The private school down the street from our house is very good at advertising exactly why it’s awesome. They have a beautiful, comprehensive website and a big canvas banner outside the sprawling campus that reads:
“Park Day prepares students to be informed, courageous, and compassionate people who shape a more equitable and sustainable world.”
It also has a tall 10-foot fence and a gate that opens and closes when parents drive in to drop their children off. My daughters and I sometimes catch a glimpse of the chickens wandering around inside and what looks like a super fun playground. Someone once tried to get us the code but we were told there was a crackdown after too many neighborhood kids found their way in. It costs $25,790 a year for kindergarten.
.. If you’re trying to decide where to send your kid to school, it’s pretty logical to ask yourself: what might my kid gain from going to the most highly rated school in town? That school is, very likely, really good at answering that — whether it’s public or private.
.. If you are trying to be socially-conscious, you might even ask yourself: what do other kids lose if my kid doesn’t go to the neighborhood, public school
.. Those kids lose the friendship that your kid might offer, and in a roundabout way, the whole system loses out on your family’s energy, loyalty, and resources. The “public” part of public schools gets eroded when too many parents get understandably seduced by the places with the pithy taglines and the great websites.
But let’s flip the script. Let’s explore a different question: what do white and/or economically privileged kids gain from living in diverse neighborhoods and going to their local, public schools?
.. The most critical reason to send your privileged kid to public school: integrity. If you believe in the common good, of which public schools are the most fundamental building block this country has to offer, then participating in that system makes good sense.
.. Contributing through your attention and cultural capital, offering up your most precious resource — your love for your child — and letting that love expand and benefit a bunch of kids who are also deeply loved by their parents, but quite possibly, not in a position to forgo the failing, neighborhood school — well, it’s aligned. It feels right.
The modern American culture of parenting would lead you to believe that you can’t prioritize the common good and your own child at the same time — that the only way to be an excellent parent is to get the measurable best of everything for your child, which inherently means turning a blind eye to what other people’s kids endure. What if, instead, what is healthy for your child — not “best,” but healthy — is to receive no end of love and only proportional resources, and to witness parents trying to fumble their way toward closing the gap between their values and their actions each and every exhausting day?
A related, foundational reason: equality. Our public schools perpetuate racism and classism more systematically and effectively than almost any other institution we’ve got in this country. If you want to fight white supremacy and the legacy of slavery, public schools are a decent place to start.
.. Shannan Martin and her husband both grew up in small towns, heavily influenced by their all-white Evangelical Church. “We thought our duty was to live as safe and protected a life as possible,” she explains. But when they moved to Goshen, Indiana — the RV capital of the world — they decided to enroll their three children in a Latinx-majority public school, despite their neighbors’ warning. She explains: “We sent our kids to a ‘failing’ elementary school where, they told us, there would be drugs, evolution, gay people, and gangs.”
“It is the best thing that ever happened to us. I cringe to know how much a part of the problem I once was,” she says.
“I can only hope I continue to grow in ways that grind my old paradigms into dust. We have been here long enough to wake up to the overwhelming goodness of being part of a rich and diverse community. We understand our presence here does not enhance the lives of those around us nearly as much as their presence enhances our lives.”
Your kid doesn’t just learn diversity, but lives diversity.
Minorities will be the source of all of the growth in the nation’s youth and working age population, most of the growth in its voters, and much of the growth in its consumers and tax base as far into the future as we can see.”
.. demographics are going to shift dramatically; the flow of actual power — economic and political, especially — out of white, male hands may take longer. Even so, white children raised in white dominant spaces are inherently less equipped for the workforce, not to mention world, that they are entering into
.. The rise of artificial intelligence will also mean that so-called “soft skills” — like getting along with a wide range of humanity — will become more and more critical. Our children, particularly our white children, will be deeply disserviced if they come of age in segregated enclaves that teach them about racial difference without giving them the opportunity to actually live with and among those racially and culturally different from them. They will be less effective communicators, collaborators, inventors, and artists. They will be less wise and generous citizens and neighbors. In a world increasingly intolerant of white obliviousness and fragility, they will be set up for a kind of social and emotional failure.
.. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
.. Whiteness is often treated as a default state, rather than an actual culture in and of itself.
.. Kids who grow up in multiracial environments are more likely to be aware of how white culture shapes them, and have some valuable perspective on selectively adopting or rejecting it.
You and your kid get to be part of a community with non-white values.
.. One of the dominant norms of white privileged culture, in its contemporary form, is an emphasis on independence and a very particular and narrow kind of excellence.
Our favorite parenting books are filled with advice about how we might shape our children into high achievers.
We even plaster this ideology on our bumpers: “My kid is an honors student.” The dark side of all of this opportunity and emphasis on “winning” is that a lot of kids are left feeling like losers; sometimes to the point of questioning their own intrinsic worthiness.
What if your kid isn’t an honors student? What if your kid has a learning disability, but is an awesome gymnast or the kind of person who really senses when people are upset and knows how to help them out of a funk? There are no grades or bumper stickers for that.
Schools that aren’t majority white are, according to dozens of emails I received from parents, far more welcoming of kids who don’t fit a traditional mold.
As any parent of a child with special needs will tell you, most schools with high test scores aren’t thrilled to hear that our kids will be attending their schools. They don’t like the fact that our kids bring extra work.”
.. “These are schools that don’t have the money that our schools in the suburbs have, but they promote an inclusive environment for all students, which is worth far more to us in the long run,”
.. “I’ve gotten gasps and shocked looks when I tell people where I’m sending my son to school. I just smile and say that a school that can see the value my child adds to a class and that is willing to educate him fully alongside his peers, with the accommodations he needs, is the best school for him, regardless of location.”
.. One of her children needed to get pulled out of class regularly for speech therapy. Worried, Maggi asked the counselor if she should anticipate him getting teased and what she might do to prepare him for that. The counselor didn’t skip a beat before responding: “At this school? No—there is no normal here, so there’s no teasing kids who are different. The kids are used to everybody being unique.”
.. The teachers get to explore a wider range of teaching methods, too, according to Anne Kelterborn, an educator in Red Bank, NJ. She explains: “I have taught in both urban and suburban schools, and I have found that the ‘struggling urban’ schools tend to embrace far more creative and committed educators than in suburban schools.”
.. Amy Wheedon, of the D.C. area, felt like the parent association was a gauntlet of sorts at her kids’ mostly white elementary school. “Parents competed to lead new initiatives,” she explains. At their far more multiracial middle school, things are different: “Parents come out to celebrate their kids—at games, banquets and honor roll assemblies. Their jobs are tough enough; they aren’t looking for other ones. They want to leave work and have fun and spend time with their kids.
.. The economic pressure is often lessened in less white-dominant spaces. Krista Dutt, whose white kids attend a majority-minority school in the Chicago-area, explains, “We barely make ends meet, so being in a school and a neighborhood that people are surviving, not trying to beat each other at making the best birthday party, the best Valentine’s, or trying to prove that they don’t need the village is really great.”
You and your kids get practice being uncomfortable.
A more accepting school community, of course, doesn’t mean that your kid won’t experience discomfort. In fact, they will probably experience discomfort so often that they will get better and better at not just enduring it, but learning from it.
.. MLK day went for her kindergarten-age son. During a talk about the civil rights era bus boycotts, he excitedly shouted, “I would have gotten to sit in the back of the bus?!”
.. Her daughter, one of only a handful of non-native Spanish speakers in her Spanish honors class, came home and reported that none of her peers were giving her the time of day. “They thinks I’m just a basic white girl,” she told her mom.
As any mother would, Alison felt protective, but she also recognized that this was a defining moment: “For an hour a day, she knows what it is like to be in the minority, to find the rules confusing and feel like you’re a step or two behind, perhaps being judged and laughed at,” Alison explains. “I think most parents want to avoid that situation for their kids, but I think it’s a really important one.”
