Racial Segregation in Education…
Unfortunately, though six decades have passed since Brown v. Board of Education, school segregation is getting worse… and it hurts us all. One of the chief drivers of educational inequality — and as a result, societal problems and pain — is the perpetuation of two separate and unequal public school sets in America.
The 2020 podcast by Chana Joffe-Walt in the New York Times called “Nice White Parents” brilliantly explores a key driver in what is blocking educational integration and equity: the actions of White families. It is a must-listen for anyone interested in improving our country, and understanding how things got this bad so we don’t keep repeating mistakes.
Though there are painful moments in the podcast, it ultimately offers a lot of hope about how to move forward towards educational equity. Why? Because it clearly lays out patterns of damage which we DO have the power and brains to alter.
What follows is an analysis of key quotes and takeaways from each episode. For each episode, I’ve linked to the official audio and transcript so you can click through to listen or read more. I hope this is helpful in thinking through this extremely important podcast!
Episode 1: The Book of Statuses
Ep. 1 Summary:
The first episode of “Nice White Parents” describes how, in 2015, a group of wealthy White families enrolled in a Brooklyn, NY school called SIS (the School for International Studies) which was previously populated by “Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern kids, mostly from working class and poor families.” The incoming White students came in a sort of bubble via a French immersion program that one of the White parents helped create.
Tensions began to emerge because the father who helped create the French immersion program, Rob, was a professional fundraiser who began to raise large amounts of money that would chiefly benefit programs for the new White students, not actively involving the majority-BIPOC students, families, or programs within the school.
Episode 1 Key Moments and Quotes:
Ep. 1, Moment A: White Saviors
One of the new White middle school students is asked what SIS was like before his cohort of (White) students arrived, and he answers, “I bet they learned very little. And now, this generation, with us, I think we’re doing a lot better, and I think that we’re learning at a much faster pace.”
Joffe-Walt summarizes for the audience: “He and his friends, they’ve turned the school around. That’s what he’s learning.” It’s upsetting but eye-opening to hear this perpetuation of false White savior mentality among kids as well as adults.
Ep. 1, Moment B: The “Bliss Point”
Joffe-Walt explains: “A powerful draw for white families into any school is other white families. Once you have a critical mass of white kids, you pass what one city calls “a bliss point.” This is a real thing researchers study — how many white kids are needed at a school to make other white families feel comfortable choosing it. That number, the bliss point, is 26%. [See more on this study here.]
“That fall, white families were crowding the school tours at SIS, not because the test scores had improved — the new scores hadn’t even come out yet — but because the other white families made them feel blissfully comfortable.” Time and time again it’s shown that what makes a school seem “Good” to White families is the percentage of whiteness.
Ep. 1, Moment C: What is Valued?
Joffe-Walt is observing the French immersion program in action and sees an Arabic-speaking student named Maya struggling with the language. Joffe-Walt muses, “There was money for a French program, which meant that at SIS, French had value. Arabic didn’t. Spanish didn’t. That’s something Maya is learning at school, along with her French script.”
Later she adds, “It’s great to give kids equal access to opportunity. But what they’re being given access to are the opportunities that Rob and the other White parents care about.”
At the end of the episode, Joffe-Walt is at the glitzy gala fundraiser for the French program at the French embassy, and she observes a White attendee, Barbara, talking to one of the Latina parents, Imee. “Barbara explains to Imee, a Puerto Rican woman, that being bilingual makes a person more sophisticated. Imee is exceedingly polite.” Such a painful moment that showcases the arrogance and ignorance too prevalent in cross-race and cross-cultural communication.
Ep. 1 Analysis and Takeaways:
The theme in this episode is the racist and inaccurate assumption that White students, families, and ideas make everything better — simply by virtue of being White. The corollary is the belief that BIPOC kids, families, cultures, and schools do not have anything of value to offer.
The clearest place this is showcased is at the gala when Barbara doesn’t think to value the linguistic and cultural knowledge Imee possesses as a Puerto Rican woman, and instead “White-splains” the value of being bilingual — but in a wealthy White framework of learning French at school and with visits to Paris, not in the framework of learning Spanish from one’s own family.
Episode 2: ‘I Still Believe It‘
Ep. 2 Summary:
In this extremely important episode, Joffe-Walt goes back via historic archives to the history of integration (or lack thereof) in New York City. A pattern emerges starting in the 1960s that Black and Brown families speak up about horrific conditions in their segregated schools, but their very valid concerns are pushed aside, while the requests from White families (of far fewer numbers) are catered to.
