”) begins by talking about being a Brooklyn mom out to tour public schools, to see which ones they would be willing to send their kids to in the fall. She says:

I’d show up in the lobby of the school at the time listed on the website, look around, and notice that all or almost all of the other parents who’d shown up for the 11:00 AM, middle-of-the-workday, early-in-the-shopping-season school tour were other white parents. As a group, we’d walk the halls, following a school administrator — almost always a man or woman of color — through a school full of black and brown kids. We’d peer into classroom windows, watch the kids sit in a circle on the rug, ask questions about the lunch menu, homework policy, discipline. Some of us would take notes. And the administrators would sell. The whole thing was essentially a pitch. We offer STEM. We have a partnership with Lincoln Center. We have a dance studio. They were pleading with us to please take part in this public school. I don’t think I’ve ever felt my own consumer power more viscerally than I did shopping for a public school as a white parent. We were entering schools that people like us had ignored for decades. They were not our places, but we were being invited to make them ours. The whole thing was made so much more awkward by the fact that nobody on those tours ever acknowledged the obvious racial difference, that roughly 100% of the parents in this group did not match, say, 90% of the kids in this building.

What’s that all about? She goes on:

I knew the schools were segregated. I shouldn’t have been surprised. By the time I was touring schools as a parent, I had spent a fair amount of time in schools as a reporter. I’d done stories on the stark inequality in public education. And I’d looked at some of the many programs and reforms we’ve tried to fix our schools. So many ideas. We’ve tried standardized tests and charter schools. We’ve tried smaller classes, longer school days, stricter discipline, looser discipline, tracking, differentiation. We’ve decided the problem is teachers, the problem is parents. What is true about almost all of these reforms is that when we look for what’s broken, for how our schools are failing, we focus on who they’re failing — poor kids, black kids, and brown kids. We ask, why aren’t they performing better? Why aren’t they achieving more? Those are not the right questions. There is a powerful force that is shaping our public schools, arguably the most powerful force. It’s there even when we pretend not to notice it, like on that school tour. If you want to understand why our schools aren’t better, that’s where you have to look. You have to look at white parents.

If that sounds racist to you, well, I would agree. CJW says the general crappiness of the schools is the fault of white parents. This is the bog-standard liberal stance: that non-whites are not responsible, that they can only be acted upon, never actors in the dramas of their lives. Nevertheless, CJW goes on to explain the role that white parents have played historically in New York City’s public schools — and it’s a really interesting story. If she had simply said, “If you want to understand one important reason why our schools aren’t better…,” that would have been more accurate and not at all racist.

What CJW tells is a story about race, class, and public life. It’s about culture clash. One fish bone in my throat that prevented me from swallowing all of this is knowing that we will never, ever hear or read a similar story examining the role of cultural norms and habits among blacks, Latinos, Asians — and all of those of different economic classes — in making the public education system what it is. I want my liberal readers to understand that this is a big reason why white conservatives react defensively to this kind of criticism. We know that we are being held to a different standard — that these interrogations are always designed not to discover why bad things are the way they are, but rather why white people are guilty of making them the way they are. “Nice White Parents” is a great example of biased liberal journalism in this way.

But sometimes white people really are guilty in some ways, even without meaning to be.

(This post continues on at great length. I’m going to insert a jump here, because if you don’t want to read it, I don’t want you have have to scroll forever to get to the next one.)

It’s hard to listen to the first episode of CJW’s series without sympathizing with the non-white people in this particular Brooklyn school, called at the time her reporting begins (2015) the School For International Studies (SIS). The school is located on the border of the Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill neighborhoods. Cobble Hill is a very nice, storybook Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood. In fact, my wife and I lived there with our baby from 1999 to 2003, and loved it. We could never afford to live there now. You have to be wealthy to afford it. It is mostly white, and if you’re non-white and live there, it’s because the house was passed down through your family, or you’re also well to do.

Court Street is the dividing line between Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill. Boerum Hill is home to the Gowanus Houses, a housing project filled with black and brown residents. The Gowanus Projects are violent and dangerous; here’s a 2014 story from the New York Daily News about them. SIS is only a few blocks away from the Gowanus Houses, and just off of Court Street, which makes it close to where all the well-off white people of Cobble Hill live.

Back in 2015, very few white families sent their children to SIS. That changed that year when one white parent decided to campaign among his white neighbors for people to start sending their kids to SIS. The reason was “diversity,” but some nonwhites involved in the school saw it as “gentrification.”

And, here we go. This is one of those “white people can’t win” stories. If you don’t get involved, you’re being racist. If you do get involved, then you’re a gentrifier. The thing is, the white people really did steamroll over others in the school. They started raising money for programs at the school (e.g., French language) that other white people valued. They started going around the school’s leadership to do this. You get the impression from CJW’s story that the white people didn’t intend to be obnoxious; they were just doing what upper middle class white people do. But they were greatly resented by the non-whites in that school’s community, especially when the story got around the school that SIS was a crappy school until the white people showed up to make it better.

It’s easy to see why the non-whites would be offended by this display of power. It’s also easy to see why the whites would not have recognized why their behavior was resented. We are talking here about a big culture clash, having to do more with class than race, but encompassing both. Still, it can’t be boiled down to one or the other.

An aside that I think will shed some light: I’m thinking about my own unhappy experience moving back to Louisiana in 2011 after my sister died, and discovering abruptly that my father and my late sister had raised my sister’s children to resent me and my wife as rich city people. We were not rich, but we had lived in big cities, and had big city ways. They interpreted that as a moral fault, and resented not that we were trying to impose our ways on them, but that we were different. The fact of difference brought out a lot of buried resentment. It had nothing to do with race (we were all white, and were in fact family), and it really didn’t have anything to do with money. Nor did it have anything to do with politics: all of us were conservative.

It was all about personal culture: we were the cosmopolitans, and our existence was, in their eyes, a form of judgment. An example that seems trivial, but isn’t: When I got an advance for a book, I set some aside to take my wife and kids to France for a month. It was a dream for me. I have never had the money to do anything like that, nor have I had the money since then. But we did in that moment, and having seen with my sister’s early demise from a fatal disease, I felt strongly that we should do something big like that with our kids while we had the opportunity. It was not cheap, but again, we could afford it at the time.

My father judged me harshly for that. It was the kind of thing big-city la-tee-da people would do. The thing is, my late sister and her husband had once bought a vacation trailer that they used to hook to his pick-up and go camping with their children and their friends. They had so much fun building family memories doing that. Thing is, that trailer cost as much, and maybe even a little more, than my family’s vacation to France. But because buying a trailer and going camping in Louisiana is something my dad understood that normal people do, he would have been happy for us had we spent the money on that. We could have afforded two weeks at Disneyworld in Florida for what that month in Paris cost us — and if we had chosen to do that with the kids, my dad would have been thrilled. As it was, he chastised me for forcing the kids to go on a vacation that he was sure they wouldn’t enjoy. (They did, in fact, have a great time.)