Alison told her daughter: “Be friendly, be yourself, be open about your life.”
After a few weeks, she started sharing stories around the dinner table about moments in her Spanish class when she got another student to laugh. It sounds small, but it’s actually big. Alison’s daughter doesn’t have to make a big empathic leap to understand what it feels like to be the minority in a given group of people. She’s lived it. She’s coped with it. She’s less likely to take her own sense of belonging for granted or to be oblivious when someone else is feeling isolated.
.. kids who see qualities as things that can be developed, rather than traits that you either possess or don’t, tend to thrive.
.. A white kid with a growth mindset around race knows that discomfort is a good sign of learning; they don’t fall apart at the first sign of confusion or critique.
In contrast, white kids who have been educated in perfectionist, homogenous environments and rarely weathered discomfort are likely to have a fixed mindset towards race. They are more interested in winning social entrepreneurship awards, than becoming wiser within unlikely, sometimes challenging, and deeply rewarding relationships.
Parenting, as it turns out, is a fairly new framework for what those of us with kids are up to. The term didn’t even exist until the latter half of the twentieth century, when upwardly mobile Americans started living in a more atomized way, separate from grandparents and aunts and uncles. Prior to that, caring for children was something that a wide range of people did, including older siblings and cousins. There wasn’t such a sense of needing to “do it right” by reading the right books, eating the right foods, saying the right things, and yes, getting into the right schools.
.. Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor, points out that many of us — particularly white and privileged people — now approach the role of raising humans like carpenters. In short, we try to carve them into our own image of what a successful adult looks like. Her suggestion? Think of yourself more akin to a gardener — you create the right conditions and let nature do the rest.
.. If you send your kid to a school where they are surrounded by other kids quite unlike them — racially, culturally, religiously, socio-economically — you are providing a pretty rich and interesting ecosystem within which they can grow. Gardens, like communities, are healthiest when they’re diverse. If you plant your kids in a monoculture, expect less richness.
It was a beautiful fall day. My then kindergarten-age daughter, Thea, discovered that a few of her school friends were at our neighborhood park — Chelina from Cambodia, Yosselin from Guatemala, Devina and Tazaiah, both African American. They were lost in play for nearly two hours. On our walk back home, I said to her, ‘You know, Thea, these friends at the park — your friends from school — may have been coming to the park for years, like when they were 3 and 4 years old and when you were 3 and 4, too. But you didn’t know them then because you didn’t go to school with them. Isn’t that crazy?’
My daughter, who is very nurturing and loves her friends, responded, “But I would be sad if they weren’t my friends.”
I said, “But you wouldn’t be sad, because you wouldn’t know them.”
Thea said, “But I would still be sad.”
because we are so powerfully rooted to the notion of individuality, in some ways race affronts that. But the real affront is the whole notion of individuality. Individuality, as we think of it, is actually extremely problematic.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, see — yeah, and you make this really fascinating point that — you say that there are two parents to the way we are now; the way we grapple with race, among other things. And one is slavery. Get that. And the other is the Enlightenment and that, in fact, it’s from the Enlightenment that we inherited this idea that the conscious mind could know everything; that we could be reasonable.
MR. POWELL: That’s the American exceptionalism. So the United States became extremely, extremely attached to the notion of individuality and independence. Now think about the groups who were not independent. They were the Africans. They were the Indians. They were women. They were anyone who was not a white male. So the notion, the Enlightenment project, which had this hubris that we could control everything, including the world, when we can’t even really control ourselves.
MS. TIPPETT: And yet, this condition of each of us in isolation, which you associate with whiteness, which is this culture of domination, is not sustainable, and it’s not desirable.
.. MS. TIPPETT: And we’re running into the limits of our ability to convince ourselves that it is desirable.
MR. POWELL: No, there are so many expressions that help us see it. And sometimes people talk about “We need to do things to connect.” And on one hand, that’s right, but on the other hand, it understates what it is. We are connected. What we need to do is become aware of it, to live it, to express it.
