Is School Desegregation White Liberalism’s Bridge Too Far?

Bridge Too Far
“I’ve just been on to Monty. He’s very proud and pleased . . . He thinks Market Garden was 90% successful.”

Noah Berlatsky ticked off a bunch of people by pointing out white liberals are just as bad as white conservatives when it comes to sending their kids to segregated schools:

Sending kids to private school is an option you only have if you have a certain amount of money. In paying for him to go to that school, we were at least partially abetting a system that benefits more affluent people. And affluent people in the U.S. are often (though not always) white. We sent our son to a school that taught and encouraged anti-racism. But teaching people to be anti-racist doesn’t necessarily address the structure of racism itself. In fact, racist structures often determine who does and does not have access to these kinds of educational opportunities. One of our ongoing societal challenges will be figuring out ways to move beyond individual education and address the root issues of inequality — and our role in upholding them.

Margaret Hagerman, a sociologist at Mississippi State University, talks about these difficult contradictions in her book, “White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege In a Racially Divided America”. . . . Hagerman found important differences in the ways that parents talked to their children about race, and important differences in the ways that kids responded. But she also found that white parents — even anti-racist white parents — actively reproduce inequality.

. . . .

Some parents, Hagerman found, preferred to keep race unspoken. Families she interviewed in a wealthy, conservative suburb, for example, tended to avoid the topic of race with their children. “They adhered to a color blind way of thinking,” Hagerman told me. “They would say that race doesn’t matter, or that we’re beyond race.” One girl told Hagerman that in her school, they weren’t even allowed to say the word “racist” — it was on a list of forbidden words that also included homophobic, sexist, and racist slurs.

. . . .

People who identified as more politically liberal were much more willing to acknowledge the existence of racism, and to talk to their children about it. Many of these parents identified as specifically anti-racist, and were determined to teach their kids to work against bigotry and inequality. Parents encouraged their kids to do charitable work, for example, both in their own communities and on (expensive) overseas trips.

Yet, as Hagerman told me, “all of these families in their own ways were participating in the reproduction of racial inequality.” Children were sent to private school, or when they went to public school benefited from private tutors or enrichment classes. Even community service can reproduce racist ideas. It’s hard to see people as equals when you always have power over them, or when your primary experience with them involves giving them charity.

The spectacle of well-intentioned people working, half unconsciously, to solidify and perpetuate their own power is not an encouraging one. “I feel like my findings are pretty dismal,” Hagerman admits. “When you have people who have a lot of wealth alongside this racial privilege, they’re ultimately making decision that benefit their own kids, and I don’t know how you really interrupt that.”

I ran into these well-intentioned white liberals all the time when I lived in the Deep South. Frequently, affluent white professionals and academics frequently lament the region’s racial disparities only to purchase homes in white-flight housing developments or gentrified urban enclaves. Worse, they send their children to thinly-veiled private segregation academies.

During the late 1960s, many disgruntled African Americans revolted in reaction to the stubborn resilience of racial inequalities after the passage of the civil rights legislation earlier in the decade. C. Vann Woodward, a central figure in the field of southern history, could not understand why rioting blacks were so unhappy. Had they not earned the right to vote? Hadn’t the federal government struck a fatal blow against the Jim Crow regime? Weren’t blacks enjoying an unprecedented level of material prosperity?

Unable to blame well-meaning white folks who’s decisions to flee desegregating neighborhoods and school districts undermined the gains of the Civil Rights era, Woodward chalked up black disillusionment to nationalism and historical irony. “The irony of the moralistic approach, when exploited by nationalism,” he wrote, “is that the high motive to end injustice and immorality actually results in making war more amoral and horrible than ever and in shattering the foundations of the political and moral order upon which peace has to be built.”

Ever since, Jim Crow apologists and well-meaning liberals, have used Woodward’s vision of the south (and America more generally) as an ironic and complicated place to romanticize and legitimize their continued ambivalence towards the pain of their non-white neighbors.

I once asked a white friend who studies African-American history at a major southern university why he moved to the majority white side of the county and sends his son to a private school with a 98% white student body. “It’s complicated,” he told me as he sat beneath framed pictures of James Baldwin and Robert Johnson. “The public schools in town are failing. I have to consider what’s best for my kids. What would you have me do?” He then pointed out that there were black kids at his son’s private school. I look it up later. There were nine out of over five hundred students.

There’s nothing ironic about American history, and it’s only really as complicated as millions of affluent parents deciding to sacrifice desegregation in pursuit of their own self interests. People rarely find themselves inadvertently sustaining racism—we all have to decide what is and what isn’t acceptable when it comes to the quality of our lives and those of others. Unfortunately, like Monty, too many white liberals think being 90% antiracist is enough.

Berlatsky sums it up the challenge we face well:

Of course, as a parent, you want the best possible future for your child. But the best possible future should include a society that isn’t organized around racism. Hagerman’s book is a careful, painful and convincing argument that when white people give their children advantages, they are often disadvantaging others. Racism is so hard to overturn, in part, because white people prop it up when they work to make sure their children succeed.

As always, here’s some tweets:


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