Why White Parents Won't Choose Black Schools (article by Abby Norman)

Original article posted http://www.huffingtonpost.com/abby-norman2/why-white-parents-wont-ch_b_8294908.html

This article introduces the concept of "post-racial racism" as it applies to how parents are sometimes set up to choose certain schools for their children and how schools have been pitted against each other in a competition for scare resources (including parents' energy and advocacy) by the seemingly innocuous mechanism of "school choice."  

"My neighbors and I don't have to build a charter school for our children to experience diversity. But we do have to build a charter school in order for our kids to experience diversity on our terms. Really, if we are experiencing diversity on white terms, what good is that diversity anyway? I hear my neighbors saying they value my neighborhood, they value diversity, and they value all kids getting a decent education. I just wonder when they will value those thing enough to give our neighborhood school a try."

Facebook Response from Ben Becker

I appreciate the article. It keeps it very real about what "post-racial" racism looks like. It is an inside look at the middle-class white parents who are providing all the grassroots time, energy and resources that are driving the charter school movement from below. That movement claims to be a reaction to bad public schools, and is based on the sentiment to "just do what is right for my kid," but is in real-time providing the human power for the neoliberal assault that is actually making public schools worse for everyone. The article speaks of the many parents that say they "love the neighborhood" but hate the neighborhood's schools, often having strong opinions on them without having done any real research. In the case of this writer, the local majority-Black, working-class public school is a perfectly fine educational institution, and the white parents neglect it based on stereotypes.

We could call this "white flight without leaving." The education face of gentrification. But the article should be critiqued too. It is very much written from the perspective of white middle-class individualism for others infected with white middle-class individualism. The writer is basically telling her peers, "stop being so racist -- many of these Black schools are good, and the whole experience of genuine diversity will be educational for your kid and you too." That is true. It certainly reflects her personal experience, and mine too -- I learned a ton by growing up within Baltimore's majority Black public schools and would not trade that experience for any charter, private or middle-class white school in the country.

But the article does not offer a solution to those who say, "yeah but in my area the local schools are actually messed up." The article does not raise the prospect for struggle. It still is trapped in an appeal to middle-class white parents' self-interest as defined narrowly. I would go further than the author in saying that where the local public schools have significant problems, such upper-working class parents have a social responsibility as community members to use their time and energy -- if they have it to give -- to try and improve those schools. This is like industrial unionism (fighting for all the workers in a workplace) versus narrow craft unionism (fighting for one's sub group in the workplace). Craft unionism has a logic -- because of their skills and resources, it is easier for the sub-group of workers to get a better deal from the boss for themselves by just organizing themselves. But it is detrimental to the overall conditions of the working class, and obstructs working-class solidarity.

I'll always respect my mother and the other parents, all leftists, who joined with community members to fight tooth and nail, week after week for years, to remake the Baltimore public school system, to make it better for everyone. They fought City Hall on one front but on the other had to challenge better-resourced parents who just wanted to have their kids "escape" the public school system altogether. They succeeded with some projects and were defeated on others. But thats the struggle and they all had a stake in it.

Why does the author not raise the possibility of joint struggle? I think it is because she is trapped by the core assumption of privilege theory: that everyone who does not suffer individually from an oppression therefore benefits from that oppression, and the best they can do is acknowledge it. The writer says that the white kid will be always seen as the oppressor and can never truly fit in with their classmates, and will always benefit from their oppression of their classmates. No honest person can deny the reality of privilege itself but these assumptions from "privilege theory" are wrong. That is not my experience at all growing up in Black schools. It is also politically paralyzing; it accepts the world as it currently is as the final way of things. It puts a boundary on solidarity, friendship and comradeship, and says "past this point you may not cross." No, actually you can cross it. The same is true with the photo that the Huffington Post chose for the article, which suggests little white girls will inherently be afraid in Black schools. It is frankly a racist image. The writer plays into this but flips the negative portrayal of white fear and discomfort into a positive, educational one.

The writer is trying to apply privilege theory in order to "de-center" the white experience. That is a noble cause taken by itself. But the assumptions of that theory -- that discomfort, mistrust and oppression between people of different backgrounds are unchanging -- do not allow her to "de-center" the white experience. As such, the whole article is still about the white experience -- how white parents' sending their kids to Black schools will be good for them, by reveling in the educational value of being permanently uncomfortable. It does not say that the public school system designed for the bottom 20% of the population, majority Black and Latino, constitutes a straight up human rights violation, that there's a major struggle to save public education and if you're a person of conscience you better throw in and put some skin in the game.

I appreciate what the author has done, but would also hope that this author's daughter will actually go beyond her mother. She will grow up in a different reality. She will see the racist oppression in front of her and will feel outrage, not just guilt, and will respond accordingly in defense of her peers and her community. She will protest police brutality and the evictions against her friends' families. She will see how cutbacks against her teachers and schools affects her too. She will not grow up having to convince herself or her peers that Black people can also build competent educational institutions. The question won't even cross her mind. She won't just look for the angle for how she can individually grow from the experience (which she can!), but subordinate that individual growth to the struggles that are larger than her immediate family.