In the midst of the dark days of 2020, when almost every endeavor felt hopeless, from the mundane and the trivial to the grand and the ambitious, the New York Times released a five-part podcast series that was in keeping with the times. Nice White Parents, all the rage on the middle- and upper-class progressive listening circuit, left millions of listeners with a new spin on an old storyline: school integration is a doomed endeavor. (If you are unfamiliar with the podcast, two of the main points it conveys are that the arrival of white students—and their parents—at a previously all Black and brown school creates disturbing dynamics that are inevitable and that real, systemic integration efforts are rare and unlikely.)
The promise of a new dawn in our country at the beginning of this year allows us to dream again about things big and small—and provides the perfect backdrop to rebut the central implicit claim of what is otherwise a well-intentioned effort to highlight some of the nuances of the complicated legacy of race and education in our country. Despite the uncomfortable truths that Nice White Parents surfaces, school integration does work, and when done well, is one of the best tools we have to ensure a high quality education for all Americans.
It is for these reasons that The Century Foundation (TCF) started The Bridges Collaborative, a new national initiative bringing together school districts, charter schools, and housing organizations that are committed to advancing school and neighborhood diversity and integration in their own communities. A key focus of these organizations is creating the types of inclusive cultures that avoid some of the issues faced by the school profiled in Nice White Parents. These organizations are learning from the past and learning from each other to advance a cause that is decades in the making.
As scholars working alongside practitioners on school integration, we are regularly asked our opinion on the Nice White Parents podcast. In general, we appreciate the attention it brought to the complex issue of school integration, as well as some of the nuances it laid bare. Nonetheless, we are disheartened by the overall message of fruitlessness, and shudder everytime we hear someone say about a school integration effort, “Well we wouldn’t want it to be a Nice White Parents situation, so maybe we should do something else.” Consequently, we are presenting this commentary to push back against certain themes in the narrative that award-winning producer Chana Joffe-Walt weaves for Nice White Parents listeners, and to remind Americans of the promise that heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw in integration, and explain why there is cause for hope in 2021. As author Vanessa Siddle Walker eloquently stated in her recent book, Dr. King dreamed of a “genuine integration,” one that “must lead us to a point where we share in the power that all our society will produce.” We believe in that goal, and therefore feel obligated to respond to the podcast with some points of our own.
Real school integration is not only possible, more schools and districts around the country than ever are giving it a try.
The first four episodes of Chana Joffe-Walt’s podcast chronicle a problematic “integration effort” by a set of middle- and upper-class parents in Brooklyn in a school that had been in existence and serving children of color for decades. Joffe-Walt highlights the elements of the effort that felt like a takeover, the ways in which inequity was perpetuated within the school’s walls, and the problematic mindsets of many of the newer, white families. And while these are all important phenomena to navigate in school integration efforts, the experience of this one particular school in highly stratified Brooklyn should not be seen as a microcosm for all schools around the country, nor should the lessons learned deter us from pursuing an end that is well supported by research. In fact, leaders from all across the country are giving school integration a try, and their efforts are not in vain. Many are aware of some of the potential pitfalls and actively work to mitigate against them.
A TCF report released in December shows that nearly 200 districts and charter schools nationwide are actively integrating their student bodies by race or socioeconomic status. Together with the 722 districts and charters that are subject to legal desegregation orders or voluntary agreements, one-quarter of all public school students nationwide learn in places with an enforceable integration tool.
Take Minneapolis as an example. A city that the world watched this past summer after the murder of George Floyd, leading to global protests against racial injustice. Approximately two weeks prior to Mr. Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis Public Schools approved new attendance boundaries to promote integration in schools, and is aiming to reduce the number of racially and socioeconomically isolated schools by 50 percent. Even in places where racial harmony seems the most unlikely, school leaders, particularly community activists of color, are demanding educational justice for their students.
School integration still represents the best way to guarantee equal access to resources and opportunities for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
A dominant and recurring theme throughout Joffe-Walt’s podcast is the notion that the true interest Black folks have (and have historically had) in integration is gaining equal resources. “It was a means to an end,” she says. If African-Americans could just get the same facilities, equipment, and money for their schools, then all would be right.
While it is true that Black people and other communities of color have waged a decades-long battle to secure equal resources—one that is still elusive—to say that is the only interest Black Americans have had in integration is to grossly misrepresent the case and to uphold the long-discarded nineteenth century Supreme Court precedent of “separate but equal” of Plessy v. Ferguson. Equal resources are a necessary, but not sufficient component of the struggle for equitable education.