In the 1960s, White stakeholders begin to frame “integration” as something cute and harmonious — almost more for aesthetics and reputation — while BIPOC stakeholders see integration rightly as a matter of fair access, and ultimately even life and death.
A MAJOR fact in this episode is that “in 1964 […] Black and Puerto Rican parents said, enough. They were sick of waiting, sick of lawsuits, sick of asking for a remedy, sick of being ignored. So they went big, spectacularly big. They shut down the schools. They organized a civil rights demonstration that was the largest in US history, larger than the March on Washington. It was called Freedom Day, a massive school boycott.” [See more about Freedom Day here.]
How was the turnout? “The boycott wasn’t just effective — it was extraordinarily effective. Half a million kids stayed home from school that day. Half a million, close to half the school system. But the press barely covered it.” Joffe-Walt then reports that the much smaller White counter-protest was extensively covered by the media.
Further proof of the school district’s bias comes in 1963 when I.S. 293 (as SIS was called then) was being planned. White families lobbied for it to be built closer to them so it could be an integrated school, but when the city complied in 1968, NONE of those White families ended up sending their children to the school.
When Joffe-Walt calls those White letter writers during Episode 2 and talks with them about why they wrote the letters but never sent their children, even after their demands were accepted, their replies are evasive and hazy. Ultimately it’s implied that they were not comfortable being in the racial minority — though it’s phrased as not being comfortable being mixed with students who were “further behind” academically.
This is a vicious cycle because the BIPOC students in question are further behind BECAUSE of school segregation (in separate but unequal schools), meaning the reason why White families didn’t want to be part of integration was because of the effects of segregation in the first place!
Episode 2 Key Moments and Quotes:
Ep. 2, Moment A: Integration as Opportunity Access
Joffe-Walt discusses an archival recording of a Black woman named Mae Mallory. “In the 1950s, Mallory’s two Black children were students in Harlem. And when Mallory walked into their school, she did not see children building brotherhood in interracial classrooms. She saw an all-Black and Puerto Rican school with terrible facilities, in disrepair.
“Mallory’s family fled racial violence in the South, like millions of other Black Americans, who headed to places like New York City, where everyone was supposed to be equal. Instead of welcoming these new students and spreading them out, creating interracial classrooms, the Board of Education kept Black and Puerto Rican students segregated in what were sometimes referred to as ghetto schools, schools that were often just blocks away from White schools.
“White schools in New York City had toilets that flushed. White children had classrooms with experienced teachers and principals, people who lived in their communities and looked like them. In Black and Puerto Rican schools, half the teachers were not certified to teach by the Board of Education. The buildings were in disrepair, and packed, sometimes more than 1,000 kids in a single hallway. The overcrowding got so bad the Board of Education decided to send kids to school in shifts.”
“Integration, Mae Mallory would say, was about, quote, demanding a fair share of the pie. She said, our children want to learn, and they certainly have the ability to learn. What they need is the opportunity. The Board of Education had defined integration as a multiracial choir. It was a virtue in and of itself. Mae Mallory saw integration as a remedy, a way to get the same stuff everyone else had — functioning toilets, books, certified teachers, a full school day. Integration was a means to an end.”
Ep. 2, Moment B: The “Studying It” Pattern of Stalling
This episode lays out a key pattern, which is necessary to identify if we are to move forward. “You see a pattern emerge, starting in the late 1950s, that looks something like this. Black parents and civil rights groups would pressure the Board to act on segregation. The Board would invite its critics to join a commission to investigate the problem. The commission would study the schools, discover extreme segregation, lay out solutions. The Board of Ed would then take a tiny step toward implementing some of the recommendations until White parents started to complain about the changes, at which point the Board would back off and say it needed more evidence. Another commission, another report.”
To illustrate how this pattern is still at play today, Joffe-Walt plays a radio interview with NYC Mayor, Bill De Blasio as he speaks to a Latina high school student who is asking about when the city will take action to remedy school segregating. He says, “Tiffani, with all due respect, I really think you’re not hearing what we’re saying to you, so I’ll repeat it. There is a task force, an extraordinary task force, which I’ve met with. They are coming forward with their next report in a matter of weeks. So when that diversity task force comes out with their report, I think they’re amazing.”