So think about segregation. Segregation is a formal way of saying, “How do I deny my connection with you?” in the physical space. Think about the notion of whiteness. So whiteness in the United States, as it came, as it took form, believed that one drop of “black blood” — whatever that is — would destroy “whiteness.” Turns out, whatever that means, most white Americans actually do have black blood. The reason that most African Americans look like me or like Gary is because white blood and black blood’s been mixing up for a long time. And so I think that as we deny the other, we deny ourselves, because there is no other. We are connected.
.. that that movement was as much for the sake of his soul as it was for the sake of people of color.
And it’s worth saying that. To me, that’s one way of talking about your point that we have to talk about whiteness.
.. I was teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, and I was talking about the taking of Native American land. And most of my students were white students, and one student objected; it’s like, “This is a such-and-such class. Why are we studying the history of Native Americans?” And I said, “We’re not. We’re studying the history of America. So, when we talk about the appropriation of Native American land, or when we talk about slavery, we’re not talking about the history of black people, we’re talking about the history of this country.”
.. I don’t care if you came here last week or ten days ago, you can’t understand this country without understanding the institution of slavery. It was pivotal.
.. MR. POWELL: The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health, and if you’re isolated, the negative health condition is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure — just being isolated.
.. How do we make it infectious; how do we — people are longing for this. People are looking for community. Right now, though, we don’t have confidence in love. You mentioned love earlier. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so, if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to organize around anger and hate.
And yet, we see two of the most powerful expressions — certainly Gandhi, certainly the Rev. Dr. King
.. And there was a period of time when I was feeling really overwhelmed with a lot of this stuff. And I was talking to my dad, and I said, “Dad, this is just too much. I can’t do it all. I’m trying to do all of this stuff by myself.” And he looked at me; he said, “Well, john, you know you’re not alone.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean, Dad?” He said, “Well, you got God with you.” And I realized, although I don’t organize around God in the way that he does, my mistake was, I thought I had to do it; that “I” was defining it, instead of “we.” So…
MS. TIPPETT: …you were in that white mode.
MR. POWELL: Exactly, exactly.
So I think we should both get out of that white mode and do it together. [laughs]
.. today, the majority of whites today say they’d prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood and send their kids to integrated schools. What they mean by that is a different question, but also the world and demographics of the country are changing. And to live in a white enclave is not to live in the world. And I think it has” — I think you were — this is an interview — “it has a certain deadness to it. It has a certain spiritual corruption to it.”
And you said, “I think most people, white, black, Latino, and otherwise, would like to see something different. We just don’t know how to do it. And we’ve been so entrenched in the way things are. It’s hard to imagine the world being different.” You speak for me, you speak for so many people. This is what we’re up against. I feel like this is what we have to attack first — this inability to see differently.
You told one story about Oak Park, near Chicago. It was just really helpful to me. You said, when we tell stories about, “You integrate neighborhoods, and housing values go down,” and the way we always tell the story is, “Blacks moved in, African-American — people of color moved in.” And the way we could tell the story is, “Whites moved out.” But you talked about how — just this very practical measure that was taken so that the housing values didn’t change. Would you just tell that story? I feel like these little stories are really crucial, as well.
MR. POWELL: And there are really a lot of them. They’re little, and they’re big. So Oak Park is in Chicago. Chicago’s one of the most segregated areas in the country. Cook County has the largest black population of any county in the United States, and a lot of studying of segregation takes place in Chicago. So here you have Oak Park, this precious little community. And there were liberal whites there. And blacks started moving in. And they were saying, “Look, we actually don’t mind blacks moving in, but we’re concerned that we’re going to lose the value of our home. That’s the only wealth we have. And if we don’t sell now, we’re going to lose.”
And it basically said: If that’s the real concern — not that blacks are moving in, that you’re going to lose the value of your home — what if we were to ensure that you would not lose the value of your home? We’ll literally create an insurance policy that we will compensate you if the value of your home goes down.
And they put that in place.