I bring this up simply to point out that it is true that white people with money can steamroll over those who are not white, and/or don’t have money. But it is also true that non-white and/or non-wealthy people can be nasty and judgmental, acting out of their resentments and insecurities. These are complex issues.

In any case, in the specific example CJW reports, I strongly sympathize with the non-white people. The well-off white people behaved pretty badly. I’m not going to go too much into it because I want you to listen to or read the thing yourself, but I can tell you that they were appallingly arrogant, and brought contempt upon themselves. CJW says, reflecting on the history of NYC public schools:

It happens again and again, white parents wielding their power without even noticing, like a guy wandering through a crowded store with a huge backpack, knocking things over every time he turns.

It wasn’t until the second episode that I realized that the school she’s talking about was the one whose students we used to encounter on Court Street when we would be out pushing the baby in the stroller in the afternoons. We quickly figured out that you did not want to be on Court Street at dismissal time. The kids would come tearing down the sidewalk in large groups, hollering and carrying on and acting as if they did not see anybody else on the street. There were a fair number of moms with babies in strollers in that neighborhood back then. If you had a kid that you were walking in a stroller, you came to understand that you didn’t want to be on Court Street then, because you were invisible to those kids. The fact that these kids were all black or brown meant that none of us nice white parents spoke of it. But we all acted on the thing we could not admit to ourselves.

So, it turns out that SIS — which was called something else back then — used to be I.S. 293. CJW finds a bunch of letters from 1963, in which white parents wrote to the NYC education department demanding an integrated school in that neighborhood. Yet when I.S. 293 opened in 1968, not one of those white parents sent their kids to school there. 

The most powerful part of this entire series is CJW calling out white liberal New Yorkers from the 1960s, on the subject of why their leaders said all the politically correct things — they were not like those terrible Southerners and their segregated schools, they would have you know — while behaving in ways that weren’t so different from the way white Southerners did.

Why didn’t those nice white liberal parents send their kids to I.S. 293 in 1968? Excerpt:

Chana Joffe-Walt

What to make of that? When you get what you say you want and then, given the opportunity, don’t take it. Maybe you never really wanted it in the first place. Then I spoke to Elaine Hencke. Of all the people I spoke with, everything about Elaine indicated someone who did believe in integration, someone who would send her kids to 293. And yet, she didn’t. Elaine was a public school teacher. She taught in an integrated elementary school, until she had her own kids. She was looking forward to sending them to an integrated 293. When her daughter was old enough for junior high school, Elaine visited the school. She was the only letter writer I spoke with who actually went into the building. If this was going to work with anyone, it was going to be Elaine.

Elaine Hencke

I didn’t know quite what to make of it because the school had a nice plant. Physically, it was a nice school. But it just seemed chaotic and noisy, and kids were disruptive. And kids — [LAUGHS] — kids were doing the wrong things, you know? And kids do. I mean, it wasn’t that they were nasty kids or doing — it was not drugs. It was not drugs. It was just — it just seemed too chaotic to me at the time.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Elaine and I talked for a long time I pushed her — not to make her feel bad, but to get to what felt like a more real answer. At the time that you are visiting, was it majority Black and Hispanic kids?

Elaine Hencke

Yes, I’m sure it was.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And did that have anything to do with the way that you saw the classroom as disruptive and chaotic?

Elaine Hencke

I would hope not.

I’m not — I’m not sure how well educated they were, or — you know, I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m going into this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

 Well, did you have reason to think that they weren’t well educated?

Elaine Hencke

Before 293? Well, their reading levels were way down. You know.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I’m just — when you say chaos and disruptive, I’m trusting that what you saw was chaotic and disruptive. But I also know that those are words white people use — we use to express our racial fears, to express real racial fears. Do you think that’s what was happening with you?

CJW continues:

I think what Elaine actually meant was not that she was innocent, but that she was naive. She was naive about the reality of segregation, the harm of it. And naive about what it would take to undo it. She did not know. And I think she didn’t want to know. When Elaine said the word innocent, I felt a jolt of recognition. I felt like Elaine had walked me right up to the truth about her, and about me.

Whoa, stop right there! Remember what I just told you about chaos on Court Street? The fact that those kids were non-white did not change the fact that they were acting like lunatics. Had they been white, my opinion would not have changed.

But there are different forms of disorder. Around the same time — 2000-2001 — I remember standing with my wife and our baby in the stroller, on the corner of Court Street and Congress Street, at the edge of the neighborhood. It was an autumn day. A middle-aged white woman stopped to admire our baby. Because this was New York, she asked us where we were planning to send him to school (he was one year old at the time). We told her that we weren’t sure, but we were pretty confident that we were going to homeschool him.

That woman got real judgey, real fast. She said something about crazy Christian fundamentalists, and how she hoped we weren’t people like that. Then she talked about her teenage son, who was a student at St. Ann’s, the fancy, very expensive private school on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, the next neighborhood over. She talked about how he was a total pothead, and how awful the culture in that school was — privileged permissive parents, basically. She couldn’t stand what it had done to her son — yet she was really worried that we were going to mess up our boy with homeschooling. For whatever reason (I can’t remember if she said), the white woman and her husband did not choose to put their son in public school. Maybe they thought it would be disordered. Yet there was a form of disorder that they were prepared to live with: the disorder of the permissive pothead teenage culture of the upper middle class. People like them.

Was that choice a matter of race? Or of class? Does it make a difference?

Maybe there was something truly valuable about St. Ann’s. If you look at the website today, the course offerings are fantastic. I would expect it was equally appealing twenty years ago. Maybe the quality and breadth of the instruction made it worth putting up with the garbage culture at that school. I don’t know. I do know that that woman sounded really sad and depressed over her son’s experience, but there was also a tone in her voice that said, what else were we supposed to do?

Anyway, Chana Joffe-Walt puts her finger on a truth that discomfits lots of liberals. She talks about how she sent her kids to a racially and economically diverse public school in Brooklyn, one that allowed parents to go to the school program and see all the different kids together on stage singing. She goes on:

And it’s dangerous, I think, this picture of integration. It seems perfectly designed to preserve my innocence, to make me comfortable, not to remedy inequality, but a way to bypass it entirely. I can sit in that assembly and feel good about the gauzy display of integration without ever being asked to think about the fact that much of the time, white kids in the school building are having a different educational experience than kids of color. A large share of the white students at the school are clustered in a gifted program. They have separate classrooms and separate teachers. We all blithely call these white children gifted and talented, G&T, starting at four years old. White children are performing better at the school than black children and Latino children.