Ep. 2, Moment C: “Schools Have NEVER Been Integrated”
Joffe-Walt synthesizes the historical research with our modern day situation, reflecting, “Every once in a while, I’ll hear a politician or friend or school administrator say, yeah, integration was a good idea, but there was no political will to make it happen. 460,000 kids, half the school system. The will was there. The majority wanted integration.”
She concludes, “The Board of Education has never proposed a city-wide integration plan. The schools have never been integrated.”
What about White parents who perpetuate the system of segregation? Joffe-Walt states, “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.”
And Black parents? “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.”
Ep. 2 Analysis and Takeaways:
By laying out the historic patterns keeping schools segregated since the 1960s, we can begin to see a way forward.
- Note that there has NEVER actually been an attempt to systematically integrate NYC schools! This is actually good news. It means it’s failed because it has not been attempted. It CAN be attempted, and the political will is more present than politicians admit.
- Politicians, Board of Education members, White families, and the media can greatly help this endeavor by listening to, amplifying, and following through on the voices and requests of BIPOC families instead of ignoring or erasing them.
- Above all, what BIPOC families have been saying is that integration needs to be about fair access to resources and opportunities. It’s not just about looking like a pretty rainbow — as the narrative has been framed.
- “Nice White Parents” can begin to take off the comfortable blinders of innocence and see the role we play in perpetuating this painful system which hurts so many.
Ep. 3: ‘This is Our School, How Dare You?‘
Episode 3 Summary:
This episode focuses on how the influence of White families sabotaged the success of I.S. 293 and blocked integration and racial equity, even when White families weren’t actually attending the school.
A pivotal way this happened was in the 1980s when school board members created “gifted programs” with a test gatekeeper to (and this was explicitly admitted to in the interview) keep White students inside the district by pulling them from “regular” public schools and separating them into well-resourced “high-achiever” programs — away from BIPOC students who were usually not adequately informed about or prepped for these opportunities.
A second way this episode illustrates White interference with integration is the story of a new school which was created by a White mother inside I.S. 293 and which then was essentially abandoned by its planners and left to further confuse matters in the school building.
Joffe-Walt explains, “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.”
Episode 3 Key Moments and Quotes:
Ep. 3, Moment A: “Good vs. Bad” Schools
This episode tackles the problematic phrase “Good School” — one which I always urge people not to use because it’s wrapped in stereotypes and actually doesn’t make sense. Joffe-Walt ponders: “Was I.S. 293 a good school during this [all-BIPOC] period of time? The more I asked it, I recognized what a modern-day question that is. This is the way we talk about public schools now — good schools and bad schools. At I.S. 293, there was no school choice. Every neighborhood was zoned to its designated middle school. Apart from the White families, most everyone from the community was there. […] I.S. 293 wasn’t good or bad; it was just school.”
Ep. 3, Moment B: Gifted Programs Poaching
As a Boston teacher, the concept of “exam schools” is very much on my mind, and Joffe-Walt lays out the history in NYC: “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.“
“Norm [a man on the school board in the 1980s] says there were kids of color who were clearly qualified, but were not in the gifted program. And he says this was because the questions were biased, and the people administering the tests were sometimes biased. He also says parents were hiring their own psychologists to test their children and paying for test prep. But also, there was another reason Black and Latino kids were not in the gifted program. [They were not adequately informed it existed.]”
“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.”
“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.”
Ep. 3, Moment C: Where is the ACTUAL Problem?
This is a CENTRAL quote from Joffe-Walt to understand what has happened in our whole country’s education system: “When we look to diagnose the problems of our public schools, we look at what is in front of us right now. We look forward. Nobody looks backwards to history. And so the question is not how do we stop White families from hoarding all the resources. Instead, the question is, what’s going on with the Black kids? This became the question driving the next era at I.S. 293, the latest era of school reform — the mid 1990s right up to today, a time when business people and American presidents and tech company billionaires committed themselves to solving the problem of failing public schools.” And yet, when history is taken into account, the majority of the problems have come from White politicians and families through the structures they created!
She then returns to the question of what made SIS so desirable in recent history: “Three years earlier, SIS had 30 sixth graders. What changed? The admissions director is the same. Most of the staff is the same. The building is the same. The test scores are still pretty low. There’s an IB program now in French. But the biggest change between the era of being ignored and punished and the era of being celebrated and oversubscribed is that White kids arrived. That’s what’s different, nine times as many White students.”
Ep. 3 Analysis and Takeaways:
The takeaway of Episode 3 is that we must really examine “gifted programs” and “special new schools” that essentially serve to segregate by race and economic status and opportunity hoard for White families. It is a truth that once “gifted” tracks and schools are in place, it’s exceedingly hard to dismantle them, but in cities around the country, people are starting to wonder if it’s time.