It is not uncommon to hear the refrain “give us equal resources and leave us alone” in many communities of color. But these arguments are in large-part a retort to decades of desegregation done wrong, which often debased and devalued Black pedagogy, curriculum, and personnel.
It is not uncommon to hear the refrain “give us equal resources and leave us alone” in many communities of color. But these arguments are in large-part a retort to decades of desegregation done wrong, which often debased and devalued Black pedagogy, curriculum, and personnel. Moreover, there are few, if any, examples of public, segregated Black or low-income schools that receive equal resources (inclusive of facilities, money, equipment, human capital) as their white or more affluent counterparts. The Civil Rights Movement, of which school integration was a key pillar, always demanded a more expansive definition of integration than the era of desegregation offered.
In a speech in 1962, Dr. King stated: “Desegregation is eliminative and negative, for it simply removes [these] legal and social prohibitions. Integration is creative, and is therefore more profound and far-reaching than desegregation. Integration is the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes into the total range of human activities. Integration is genuine intergroup, interpersonal doing. Desegregation then, rightly, is only a short-range goal. Integration is the ultimate goal of our national community.”
Local school integration efforts can happen organically and are not dependent solely on the whims of white parents.
The fifth and final episode of Nice White Parents is the season’s resolution: finally and unexpectedly, a district-wide integration plan emerges in Brooklyn. To hear Joffe-Walt tell it, white parents finally saw integration as a project that was in their best interest, and thus they pushed for a district-wide solution, albeit one that Joffe-Walt doubts can be replicated. But families of color are not powerless in public education, and the hope for progress does not solely rest on the shoulders of nice white parents.
Take San Bernardino, California as one historic example. Black and Latinx, particularly Mexican parents formed coalitions beginning in the 1960s and laid the groundwork to racially integrate the district’s schools. Although the schools were not classified as legally segregated, the racially divided neighborhoods produced racially isolated schools. Parents did not wait for white parents to come to the rescue. Instead, they advocated for their children to transfer to a white-majority school (Arrowhead Junior High School), due to their worries that a segregated education meant lessening their childrens’ chance to a successful educational path and job opportunities. The outcries of unequal education among Black and Mexican parents in San Bernardino led to the involvement of notable civil rights groups such as the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE).
In 1965, mothers of color such as Francis Grice, Bonnie Johnson, and Valerie Pope founded the Community League of Mothers to expand protests against school segregation in San Bernardino. They accused the Board of Education of confining Black students to overcrowded and under resourced schools, and even staged a boycott of the public schools. While working with CORE, the NAACP, and the Community Action Group, parents of color in San Bernardino demanded the state investigate the failure of the school board to examine “discrimination and de facto segregation.” In response, the school board created a Citizen’s Advisory Committee to study segregation and after segregation in these schools were proven, the school board was required to act.
While obstacles existed along the way and progress was not instantaneous, pro-integration school boundary changes were put in place 1988. The diversity of San Bernardino’s schools was universally lauded and juxtaposed with the much less successful efforts in nearby Los Angeles. It simply would not have happened without the leadership of parents of color.
For contemporary examples, many of our partners in the Bridges Collaborative who conceived, founded, or are currently leading school integration efforts all across the country are people of color, including (but not limited to) Citizens of the World Schools, Yu Ming School, Compass School, Brooklyn Prospect Schools, KIPP Beyond, New York City School District 13, and METCO.
School integration, which began as a key plank of the civil rights movement, has faced innumerable setbacks over the past few decades. In today’s multicultural, pluralistic society, in which K–12 white students are no longer a majority of American students, both the opportunity and the need to get it right have never been greater. There is no question that we as a society have learned lessons along the way. Nice White Parents points out some of these lessons, but its underlying message should not deter the thousands of students, parents, and professionals working to make our schools and our society a better place.
For those who want to do their part to advance school integration, there is plenty to be done. Individuals and communities can start by reviewing the racial and socioeconomic composition of local neighborhoods and schools. School and community leaders can form working groups to learn about school integration mechanisms that are being used all across the country, such as the use of magnet schools, boundary analysis and reform, district-wide enrollment procedures, and new school starts. City and housing leaders can partner with schools and school systems to craft pro-integration policies. Communities can learn from and partner with other practitioners, researchers, and advocates. For white parents in particular, working toward integration as an ally, taking particular care to listen to the concerns of parents of color, heeding the lessons of history, and putting the needs of the collective ahead of the individual, are all key considerations. And finally, because when integration is done well it is the best tool for ensuring a high quality education for all students, parents can demand high quality, diverse schools for their own children. And not just the nice white parents.
Assistant principal Joe Claps escorts a child to class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Source: John Moore/Getty Images