White families are the loudest and most powerful voices in the building. The advantages white kids had back in the 1950s, they’re still in place. When Elaine said she was innocent, I thought about the things we say, nice, white parents, to each other about why we won’t send our kids to segregated schools — because they’re too strict, or too chaotic, or too disruptive. Because the test scores are bad, because we want more play. We want fewer worksheets. Because we don’t want to ride a bus. We don’t want uniforms. We don’t want tests. We want innocence. We need it, to protect us from the reality that we are the ones creating the segregation, and we’re not sure we’re ready to give it up.

Ah. This reminds me of a big controversy over a column I wrote 15 or so years ago in Dallas, about a local public high school that white parents prided themselves on sending their kids to instead of doing like many other white parents, and sending their kids to private or religious school. A Latino man who was involved with the school — I forget what he did there — told me that it ticked him off that so many white liberals took such satisfaction in themselves over sending their kids to that school, because in truth, almost all of the white kids were in de facto segregated classes, though under the same roof as black and Latino kids. What he meant was that the white kids, all middle class, were typically put into “gifted” classes, where they could take advantage of the fact that they were much better prepared for school than minority kids. You can imagine how popular that column was. Me, I didn’t care where people sent their kids to school, but as someone whose kids were being homeschooled, I had little patience with the sneering that some liberal white parents who chose public school directed at those who did not.

So, look, CJW finds one of the parents who had written to the Board of Education back in the 1960s asking for an integrated school … but then chose not to put her kids in it. This is fascinating:

Chana Joffe-Walt

Carol is the woman who wrote the letter about how she’d come to New York City from the suburbs for integration. I had a hard time reconciling her lack of piety with her letter, which I read back to her, about wanting her kids to mix freely with children of other classes and races. [READING] — which we were not able to provide for them when we lived in the Westchester suburb.

Carol Netzer

That was all true. Yeah, yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You remember feeling that way?

Carol Netzer

Well, I don’t really remember feeling that way. And I think that we say a lot of things that are politically correct, without even realizing that we are not telling exactly how we feel. So I can’t really guarantee that it was 100% the way I felt. I don’t really remember. Probably close to it, but I mean, I’m a liberal, you know?

More:

Chana Joffe-Walt

As a parent, did you — do you remember feeling like, I hope my kid has experiences outside of just people like them?

Carol Netzer

Not especially. I mean, we rushed right away to send them to private school, right? So what was most important to us was that they get the best education. But one of the things that changed it was St. Anne’s School, a sort of progressive school with this man, headmaster, who was brilliant. Opened up St. Anne’s. And if you keep working on this, you’ll hear a lot about St. Anne’s.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I’m not going to tell you a lot about St. Anne’s, except to say this — it’s one of the most prominent private schools in Brooklyn. Upscale neighborhood, prime real estate, lots of heavy-hitters send their kids to St. Anne’s. I had heard of it. What I didn’t know is that St. Anne’s opened at the very same time that Black parents were waging their strongest fight for integration in New York City, in 1965. Right when a lot of the letter writers would have been looking for schools. And it wasn’t just St. Anne’s. New progressive private schools were opening and expanding all over the city. Brooklyn Friends School expanded into a new building, and would double its enrollment. They were opening private schools in the South, too. But down there, it was all very explicit. They became known as quote, unquote, “segregation academies,” schools for white people who were wholeheartedly committed to avoiding integration. In the North, private schools opened as if they were completely disconnected from everything else that was happening at that very moment. St. Anne’s marketed itself as a pioneer, a community of like-minded, gifted kids, no grades. Lots of talk about progressive, child-centered education, the whole child. At one point in my conversation with Carol Netzer I was talking about how integration was happening around his time. And she surprised me by saying, no, not at that time.

Wow, wow, wow. St. Ann’s: the place the mother of the pothead sent her kid. It was really progressive, and really expensive. Today, St. Ann’s doesn’t post its tuition on its website, but the most recent numbers I could find, for the 2017-18 school year, says it cost $45,000 for a year of high school there. I recall the numbers being comparable twenty years ago, when we lived in the neighborhood. I had no idea about the back story of St. Ann’s, and no clue that schools like that could be thought of as segregation academies for rich white New York liberals!

Again, I don’t really care where you send your kids to school. I’m happy to argue the merits of one form of education over others, but in the end, most people who care about their kids’ education choose what they believe is the best possible option for their family. I really appreciate how CJW points out in her piece how liberals can hide their own motives from themselves in these cases.

Funny, but when we lived in Brooklyn, we were Catholic, and worshiped weekly at the Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) cathedral, which was pretty much across Montague Street from St. Ann’s. I guess we wouldn’t have been considered “diverse” by the St. Ann’s crowd, because we were conservative white people who planned to homeschool our kid. But there we were every week, one of a handful of Anglo-Saxon faces in that church, praying partly in Syriac, and loving the people at that parish. We even named our second child after the sainted Lebanese monsignor there.

One more quote from CJW, in that episode:

Here is what I think happened over those five years between the writing of the letters in 1963 and not sending their kids to the school in 1968. Those five years were a battle between the Board of Education’s definition of integration and the actual integration that black parents wanted. For black parents, integration was about safe schools for their children, with qualified teachers and functioning toilets, a full day of school. For them, integration was a remedy for injustice. The Board of Ed, though, took that definition and retooled it. Integration wasn’t a means to an end. It was about racial harmony and diversity. The Board spun integration into a virtue that white parents could feel good about. And their side triumphed. That’s the definition of integration that stuck, that’s still with us today.

Episode Three begins by talking about that same school on Court Street — the one that was built in 1968 — was in the first few decades a largely segregated school. I.S. 293, as it was called then, was not far from the projects. Few white people sent their kids there. The teachers were almost all white.

CJW talks to a man named Norm Fruchter, who was on the school board back then. He tells her that both white and black families were fleeing the city in the 1970s, but the board was preoccupied with white flight. The presence of white students in a school was seen as a sign of a school’s quality. Excerpt

Chana Joffe-Walt

Their solution? A gifted program.

Norm Fruchter

The district started the program explicitly to maintain a white population.

Chana Joffe-Walt

That was the explicit goal?

Norm Fruchter

That was explicit because the unspoken assumption of the administration in our district and every district was that if you had a gifted program, it would attract white parents.

Chana Joffe-Walt

To get into gifted programs, you had to take a test. Gifted kids would be taught in separate classrooms. They opened gifted programs in select elementary schools. And a new gifted program opened in a different middle school, a school called M.S. 51. This is part of what the people at I.S. 293 were seeing. Their strongest students were being siphoned off. White parents, even when they were not inside 293, were beginning to change the school.

 

Ah ha! Remember the school in Dallas I told you about? That’s how it works.

Nadine Jackson is a black woman who went to I.S. 293, which had no gifted program, though she would surely have qualified for one if they had. When the school band went to perform at a nearby middle school — one with a gifted program — she was stunned by how much better things were for the students there:

Nadine Jackson

Then it’s like, oh, my goodness, the way that students carry themselves was different, as if they knew something that we didn’t know. Like, they had a secret we didn’t know of. And when were we going to find out?