This is all wrapped into the idea of “Good Schools.” In the ideal of public education, there should be no “Good School” or “Bad School.” The entire point of public education — as envisioned by Horace Mann in the 1800s — is that it’s simply school for everyone, with fair and equal resources and opportunities. The great equalizer. But as long as there are escape hatches (like segregated programs or private schools), it’s a major feat to even start ensuring that all kids get what they need.
Ep. 4: ‘Here’s Another Fun Thing You Can Do‘
Episode 4 Summary:
The fourth episode of “Nice White Parents” contrasts SIS with Success Academy Charter School downstairs in the same building. In some ways, Success seems to have racially integrated more successfully because it treats everyone and everything exactly the same (down to the same rugs across their school network), meaning there doesn’t seem to be evidence of catering to demands of White families within the school.
Joffe-Walt sees problems with the Success model of integration, however. First, cookie-cutter “equality” models don’t fit reality as much as EQUITY models which recognize that each person is different and may need different things. Second, though the White families at the school don’t seem to be dominating control, the entire Success Academy organization is run by mostly White, wealthy players.
Joffe-Walt heads back upstairs to SIS, which has now been rebranded as BHS, and under a new principal is tackling integration head-on, actively talking about and doing workshops on inclusiveness and fairness. Test scores are going up, and there appears to be more real harmony and equity, but a false rumor at the end of the episode about White families stealing money for themselves shows that mistrust remains just under the surface — and that’s no surprise, given the history of injustices!
Episode 4 Key Moments and Quotes:
Ep. 4, Moment A: Equality and Control vs. Equity
Joffe-Walt pushes back on the “success” of Success Academy: “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. Some kids are chatty in the hallway, or need a minute to think before answering a question. […] One of the main criticisms of Success Academy from public education advocates is that Success doesn’t actually serve all students, that it has excellent test scores because it serves a select group of students.”
A powerful thesis about why White parents are comfortable with Success Academy: “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.”
How Success Academy keeps White control: “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. […] 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.”
Ep. 4, Moment B: Positive School Reforms
Key reforms that BHS (once SIS) put in place for equity: “One of the first things Miss Lanzillatto did as principal was request special permission to reserve 40% of the seats for kids who get free and reduced price lunch. The majority of kids who get free and reduced price lunch are kids of color. And Miss Lanzillatto didn’t want the school to flip. She didn’t want Black and Brown kids to get pushed out. The assistant principal told me they wanted to make sure the school did not become colonized.
“Some things here have changed. They got rid of the foundation, the Brooklyn World Project Rob and the other White parents had created. They scrapped some of the French programming, hired more teachers and staff of color. And one of the most striking changes I noticed — spend 10 minutes of the school, and you can’t not notice — 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.”
“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.”
“The administration is telling White parents that their mere presence in the school does not make it integrated. They have to work at making this place fair. […] The parents I met at BHS of all races were pretty happy with the school. They seemed bought in. Meanwhile, the test scores have improved dramatically. There’s still an achievement gap, but it seems to be closing. Black boys are no longer being disciplined at much higher rates than everyone else. And the kids seem happy, warm, and confident, and adept at talking about things like race and power.”
Ep. 4 Analysis and Takeaways:
This episode was heartening in that it shows concrete actions schools can take to foster racial and socio-economic integration and support its success. For one, the new BHS initiatives to hire more BIPOC staff and explicitly talk about and do trainings around race and inclusiveness seem to be paying off.
What particularly struck me, however, was the fact that the new BHS principal got permission to set aside 40% of the school’s seats for students on free or reduced lunch. This income diversity quota is MAJOR in terms of tools that we in public education are often told we cannot use. In a city with rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like NYC or Boston, schools can “flip” to majority White in a few years if instruments like this are not used. My hope is that people listening to this podcast will realize such quotas are possible, and why they’re so important.
Ep. 5: ‘We Know It When We See It‘
Episode 5 Summary:
The final, quite hopeful episode of “Nice White Parents” explains how in 2019, middle school admissions policies in District 15 of NYC were finally changed to be more equitable, and to actually start to move towards racial and socioeconomic integration.
Joffe-Walt is quick to point out that this district is just ONE small part (a mere 11 middle schools) within a huge school district which is still deeply segregated. That said, these new District 15 policies are a very hopeful sign showing that something can be done about educational inequality.