.. Think about Katrina. So these examples are all around us, and yet, we don’t tell stories about them. Katrina — the face of Katrina, when you remember it, it was blacks stuck on roofs as the water was rising. What’s not told is that Americans, all Americans, gave to those people. It was the largest civilian giving of one population to another in the history of the United States. So here you had white Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, trying to reach out to what they saw as black Americans. They were actually saying — they were claiming: We have a shared humanity. And they actually did a poll asking people if they were willing to raise taxes to rebuild: 70 percent of Americans said, “Yes, we would tax ourselves to help those people.” The pundits and the politicians ignored it, and so that story simply didn’t get told.
.. I put something I call “targeted universalism,” and where we want to get to is not simply what whites have. We actually need to state what is our goal. And then our way of getting there will vary, based on how we’re situated. And different groups are situated differently. So if we just say, “Let’s have our proportionate share of what whites have,” that’s an improvement over where we are now, but it’s not far enough.
we’re talking about what I call a “circle of human concern” — a circle of concern for all life, human life and, I would say, non-human life as well. And in that effort, it’s important to make sure that people of color are really valued and situated and have resources and political and other power that other groups have. But it’s also important to actually continue to be in relationship to whites. I think, ultimately, a healthy world really requires not just a restructuring of what people of color have, but a restructuring of white identity.
.. in the 1960s, Bundy wrote about the “negro problem” at the Ford Foundation, but today, I would write about the white problem. We really need to come to terms with the white problem — not in a negative way, not in terms of white guilt, not in terms of beating up on whites, but really trying to help whites, because we are deeply related, give birth to a different identity.
.. one of the best school systems in the United States was the Wake County school system. That’s the Research Triangle, which has more Ph.D.’s than any other area of the country. It was actually quite interesting, because they took it to the voters, and they said, “Do you want to have this school system which is educationally and economically integrated?” And the voters said, “No.” So then they took it to the politicians, and they said, “This makes sense, which — the voters said no, but would you vote for it as a politician?” And the politicians said, “No.” And then the business community said, “Unless you do something about the school system in Wake County, we’re leaving.” It was actually the business community that pushed it through.
.. “So Dad, why do you think” — because he’s very Christian, I said, “What do you think God is keeping you here for?” And he said, “I guess my last lesson to teach the kids is, how to care for me.” So instead of seeing it as a burden, because he needs care, it’s like, “That’s my last gift to you, is to teach you how to care.” And it really is wonderful.
I went to Stanford. I was one of the co-founders of the Black Student Union at Stanford. And we had a meeting, and in that meeting, we decided that there were definitely some good white people, but not that many.
And it took a lot of energy to find them. The transaction cost of finding good white people was way too high. So we decided, “OK, let’s just stop trying to find these — let’s not relate to white people.” Actually, I didn’t support that position, but that’s where the group went. And I left the meeting. It was about noon, and I was walking across Stanford. And I don’t know if you’ve actually been to Stanford, but the center part of Stanford is very busy, especially at noon, and there’s always people teeming about. And I’m walking back across campus in this area, and there’s nobody there. It’s empty. And all the time I was at Stanford, I’ve never seen that part of the campus like that. And then, there’s this one woman walking toward me.
Again, the physical space where students hang out is actually quite small, so you see students all the time. I’d never seen this woman before, and I never saw her again. And as she’s walking toward me, I notice she’s blind. And she has a cane. And she walks into a maze of bicycles. And I said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And as she turns, knocks down bicycles, she starts panicking. And I’m thinking, “That’s really sad, but we just made this agreement. It’s not my problem.” I keep walking. She turns again, and she knocks down more bicycles. And finally, I can’t walk past her. And I go over, and I take her out of the maze of bicycles, and then she goes on her way. And I go back to the meeting, and I say, “I can’t do it. I can’t adhere to that agreement.”
And to me, that was one of the defining moments. And I sort of — I’m not a theist, but I wonder, how did the universe send that woman to me, that she helped me to engage and claim my humanity, that took me on a different path? And I think being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It’s not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love. And the thing about it — if you suffer, it does not imply love. But if you love, it does imply suffering.