More CJW:

In the 1980s when the district started grading specialized programs at other schools, I.S. 293 parents fought back. But Norm Fruchter, the school board member, told me once the gifted programs were in place, they were there to stay. The board was serving a constituency of white parents who believed their kids deserved a program to serve their unique needs. And he says, those parents wielded tremendous power.

Norm Fruchter

There were huge pitch fights in the school board meetings whenever we put a resolution on the agenda to change the gifted program. They could mobilize 500 people for a meeting. So you could fill an elementary school auditorium with gifted program parents, or, as we used to say the district, gifted parents, as if somehow the —

Chana Joffe-Walt

The giftedness got passed up toward them?

Norm Fruchter

Yeah. And they called themselves that as well. And one of the many things they argued was that it was important to maintain the white population in the gifted program in order to have some semblance of integration in the schools, and that there were benefits that would flow from the gifted program to the rest of the school.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Who argued that? The parents?

Norm Fruchter

Yes.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The gifted parents?

Norm Fruchter

Yeah. Yeah. [LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

They argued that the gifted program, designed to serve white families, was actually an integration program, when, in fact, it was a separate track in the school that kept Black and brown kids from resources from special programs, which is what segregation was designed to do — to separate. This was its latest adaptation, and it wasn’t the last. 

(I hope by now you are seeing why even though I, as a conservative, fundamentally reject some of the premises of Chana Joffe-Walt’s series, it really is worth listening to and interacting with.)

So, in 1994, there was another attempt by white parents to turn that school into a Showcase of Diversity™. They called the proposed new school-within-a-school the Brooklyn School for Global Studies, and housed it in the basement of I.S. 293. It was clearly an attempt to curate diversity to make it acceptable to white middle and upper-middle class liberals.

Nadine Jackson

One day it was like, you’re going to get another school in your building. And we were like, how is that possible? Where? How? We only have three floors, and it’s barely enough for us.

And:

Nadine Jackson

You’re in our lunchroom. You’re in our gym. You’re in our school yard. And it was like, where did these people come from? Where did the school come from? How was this even possible? This is our school. This is our neighborhood. How dare you?

Totally. I totally get that. How could Nadine Jackson have felt otherwise?

And guess what? Judi Aronson, one of the white parents who was the biggest forces to create Brooklyn Global Studies, did not send her own kids there! 

Judi Aronson

Oh, my god, the school ran into a lot of problems. There were too many challenges. The kids were difficult the teachers had issues. None of us sent our kids there.

CJW says:

This is not entirely true. I did speak with one parent from the planning committee who sent her son to Global Studies. Although, she said when they showed up in September, it looked to her like he was the only white boy in the school. She said he had a good experience there. Judi decided what was best for her kids was something else.

In an effort to appease white parents, the school district had once again made a choice that sidelined 293. White parents had said jump, so the district jumped. And now they were left trying to fill the school for Global Studies, a school that had no obvious constituency. Most of the parents who created it didn’t send their kids, and the neighborhood kids already had a school — I.S. 293. This meant, to fill Global Studies, the district had to find kids who weren’t happy at their schools, or kids whose schools weren’t unhappy with them. Or they had to bank on families randomly applying to a school they’d never heard of.

Excerpt from her interview:

Judi Aronson

It’s one thing if a student says, I want to go to this school because this is what I’m passionate about. OK? But that did not happen. So it became a place where they placed kids that were difficult. They were challenging — very, very challenging.

Chana Joffe-Walt

They were acting out when they showed up?

Judi Aronson

Yes.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Well, they were in a school that wasn’t designed for them.

Judi Aronson

That’s true, 100% true.

And then, says CJW:

Within six or seven years, most of the original Global Studies staff had left, including the principal. Within a decade, nobody knew why the school was called Global Studies in the first place. Global Studies became a regular segregated public school, which shared a building with another segregated public school.

Here’s CJW’s conclusion:

I.S. 293 was a mostly segregated school for decades. And still, it was subject to the whims of white parents. Nice white parents shape public schools even in our absence because public schools are maniacally loyal to white families even when that loyalty is rarely returned back to the public schools. Just the very idea of us, the threat of our displeasure, warps the whole system. So separate is still not equal because the power sits with white parents no matter where we are in the system. I think the only way you equalize schools is by recognizing this fact and trying wherever possible to suppress the power of white parents. Since no one’s forcing us to give up power. We white parents are going to have to do it voluntarily. Which, yeah, how’s that going to happen?

There are some assumptions buried in that statement, and some things she’s not considering (like class and culture), but I’m going to hold off on talking about them for a second. Let’s first go quickly through the fourth episode of “Nice White Parents.”

CJW begins by talking about the democratic narrative that we tell ourselves about what America is. Then:

This vision of public schools, the same one laid out 100 years earlier by the founder of American public schools Horace Mann is that America and democracy cannot survive without public education. We need common schools where rich and poor come together to solve problems, generate fellow feeling. Public schools, the great equalizer.

But I have made my way through the history of one modern American public school. And from what I can see, white parents are standing in the way of achieving this vision. Our schools are not an equalizing force, because white parents take them over and hoard resources. We’re not learning how to live together as one society because white parents flee or cordon themselves off in special gifted programs. Even when we’re not in the school building, funding and attention still slide our way. So I don’t see how it’s possible to have equal public schools, common schools that serve every child, unless we limit the power of white parents.

But how do we do that? In all my reporting around this one school building from 2015 all the way back to the beginning, I’ve never seen that happen. And then I did.

More:

Recently, I’ve come across two examples of schools that seem to be suppressing the power of white parents, two examples I found in the very last place I expected, in the I.S. 293 building, one upstairs and one downstairs. So today’s episode, what does it look like to limit the power of white parents in schools? And does it work? Does it lead to an equal education for everyone?

CJW talks about a charter school that opened in the basement of I.S. 293 (where the old Brooklyn Global Studies school was). It’s part of a chain called Success Academies. Its model is highly regimented and highly disciplined. Success Academy Cobble Hill, as this branch is called, is one-quarter white, and, in CJW’s view, limits the power of white parents. How does it do that? “By limiting the power of all parents,” she says.

Success Academy Cobble Hill doesn’t really want parents to get involved in the running of the school. In fact, they issue parents report cards on how well they are participating in supporting their kid’s education. If kids act up, they’re suspended, no matter what their race. Success runs a very tight ship. If parents want to raise money for the school, they’re told that the money will be evenly distributed among the 47 schools in the NYC Success Academies network. If they want special programs at Success Academy Cobble Hill, they’re told sorry, the curriculum is what it is, and it’s not going to change.