Helping to drive this policy shift was the advocacy of a group of upper-income White women who formed a group called PMS in 2014 when they became frustrated with how difficult it was to get into the only three “good” (mostly White) middle schools in the district. Joffe-Walt explains, “A legal scholar and civil rights advocate named Derrick Bell came up with this term ‘interest convergence.’ He believed that the only times we ever see an expansion of rights for Black Americans is when White Americans benefit, when interests converge. If White Americans don’t see something in it for themselves, nothing changes.”
Episode 5 Key Moments and Quotes:
Ep. 5, Moment A: The Awakening of Some White Parents
Joffe-Walt introduces White parent Miriam Nunberg and explains, “she was a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Education in the Office for Civil Rights. She says everything she saw at these middle school events, how the school selected students, sounded her civil rights alarm bells.”
Miriam states, “There was a principal of one of the middle schools, one of the selective ones, who said we’ll screen for nice. We look for nice kids. You know, and I’m like oh my god, this is — this is so discriminatory. How do you define nice? How could you possibly not have some sort of cultural bias in your brain when you were deciding that one kid is nice and another kid isn’t?”
Miriam’s awakening about the system’s discrimination (and her benefits from it as a wealthy White parent came when: “it seemed like her efforts to circumvent her school assignment were probably going to work. Like maybe she could get her son into the most sought-after school. That made her question herself and the power she had.”
Fellow PMS White parent Amelia Costigan’s awakening to her own part in opportunity hoarding was similar. She says, “I started to think about why I had been so self-absorbed about my own family. And I didn’t think about the bigger picture. Like what does that mean for all the kids of color? […] You know when you just kind of lose your path in life? And I think I just lost what was important to me. And then once I won, I started to realize this is really ****ed up, you know?”
Joffe-Walt points out how the 2014 report showing New York schools were the most segregated in the country also impacted Miriam’s thinking: “White parents get to be individuals, making rational, thoughtful choices. We aren’t forced to consider all the ways we act as a group. So for a long time, Miriam didn’t. Even though Miriam is a civil rights lawyer, even though she created a school and knew the way middle school admissions work better than most people do, even though she was part of the public school system, she couldn’t see what was right in front of her until the word segregation was lifted out of 1950s Alabama and stamped onto her life. And then she could.”
Ep. 5, Moment B: Political Pressure to Integrate
How did BIPOC families react to PMS meetings and advocacy for changing the middle school admissions process in District 15? “For a lot of parents of color, diversity was not their issue. One Latina mom, Laura Espinoza, told me for her, the most important problem was overcrowding in her neighborhood’s elementary schools. Packed classrooms and school buildings — that is what mattered to her. She showed up at a meeting about creating more equity in District 15 schools. But she says the room was full of White people, professionals. And they spent the whole time talking about diversity.“
Joffe-Walt responds to Ms. Espinoza’s description: “I see. So you’re hearing White parents say we care about diversity. But then they don’t actually seem to be doing the thing that they say they care about.”
The turning point in the effectiveness of PMS came when they “pivoted.” Joffe-Walt explains: “[PMS] focused all of their attention on shaming the Department of Education. […] They went to the media again and again. And they stayed on message. Hey, D.O.E., this is a problem and it’s your job to fix it — the very same thing a judge said to the very same school system in 1958 when Mae Mallory saw the conditions in her kids’ school in Harlem and sued.”
Everything came together in 2017. “Suddenly, Mayor Bill de Blasio found himself under tremendous pressure from advocates across the city, from the UCLA report calling the schools segregated, from journalists asking about it, from well-organized students of color all pushing the mayor to do something about segregation. De Blasio was still saying that top-down desegregation mandates were not feasible because of White resistance. But now, here was his opportunity — District 15, right there in Brooklyn, where a bunch of White parents were saying they wanted this.”
Ep. 5, Moment C: The Integration Plan Passes!
To begin the process of changing the middle school admissions process for District 15, the city held some truly integrated and equitable conversations and workshops for local families, planning carefully to make sure White families didn’t dominate.