So part of the thing that I think what being human means — to love and to suffer; to suffer with, though, compassion, not to suffer against. So, to have a space big enough to suffer with, and if we can hold that space big enough, we also will have joy and fun, even as we suffer. And suffering will no longer divide us. And to me, that’s sort of the human journey.
How can we stop backsliding toward inequality?.. Let’s take that statistic about the decline in poverty among black men. It comes from an excellent report by Bradford Wilcox and others at the American Enterprise Institute. As their report clearly shows, the vast bulk of that decline happened between 1960 and 1975. If you look at poverty data since 1980, there’s been little progress, either in black men moving out of poverty or into the middle class... The recent famous study co-produced by Raj Chetty points to an elemental truth: There is still a strong, steady societal wind pushing against African-American men. Those born into poverty are much less likely to be able to climb out than their counterparts in other races. Those born into affluence are much more likely to fall down the income scale over the course of their lives... When it comes to segregation, the story is even worse. One of the things we’ve learned over the past decades is that place really matters — the nature of your neighborhood and surroundings.
American neighborhoods are desegregating slightly, but the situation is worse for children. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be residentially segregated than minority adults.
.. Schools are resegregating, too. The percentage of black students who are attending schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority went down in the South in the 1970s and 1980s, but now is shooting up. In the Northeast, the percentage of black students in these schools has been climbing for decades.
Even the workplace is showing signs of regression. Big companies are still reasonably integrated, but newer, smaller businesses are more segregated, often largely white, black or Hispanic.
.. But conservatives are right to point to the importance of bourgeois norms. Three institutions do an impressive job of reducing racial disparity:
- the military,
- marriage and
As the A.E.I. study shows, black men who served in the military are more likely to be in the middle class than those who did not. Black men who attended religious services are 76 percent more likely to attain at least middle-class status than those who did not.
.. the general presence of fathers — not just one’s own — in the community is a powerful determinant of whether young men will be able to rise and thrive.
We’ve fallen into a bogus logjam in which progressives emphasize systems of oppression and conservatives emphasize cultural norms. Both critiques are correct. If we’re going to do something about this appalling retrogression on race, we probably need to be radical on both ends.
I’ve been reading Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.”
“I could work as much and eat as much as a man, when I could get it, and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children and seen most of them sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
.. When Truth asked the group of mostly white women in her audience whether she was a woman, she was not simply pointing to the hypocrisy of Western thought in which nations and “civilized” societies were built on the enslavement, murder and exploitation of women and children. Truth’s question was a provocation, a challenge to a racial structure built on the dehumanization of an entire group of human beings.
.. The barbarity of American slavery should be recalled more often, if only to truly understand the significance of its demise. It was
- the grief of losing one’s child,
- being raped,
- tortured and
- separated from your own
- family and friends at a whim.
.. It was a system that normalized and codified its everyday brutality. It was life in constant fear and punishing, exacting labor. And it was completely legal.
.. Who successfully sued a white man to get back her son.
.. For example, Truth, in fact, had only five children, not 13 — an embellishment attributed to those who later transcribed the speech for the illiterate former slave.
.. I think of her standing in a courtroom to claim her child and I remind myself that this is what freedom means.
.. I participated in the Occupy movement, during which a crossracial coalition of people from New York to Honolulu protested income inequality, gentrification, police brutality and unjust incarceration. The movement had many successes, but in its immediate aftermath we saw widespread crackdowns in cities around the country on people’s ability to interact and exist in urban outdoor spaces — policies that have aided efforts to criminalize the nation’s homeless and pre-emptively arrest other vulnerable populations.
.. In order to have hope, I have to believe that, after the backlash, things — for black Americans and other oppressed people here and around the world — will change again.
.. For black Americans, the struggle of emancipation is riddled with its failures: sharecropping, lynching, segregation, disenfranchisement and brutal, unfair treatment by the criminal justice system.
.. John Lewis said in a recent tweet, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair.
Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.”