CJW talks to a white mom from the neighborhood who sends her kids to Success:

It was in our neighborhood. But more importantly, we toured so many schools, public, private, parochial. We were slated for 58, which is an excellent school. And we did get in there. But Success was head and above any school I’d seen, just the level of excellence. And yeah, nothing matched it. The test scores — almost every parent I spoke with said they were initially drawn to Success Academy because of the excellent test scores. If your measure of success in school is standardized tests — and at Success Academy, it is — this is one of the best schools in the city. The scores are truly remarkable. Success Academy students perform twice as well on state tests as regular New York City public school kids. The vast majority of Success kids pass the tests, 95%, 97%. In your average city public schools, it’s less than half. And even more impressive, to me at least, is that the kids at Success are doing well on tests no matter if they’re poor, or rich, or Black, or Latino, or Asian, or white. This is the problem that decades of public education reforms have tried to address, the achievement gap. Success Academy was pulling off, not only an integrated school, but an equal integrated school that was closing the achievement gap.

The way Success achieves equality though, some things give me pause.

Like what? The military-like discipline there. CJW says:

I had a thought walking through Success. I suspected that the strict classroom control was partly what made white parents feel comfortable at Success Academy. I’m speculating here. None of the white parents I spoke with told me they chose Success because the school polices Black and brown students so well. And I don’t believe this is a conscious thought for anyone. But I do know that white parents bring plenty of unconscious biases to public schools with Black and brown kids, fears that the classrooms will be chaotic, or not challenging, that the kids will be disorderly or threatening. White parents worry that our kids will be harmed. Success Academy completely controls for these fears. Everyone gets excellent test scores. There’s no room for misbehavior, no risk of disruption because there are no idle moments.

Here we arrive at a very important point. Earlier, CJW said something that’s crucially significant to understanding how liberals see these issues:

Education people talk a lot about the difference between equality and equity to a point that I believe is tiresome. But I thought about this difference a lot at Success. Equality means everyone gets the same thing. Equity means everyone gets what they need. Success is equal. Everyone is treated the same. But kids are never all the same.

Success Academies is thoroughly egalitarian in how it runs its schools, and again, is highly disciplined. Yet liberals like CJW complain, because (I think) they have a problem with authority. 

And, CJW assumes that it is false that classrooms with Black and brown kids might be “chaotic, or not challenging, that the kids will be disorderly or not threatening.” But what if it’s true? Might it be true? The unquestioned assumption she makes is the standard Critical Race Theory axiom that any disparity in outcomes between whites and non-whites is the fault of white supremacy. If, for example, black kids are more rambunctious in class than white kids, and get suspended more, that is the fault of white supremacy.

In fact, I have had long conversations with white liberal friends who teach in all-minority urban public schools, and who have said that the chaos in the classroom is the hardest thing to deal with (and hard for them to deal with as liberals, as it challenges their own biases). One white secular liberal friend in Dallas decided after several years of teaching in an all-minority middle school, that he would not send his daughter to public schools when she got old enough for school. Why not? He said the constant sexualization of girls by the dominant peer culture there was horrifying.

I’ve mentioned in this space before sitting in on an editorial board meeting in Dallas during election season, with school board candidates for office in the poorest school district of the city. It was all black and Latino. The longtime incumbent, a black man, defended the poor test scores of schools in his district by telling us on the board — all of us middle class, most of us white — that we didn’t understand how chaotic the home lives of these students are. Most of them are poor. Many have only one parent in the home. In two-parent homes, both parents are often working long hours, and can’t be as hands-on with their kids as middle-class parents can be. This is what the black school board member said. I believed him. He was talking about class and culture, and how it affected the ability of the students in his district to do well in school.

Man, the folks on our editorial board were really mad at that guy. Considered him to be an excuse-maker for failure. And maybe he was — I know he had a reputation as a deadhead. But he was also telling us middle class people a story that we didn’t want to hear. We wanted to believe that with the right mixture of policies, the problem of bad schools in poor neighborhoods could be solved. Public policy cannot fix problematic cultures, and besides, nobody wanted even to consider that there were deep faults within the cultures of those families and communities — faults that made it harder for their kids to get an education.

If you read J.D. Vance’s monster bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, you know that this is not a race thing, but a class thing. Vance’s white childhood was quite chaotic. His parents were divorced, his mom was addicted to drugs, and so forth. The only reason he got anywhere in school, he writes, was because of his maternal grandmother, who did the very best she could to impose discipline on his studies. He writes that it wasn’t until he joined the US Marine Corps, and had discipline imposed on him, that he realized how much he could do and how far he could go with internal self-discipline.

Discipline really matters to me. I was bullied for two and a half years in school. It’s the main reason why, when I had a chance to leave that school, I took it without a second thought. My bullies, in point of fact, were not only white, but also socially elite. After nine weeks at my new school, I paid a visit to a favorite teacher at my old school, and sat in on one of her classes. I was stunned by how much time and effort she had to spend to make the kids be quiet. Black kids and white kids both. And this was a good school! I had been in her class two years earlier. I had had nothing to compare it to until then.

My new school was a residential school for gifted kids. Teachers never had to tell their students to be quiet and pay attention. It made a huge difference in learning. What’s more, it made a big difference to me not to have to walk down the hallways of the school being on defense all the time, waiting for the shove, or the insult, that I knew was coming. As my editors well know, I am a rather undisciplined person, so a school like Success Academy would not have been an easy fit for me. But the fact that the discipline there makes it a safe place to be would have made it really attractive to me as a student.

I bet those poor black and Latino kids in those crummy Dallas schools would do really well in a Success Academy model, with strict discipline, because it compensates for the lack of discipline at home. But that might not be enough for Chana Joffe-Walt, who says:

Success operates on the principle that with rigor and discipline uniformly applied, all students will achieve equally well. It’s a tempting vision, especially coming from upstairs, where the power of white parents seem to have no bounds. But equality does not necessarily shift the balance of power. White parents aren’t running the show here, but Success is run by a white C.E.O and a board that includes millionaire hedge fund managers — sorry, billionaire hedge fund managers. The board of trustees is listed on the success website. And the bios include Maverick Capital, Redwood Capital, Glenview Capital, Cumulus Media, Morgan Stanley, Facebook, Arnold & Porter. This is not exactly a disruption to the social order, is all I’m saying. You can limit the day-to-day influence of white parents. But still, rich white people control the agenda, the priorities, and the money.

Oh for pity’s sake, really? Here is a public charter school that is integrated, majority-minority, and has terrific test scores, and is doing everything that Chana Joffe-Walt wants schools to do — and she is going to find fault with the race and class composition of its board leadership? You cannot win with today’s liberals. You truly cannot.

And get this:

This past spring, a Black teacher at Success Academy named Fabiola St Hillaire publicly criticized the C.E.O. for not taking a stand after the murder of George Floyd, or acknowledging the effect police violence was having on the families and communities Success serves. After that, more staff, families, and alumni raised alarms about Success, calling some of its practices racist and abusive, its discipline policies, the way white staff and leadership speak to kids and parents of color. In response, the C.E.O. apologized, and Success has released a plan that commits to mandatory bias and sensitivity training for staff. The plan says they will create an Equity Team and review their culture, their relationships with staff, and families, and kids with quote, “an attention and sensitivity to race.”