Then, “June 2018, after 10 months of meetings, the District Working Group came up with a plan to desegregate middle schools — or rather, should I say, four years after Miriam and PMS first asked for a district-wide plan to address segregation, 54 years after thousands of Black and Puerto Rican parents demanded a citywide plan to address segregation, and 64 years after Brown versus Board of Education ruled that school segregation across the entire country was unconstitutional. There was a plan in one New York City school district for 11 middle schools.“
What was the plan, and why was it better? “The District 15 Integration Plan scrapped the current system — no more screening kids for test scores or attendance or for being nice. Middle school admission would proceed by lottery. Every parent would still get to rank their top choices, but every school would be required to offer 52% of its seats to kids who are poor, speak English as a second language, or live in temporary housing. As part of the new plan, the district would expand anti-racism and anti-bias training for administrators, staff, parents, and students, create equity teams in schools, create more culturally responsive curriculum, and hire more teachers of color — all things that parents of color had pushed for during the workshop process.”
Why is it so much more effective to change district-wide policy instead of just making small changes in individual schools or with individual families? Joffe-Walt explains, “This will be the system for middle school admissions in the district. It’s not a fad. It’s not easy to undo. It’s enshrined policy — a system that is more fair and more equal.“
Ep. 5, Moment D: Interest Convergence and Shame
The end section of this episode is extremely powerful. Joffe-Walt reflects, “Something actually changed here. Instead of trying to solve their individual problems, the women from PMS focused all of their attention on the system that created those problems and on solutions that would benefit all kids.”
She points out, however, that self-interest did help spur the advocacy to help the entire system: “What Miriam is saying is the only reason White parents supported the change in District 15 is because things had gotten so intense and so competitive that even the most advantaged people were losing.”
Where does reputation and shame fit into this? “When Derrick Bell coined the term interest convergence, […] he pointed to Brown vs. Board of Education. He argued the unanimous ruling was possible because the government saw segregation as harming America’s interests abroad. The country was trying to fight communism and sell democracy, liberty, and justice for all. But the whole segregation thing was making us look bad.“
How can we harness that energy for positive change for everyone? Joffe-Walt reflects, “I recognize that feeling. It’s shame. I think we should listen to that shame, because what it’s telling us is that we can’t have it both ways. Nice White parents can’t grab every advantage for our own children and also maintain our identities as good citizens who believe in equitable schools.“
What’s next for those of us listening? “We can choose to hoard resources and segregate ourselves and flee the moment things feel uncomfortable. Or we can choose to be the people we say we are. But we can’t have both. We can choose to remember the goal of public schools is not to cater only to us, to keep us happy, but to serve every child. We’ve never had that school system. But we could. We could demand it. We might not. But we should know it’s within our power to help create it.”
Ep. 5 Analysis and Takeaways:
The final episode of “Nice White Parents” is hopeful because it demonstrates that changing policy to support school integration IS possible, effective, and essential. We cannot merely rely on individual families to make choices if the structures themselves are discriminatory and harmful. Further, it does help push these structural changes through if individual families — especially White families — work together to make them happen.
Let’s pull out factors which led to District 15 finally making policy changes towards school integration and equity:
- The system started to feel unpleasant for advantaged parties, too (albeit in a very different way than less-advantaged parties), and some wealthy White parents started to see how school segregation hurts lots of families. Takeaway: To harness the power of interest convergence, it helps to emphasize how unfair systems hurt everyone.
- A fact-filled national report helped some advantaged White families see how they were part of segregation and opportunity hoarding. Takeaway: Raw numbers and research can make a difference in changing minds if they are shared effectively. Part of turning the tide on school segregation is public relations and marketing so people can see the reality right in front of their noses.
- “Interest Convergence” led a group of powerful White parents to start advocating for integration at last — something BIPOC families had been fighting for for more than 60 years — and because White families finally began pushing for it, people in power began to listen. Takeaway: White families still wield huge power, and that power can be used for the good of many instead of just a few.
- Once the integration planning and implementation process began, structures were put in place for equity, including using workshop formats for planning (instead of town halls where one voice could dominate), and reserving 52% of seats in each middle school for less advantaged students. Takeaway: Policies must proactively put rules in place to prevent advantaged families from gaming the system, dominating the conversation, and opportunity hoarding.
“Nice White Parents” in Conclusion
The podcast “Nice White Parents” is a must-listen for anyone with any stake in public education — but particularly for (you guessed it!) “nice” White parents. Chana Joffe-Walt has brilliantly explained where we are in school segregation, how we got here, and how we can get out of this mess and move towards a fairer system.
For those who find this podcast depressing, take hope! It’s actually a map. By clearly laying out the history and patterns that have supported educational inequality, we can start to see clear ways to change those patterns and make schools better for all children instead of just some.
I hope this article has provided a helpful listener’s guide, and I invite you to join the conversation in the comments section!