Talking about segregation “should necessarily be uncomfortable, it should necessarily be a place a conflict because it isn’t just finding common ground. It’s giving up ground, frankly, for white folks.” That’s what New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said last week when she joined WNYC’s Rebecca Carroll and novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld for a panel discussion about what it would take to integrate city schools.
Here are some other highlights from the panel:
On growing up:
Carroll: I grew up in New Hampshire in an all-white environment. I was the only black kid in all 12 years of my schooling, more or less, and the first time I remember the n-word was on the fifth grade playground … I had no context, I had no sense at all of what that meant. I knew that it was not, you know, “You’re really cute.” But so, that was one of the things, among many, many others of my own experience, that informed our decision, my decision, to send our kid to a school where not just he would have black and brown peers, black and brown teachers, but that if and when he heard that word or any other kind of racial slur, he would have a sense of context. As it happened, he did.
On choosing a school:
Rosenfeld: I began looking for a kindergarten for my daughter six years ago … I went to our zoned school and I saw general education classes with no white children in them. And the only white children in the school were in the gifted and talented classes, which is a whole other issue. And I have an extremely blond daughter, and I thought, like everyone thinks to themselves, I think, “I don’t want to be the only one.” Nobody wants to be the only anything. And I felt uncomfortable there.
Hannah-Jones: I think it is very hard to be “the only,” period. I knew from being bused, when we were like five black kids in the school, that I was never going to put my daughter in that situation, where she was one of a handful of black kids. I do think that eventually it will be hard and that is why I say, the changes have to be individual and systemic. That, we have created a system full of schools that we know we cannot integrate, because if you’re depending on a single white parent to go into a school, it’s almost never going to happen.
On being a white parent in a diverse school:
Rosenfeld: As a white person, there was a learning curve for me. … I had never affiliated myself with an institution where demographically I was in the minority before. I had never done that. Like many white people, my only experience of institutions was majority white. And so there was a learning curve for me. I was a little uncomfortable the first day of kindergarten. I saw black families – I didn’t see individuals. I saw Hispanic families … It took me a while to see past race, in a way, if that makes any sense, and to see that these were potential friends for me, these were potential allies, mom friends.”
Carroll: [Our son] was at a different preschool, which was predominantly Hispanic but very quickly being gentrified and sort of changed and curated in such a way … But I remember having conversations with white parents on the playground and I would say, and I sort of ended up feeling like a zealot, but I would say, “Does it not occur to you that in the next year or so, this school is going to look totally white … You don’t mind that?” And I did have parents say, “No, not really.” And that I find baffling.
Hannah-Jones: Schools will start to integrate and then very quickly lose that integration because we know that white parents are attracted to other white parents. I mean, that’s a fact. When you hear that a school is good, I can almost always promise you that that school has a large percentage of white students. Because that’s the language – it’s racialized – good means one thing and bad means something else. And when you talk about a “bad” school, we can close our eyes and we know what color the kids are in those seats.
On achieving integration:
Hannah-Jones: This problem will never be fixed on a school-by-school basis. You need leadership from the top, it has to be systemic. You’re going to have to pull in parents who, frankly, don’t want it. And you’re going to have to find a way to do that.
As long as you’re doing it on a school-by-school basis, there are going to be some schools that are beautiful, beautifully diverse, all the things that we all would want for our children, and then there are all these other children who get none of that. And black students in the city, in particular, even though they are not the largest racial group, are the most segregated. So what that tells you is it’s not just a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of a particular group of children that other parents have decided that they don’t want their children around.
Hannah-Jones: [Achieving integration] would actually require a fundamental shift in, one, our views on race, and two, how we run and operate public schools. Because what the research shows is that white parents will say that they are choosing schools based on test scores, but when you actually look at where they’re clicking online and how they’re making their decisions, they’re actually making decisions on the demographics of the school.
We have to disentangle, somehow, 400 years of racial history and what automatically comes into well-meaning white folks’ minds when they think about a good school.