Great, so now liberals are going to ruin that school too.

That’s not how CJW sees it. In fact, she says that the upstairs school in the same building — once called the School for International Studies, but now called the Boerum Hill School for International Studies — had adopted an attractive model that centers race and equity. CJW:

And one of the most striking changes I noticed — spend 10 minutes of the school, and you can’t not notice — [the new principal] Miss Lanzillatto is talking directly and constantly about race and equity. She told me everyone here needs to be on alert for racist habits and ideas. They need to aggressively address them, whenever they pop up, in the cafeteria, in the classroom.

More:

Coming back to equity. I could not get over how much time and energy the school puts into ensuring equity, not equality, equity. It’s almost like the obsessive focus Success puts on making sure everything is the same is exactly matched by the obsessive focus BHS just puts on recognizing everyone is not the same. BHS formed an Equity Committee of staff and students a few years ago. They looked for bias in the curriculum, in the signs on their walls and the books on their shelves. They analyzed achievement data, discipline data, where they could clearly see that the school punished Black boys more harshly than other students. So they revamped their entire approach to discipline, created a restorative Justice Department. They applied for grants to help pay for this to train their teachers on implicit bias and then train them again. They brought in experts.

This sounds horrible, frankly. CJW gives an example of what this means in practice. One teacher observes that a white student, when she finished a math project, looked to two nearby white boys instead of to the black boy on her other side. “So my teacher self is like, OK, does this child not participate in class, and she doesn’t trust that he knows what he’s doing, or is it because she doesn’t see him because he’s a Black boy and she figures he’s not capable?”

They go on and on talking about this, the teachers. Later, there’s a meeting at the school called “Family Academy,” but those who show up are mostly white parents. An assistant principal tells them all:

And our white kids overall said it feels like I’m in a Benetton ad, and it’s so diverse, and lovely, and I’m not experiencing racism, or racial bias, or implicit bias here at school. It’s great. And our kids of color were saying, they feel less loved, less seen. They talked — though they didn’t use this language, they talked about stereotype threat, they talked about implicit bias. They talked about moments with white peers that were uncomfortable, where a friendship felt a little strained. And it was clear to them that their white friend just didn’t — did not have bad intentions, loved them, good friend, but didn’t know the harm that they were creating, and just didn’t have the same knowledge base that they had about race and about racial consciousness. I want to just make sure, because it’s for whatever reason — I don’t know why — sometimes we think that things are better than they are. I just wanted to come back to our students. They are reporting that this is urgent, and we need to continue to deal with it. And it’s not a Benetton ad, even if some of our kiddos think it is.

Notice the obsessively therapeutic approach here. The school considers it a top priority to deal with the feelings of nonwhite students who have “moments with white peers” that are “uncomfortable” and “a little strained.” The students of color don’t even blame the white kids for having bad intentions. They blame them for … what, exactly? At what point does it become ridiculous for a school to fall all over itself to eliminate anxieties in its students? People are people, and are going to have to learn to deal with anxieties over race, class, politics, religion, and all kinds of things that separate us. Why is it a crisis for the school? Why do the inner lives of the students of color revolve around what their white classmates might be thinking internally, even though the students of color recognize that the white kids don’t have bad intentions?

Chana Joffe-Walt finds the strict discipline of the school downstairs to be off-putting, but I would a thousand times rather have that than the obsessive disciplining of inner thoughts that seems to be the prime directive of the upstairs school. Here we see a pretty good illustration of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. The downstairs school, Success Academy, is an authoritarian place. Its leaders don’t care what you’re thinking inside, as long as you behave yourself and perform acceptably in the classroom. Upstairs, at BHS, the administration and teachers may not be focused on outward actions (though strictly speaking, totalitarian states are also authoritarian in this way), but they are preoccupied with controlling the inner thoughts and dispositions of the student body.

The principal of BHS tells Chana Joffe-Walt, about that meeting where they talked about racism and implicit bias among students:

And some people are going to feel pissed off about it, and some people do. And that means some people are going to leave the room feeling like they’re being blamed. But at the end of the day, this is about kids. This is about serving kids and including families and communities. What else is the point of the school, right? That’s the whole point of a school.

CJW understands that that right there is the fault line. She says:

Is that the point of a school? When Miss Lanzillatto said this, I got stuck on the phrase. What is the point of a public school? We don’t seem to have any kind of unified vision. Maybe there was one back when they made that old film about public schools teaching us about democracy and how to live together. But we don’t have a shared vision now. What we have is choice.

Well, yes. Is that a bad thing? As with so many of these questions about the public square, I am reminded of Alan Ehrenhalt’s great book The Lost City, about Chicago in the 1950s. Ehrenhalt says the big changes that overtook Chicago (and the nation) in the 1960s and 1970s were about expanding choice and personal liberty. Everybody today wants strong communities, Ehrenhalt said, but they want them on their own terms. They don’t want to submit to the disciplines and sources of authority that bind communities together. It is an illusion that you can have strong communities without a shared sense of authority and commitment to a common vision. This is something that neither liberals nor conservatives seem to understand, Ehrenhalt writes. But liberalism is worse at it, and eventually degenerates into tyranny, because it demands (says critic James Kalb) “equal freedom.”

Beneath the question of “what is the point of a public school” is the more profound question: What is the point of education? We can’t agree on that either — and it’s not a left-vs-right thing.

CJW ends this episode with an anecdote about how a rumor spread among the students that the middle school PTA took $1,500 from the high school and used it to build a garden. The middle school is whiter than the high school. Then the rumor had it that the white PTA had stolen $15,000 from the high school. Well, CJW investigated the rumor, and it was false.

But recently there was a rumor that the PTA at the middle school took $1,500 from the high school to use to build a garden. Then it was $15,000. CJW points out that the PTA of the middle school is white. The students at the high school, CJW says, have been taught by their school to notice things like this, so they are. A student of color tells CJW that “we have to watch them”. Now the students are angry that the PTA is stealing money from the school. But CJW looked into it, and it wasn’t true. It was a rumor.

A black student named Jeremiah, 15, believed the rumor at first. It fit what he expected of white people (hello, unconscious bias!). Excerpt:

Jeremiah

I think that for white moms just think — I think its popular now. It’s like yoga. It’s like, oh, yeah, integration. It’s cool now. It’s a new thing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And what do you make of that?

Jeremiah

Yeah. You’re a part of it. Thanks, but are you just — do you genuinely care, or is it everyone’s doing it? When it’s not beneficial to the white families, it’s going to be changed. And history repeats itself. So when this integration isn’t beneficial, then it’ll go right back to where it was before.

Chana Joffe-Walt

History repeats itself is a very central thesis of my story.

Jeremiah

Yeah. It’s just truth for life.

When integration is not helpful, it’s going to become segregated again.

 

But is this wrong? What is “helpful” here? What if the school became like the progressive madhouse that the liberal writer George Packer discussed in his much-talked-about Atlantic piece from last fall, in which he discussed how wokeness ruined his son’s school. The Packers’ son’s school is in the neighborhood next to the school at the center of Chana Joffe-Walt’s serial. The Packers are white New York liberals who came to see firsthand how illiberal leftism tore apart their son’s school(s). He wrote in his piece:

In politics, identity is an appeal to authority—the moral authority of the oppressed: I am what I am, which explains my view and makes it the truth. The politics of identity starts out with the universal principles of equality, dignity, and freedom, but in practice it becomes an end in itself—often a dead end, a trap from which there’s no easy escape and maybe no desire for escape. Instead of equality, it sets up a new hierarchy that inverts the old, discredited one—a new moral caste system that ranks people by the oppression of their group identity. It makes race, which is a dubious and sinister social construct, an essence that defines individuals regardless of agency or circumstance—as when Representative Ayanna Pressley said, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice; we don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”

At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.

I asked myself if I was moving to the wrong side of a great moral cause because its tone was too loud, because it shook loose what I didn’t want to give up. It took me a long time to see that the new progressivism didn’t just carry my own politics further than I liked. It was actually hostile to principles without which I don’t believe democracy can survive. Liberals are always slow to realize that there can be friendly, idealistic people who have little use for liberal values.

Last week I received an e-mail from a teacher at a private school in New York City that went through a very difficult period in which it embraced a model like the one Chana Joffe-Walt praises. The teacher said things are calming down now, but at its height, the diversity dean (I forget what they called him) had stoked so much racial consciousness and discord on campus that he eventually left after too many parents complained. After that, the school went through a couple of uprisings that the teacher likened to Maoism. Lots of accusations of white supremacy, and so forth. The worst victims were students of color who did not behave as the “Maoist” students of color demanded them to do. Check back on Chana Joffe-Walt’s ideal identity academy in Cobble Hill in a few years, and see if it hasn’t devolved into identity-politics balkanization and hostility.

So, I’ve written a long piece here, and if you stuck with me, thank you. I still encourage you to listen to or read the transcripts of “Nice White Parents”.

What’s good about it are the insights Chana Joffe-Walt brings to the way race and segregation has played out in New York City public schools since the 1960s. You can’t listen to this, and to the facts presented, and believe that people of color have been treated fairly in the city. I really appreciated how Joffe-Walt focused on the racial biases of white liberals, and how the liberals hid their own motives from themselves.

I also appreciate in general this kind of deep dive into reporting as storytelling. Chana Joffe-Walt really is peerless at this kind of thing. Though I do not share her politics, I admire her craft.

What did I not like about it? Mostly the way the series centers itself on white parents as unique villains. This, of course, is standard left-wing discourse today, especially in the media. But it is a narrative that is conducive to bigotry.

Joffe-Walt makes a strong case for white parents as having played outsized roles in the New York City public education system over the past few decades, and having tried to game the system to suit themselves, not the common good. I do not at all believe that white parents deserve a pass from critical examination. Joffe-Walt has done a great job with this.

But what does she leave out? The unspoken assumption here is that there can be nothing objectionable about the students of color and what they bring to a school. It is no doubt true that the white parents had unfounded biases against these kids. But it is simply not credible that there were no flaws in the non-white students and their culture. They are human beings too. Over the years, in interviewing or just talking with teachers who work with predominantly minority students of poor and working-class backgrounds, I’ve learned that disrespect for authority, especially among black students, is a big obstacle to academic success. You can talk about why that factor is there, but it is hard to plausibly deny that it is there.

The Gowanus Houses, which is just down the street from the Brooklyn school profiled by CJW, is a violent place (for example). Through no fault of their own, children brought up in such surroundings are going to absorb different standards of conduct than children brought up in middle-class security. It is one of life’s injustices, but there it is. Each class and each culture within that class has its own strengths and weaknesses. Recall my story about the miserable white woman who sent her kid to St. Ann’s, the posh, progressive private school in next-door Brooklyn Heights. You’d better believe that if I were considering sending a kid of mine to that school, I would be thinking hard about the cultural ethos there among the students, just as hard as I would if I were considering sending my kid to the public school in Boerum Hill. This is what conscientious parents do. I regret that Chana Joffe-Walt seems completely unwilling to find fault with the non-white actors in the dramas she so skillfully illustrates.

By “finding fault,” I don’t mean “imposing blame”; it’s hard to have an honest conversation about race and power because so much of it is about apportioning blame, or refusing blame. When power turns on matters like this, it’s no wonder people feel that they can’t be honest. George Packer writes that one of his son’s high school teachers told the class that being white makes her feel guilty. It shouldn’t. In my view, no one should feel either proud or ashamed of their race. No one should feel guilty or innocent. The fact that progressives have made it impossible to discuss race and identity outside of questions of guilt and innocence — with the so-called oppressor groups always guilty, and the so-called oppressed always innocent — makes it very hard to gain a clear understanding of why things are the way they are. At the very end of Episode Four, Joffe-Walt shows Jeremiah, a black middle schooler, recognizing that he had decided that whites were guilty of stealing, when in fact that wasn’t true. But he based his false judgment on past experience. It’s understandable! But I don’t believe Joffe-Walt, or her audience, would have been nearly as forgiving of a white person making a same mistaken judgment based on past experience.

Third, I think it’s too bad that Joffe-Walt underplayed the role of class in this story. My guess is that white middle class parents would almost all rather their kids attend a school filled with middle-class black kids than with white children of the poor and working class — and that middle-class black parents would probably prefer their kids to go to a predominantly white school whose ethos was middle class, over a predominantly black one whose ethos was poor and/or working class. Why? That’s a good discussion; there may be good reasons and bad reasons for that. But if you only look at race, you’ll miss an equally important distinction that parents make when it comes to educating their kids.

In the end, I’m glad I listened to and read “Nice White Parents,” because the reporter taught me things I did not know, and brought insights out of the story that a conservative reporter probably wouldn’t have seen. But her left-liberal biases also blind her to other parts of the story. What I would love to hear is a similar story told about black (and Latino?) families and public education. It has been well established how they got ripped off by the system. What I would like to know is what cultural factors other than white racism play into why things are the way they are in public education.

I’ve mentioned in this space before about the despair of a white teacher friend, a single mother who, after getting her degree, chose to teach in an all-black public school in the rural South, because she knew teen pregnancy was prevalent there, and she wanted to encourage the girls not to give up on their futures. After several years, she burned out. She said that it was impossible to overcome the culture of defeat that had crushed those kids. She told me that the boys in her ninth-grade class had no ambition to be anything other than rappers or athletes, and the main topic of conversation among the girls was which boy they wanted to father the child they expected to have before graduation. According to my friend, nothing she ever said or did, or showed the kids, made a bit of difference. It tore her up inside.

I am sure that if I asked her to go on the record about any of this, she wouldn’t — and not just as a matter of self-protection. Like most of my liberal white friends who teach, or once taught, in schools like that, they have a lot of sympathy for their students, and don’t want to make their lives harder by seeming to encourage white people to think the worst of those kids. But they all believe that the parents of these children are failing them, and failing them badly. They just won’t talk about it outside of private conversations.

That friend, by the way, taught in a rural parish here in Louisiana that started a “segregation academy” when integration came. Most of the white kids in that parish go to that school, even today. If you were a 100 percent true-blue liberal of any race, you would put your kids in that former segregation academy rather than in that despairing public school. You might have a bad conscience about it, but you would almost certainly do it, for lack of a better alternative. The difference is, most white parents in that parish don’t feel guilty about doing that. Brooklyn white liberals would do it, but come up with some kind of excuse to hide from themselves unpleasant things they would prefer not to see about themselves, and about the world we live in.

You can talk about how slavery, Jim Crow, and the culture of white supremacy made things like they are, and you would be mostly right. But if you lived in that Louisiana parish (county), and if you had the money to afford private-school tuition, no matter what your race, you would send your kid to the white segregation academy (which today accepts students of color too as a matter of policy, last time I checked), and you would tell yourself whatever lies you needed to tell yourself to justify making that choice for your child. The great thing about Chana Joffe-Walt’s serial (Episode Five, the final one, airs later this week) is it goes deep on the clash between ideals and realities as they play out in public education. As I said, I wish a journalist of color (it could only be one of them) would explore the complexities of race, class, and culture from an angle that looks critically at the choices and behavior of communities of color.

But is there a media outlet anywhere in the country that would dare to tell that story?

Don’t forget the core questions: What is education for? What do we have a right to expect of it? What trade-offs in freedom should we be willing to accept for equality? Is equality enough, or must we have equity, even at the expense of liberty and one idea of justice?

UPDATE: Reader Another Dave, who lives in Manhattan, comments:

When it comes to one’s kids and meeting their academic potential, reality inevitably intervenes.

One glaring omission from the series was the role Asian parents play in the school system.

I have 2 kids in the NYC school system, and can assure you that Asian parents are now as deeply involved, and demanding, as those horrible white parents are.

Asians also can’t be guilted and shamed about racial inequity.

Asian students statistically outperform every other group, and Asian majority schools, at least in Manhattan, and I’ve toured them, are even more disciplined than majority white ones, not that there are many majority white schools left.

The over achieving, and very demanding, Asian communities are a serious dent in the writer’s position that whites are the ones holding everyone back.

The writer wants white parents to become as uninvolved and lackadaisical as many black and Hispanic parents are about education, and I’ve experienced that as well, first hand.

If white parents disengage the way the writer wants, we will be left with a still underachieving mass of black and Hispanic students, and an even more dominant Asian overclass.

The bottom line is that writers like Joffe-Walt don’t have real solutions, just ideological positions, and those positions deny the reality that group differences exist, and can’t be legislated, or guilted, away.

Another reason points out that the serial ignores the 1968 teacher’s union strike in NYC that was centered around conflicts between blacks and Jews, and that shattered the political solidarity that had existed between the communities before.

UPDATE.2: A reader comments:

I volunteer at an after-school program in a poor, almost entirely black city neighborhood.. It’s a church ministry and I basically teach a bible class to boys between the ages of 10-18 (before COVID, anyway).

The following is my perception of the dynamics of poor majority-black schools, assuming they are similar to the culture within my after-school program.

In a typical classroom of 20 boys, maybe 5 are attentive and genuinely want to learn. They are generally quiet and non-disruptive. Another 10 have attention deficit problems–can’t sit still, fidget, make loud noises or otherwise speak during lessons, usually prompted by their peers. You can discipline them, but they are back at it within 5 minutes. They just struggle to control themselves. There are 2 who sit quietly but don’t pay attention whatsoever. They have earbuds playing music inaudible to anyone but themselves. If you ask them to take them out, they will simply ignore you. You can’t really discipline them because frankly they do not care, and there really is nothing to gain by trying. They tend to be the higher-IQ kids.

Then there are the 3 trouble makers. They are either very low-IQ kids or severely damaged by the time they reach school age. They are extremely disruptive, have no respect for authority, and just make it impossible to conduct a proper lesson. Here are some typical behaviors:

1) Loudly uttering profanities or vulgar sexual statements, often seemingly out of nowhere
2) Watching rap videos on their phones, with the sound on for all to hear, at any time, multiple times during a lesson
3) Grabbing and touching other kids.
4) Provoking the 10 “ADHD kids” by insulting them, bugging them, cracking jokes
5) Showing each other pornographic images in class

Side Note: the phones are a problem, but it is very difficult to confiscate them, not only because the kids have no inclination to comply but also because they do get calls from their parents to which they may need to respond in an urgent manner. A no-phones policy would probably result in the complete collapse of the program as few if any kids would even attend under that condition, and we are trying to reach them by any means necessary, even if our efforts are often fruitless.

That last group of kids is basically ineducable. If they behave in a similar fashion at their regular schools I don’t know how genuine education can take place. If you view public schooling as an investment in our society’s future (I don’t), these kids have a negative ROI–any amount of money you spend on them will result in costs that exceed the benefits. For the sake of the greater good, they must be separated from the rest of the student population, but in most cases I doubt they are, except at places like Success Academy.

As for our ministry, we muddle along patiently, hoping we can make some difference in their lives. But honestly, and tragically, I don’t think we do.

UPDATE.3: A reader writes:

I just finished your article about the podcast, Nice White Parents. There was so much in there that I agree with. I have been teaching since 1993. After growing up in small town [Southern state], I started out teaching in rural [different Southern state].

Some of my female students had children already, in the 8th grade. Their goal was to have enough babies to qualify for their own apartment as soon as they were legally old enough to live independently. It broke my heart. I then went on to teach in both rural and inner-city schools in [third Southern state].

I have personally seen the problems you talk about in your article. The chaos in the children’s homes- the chaos in their classrooms. The problems both black and white teachers have in trying to get them to focus on their education. I have been the only white employee on the grade level, with maybe 12 white students out of 500. I have been accused of only suspending the black boys, the Hispanic girls, never suspending whites, etc…

What is the answer? After reading Lisa Delpitt, Ruby Payne, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jonathon Kozol and Robin Diangelo, I am convinced that there is no answer. You are correct. There is no desire to actually fix the problems that exist, but only to assign blame and innocence. The answer is complicated. What are whites doing to contribute to the problem? What are communities of color doing that contribute to the problem? Until someone is willing to answer all of the questions….until someone is willing to ASK all of the questions, we will continue to descend into chaos, violence and anarchy.

Thank you for writing your article. You have given me a lot to think about.

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