If white parents want their kids to truly care about black lives, they should send them to school with black kids

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Photo by Laurie Shaull

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen scores of articles about how parents, particularly white parents like me, should be talking to our kids about race. These pieces tell us what we should be saying, what we should be reading, to make our kids understand racism — particularly as African Americans experience it — and how they can fight it.

But one important piece of advice has been missing from these recommendations: If white parents really want to teach their kids that black lives matter, they should send them to school with black kids.

That’s not happening now. Although it’s been over 65 years since the Brown vs Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional, our schools are still deeply segregated by race, more so than they’ve been in decades.

There are many reasons for this, which could be the subject of a whole separate piece. I’ll just name a few: Changes in the law over time made it easier for schools to re-segregate in some parts of the country. In another landmark decision in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that schools systems didn’t have to integrate across district lines. If white parents didn’t want to send their kids to an integrated school in their city, all they had to do was move to a white town and their kids could attend a white schools — and that’s exactly what many white parents did. Finally, court-ordered busing, which brought black kids to majority white schools and vice versa, was met with fierce opposition by many whites and ultimately ended about 20 years ago, when courts decided schools were “integrated enough.”

Underlying all these factors is an inescapable fact: when white parents are given the choice, they choose to send their kids to segregated schools. As the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has persuasively argued, although liberal white parents say they oppose school segregation, they make choices that uphold it.

Until a few years ago, my husband and I had made the same choice for our family. When our son finished preschool, we chose to send him to the local private Montessori school rather than our neighborhood public school. There were a number of factors that drew us there, chief among them the fact that kids in the younger grades were given four recess periods, which we thought would suit our very active 5-year-old.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was also somewhat scared off of our neighborhood public school. I often heard people describe it as a “bad” school, or slightly less offensively, a “failing school.” When I first purchased my home, more than one person asked where I would send my (as yet unborn) kids to school, since, they assumed, I wouldn’t send them to the neighborhood school. Others have told me they considered buying a house in my neighborhood, but ultimately decided not to because of the failing public school.

It’s true that the school tends to perform poorly on state tests. This is not surprising; about 60% of the students at the school receive free or reduced lunch, and there is overwhelming evidence that test scores are highly correlated with family income. (This trend definitely holds up in my school district, where performance on the state-wide test in 2019 was highly correlated with the percentage of lower-income students.)

Knowing about this research, I decided to ignore my peers’ warnings and follow my conscience. Over the years, I had come to see the choice not to send my kids to the neighborhood school as hypocritical. How could I say I supported public education, but not send my kids to public school? If the neighborhood school was good enough for other people’s kids, why not mine? When our son entered fourth grade and our daughter first, we switched them to our neighborhood public school.

In addition to being predominantly lower-income, our school is more racially diverse than most other schools in town. About 10% of the student population is black, compared to 5% and 2% at the two closest schools (which, incidentally, also have much lower percentages of students on free or reduced lunch). This might not sound especially diverse, but bear in mind that we live in a predominantly white town in Indiana.

I’m sure many of my peers were mystified by my choice to switch my kids from the Montessori school, renowned for its wonderful curriculum and highly engaged families, to our neighborhood school. Why would I sacrifice my kids’ education like that?

Of course, no one has said that to my face, but it’s safe to assume that’s what many think. Many liberal white parents agree that segregation is a problem, but still choose schools that are predominantly white and affluent over more diverse schools, because they don’t want to, in their words, “sacrifice” their kids’ education.

I don’t see sending my kids to the neighborhood school as a sacrifice, and neither do they. For one thing, they like their school. They like their teachers, who are dynamic, engaged, and caring, and their classmates, many of whom they now count as friends. Because the school is just around the corner, they walk there on their own, which makes them feel very independent. Walks home from school frequently turn into spontaneous playdates with other neighborhood kids. (Of course, none of this is happening now because of the pandemic, but I hope some version of it starts up again soon.)

But my kids have gained a lot more than just a school they like — they have gained perspective. They are now friends with people who look different from them and come from different backgrounds. They have seen, first-hand, how privileged they are compared to some of their peers. (A few months ago, my son told me how on Friday afternoons, a bunch of his classmates go to the cafeteria to load up their backpacks with food, so they’ll have enough to eat over the weekend. “I’m really lucky I have enough to eat,” he told me.)

I hope this perspective makes my children more compassionate people. As Hannah-Jones wrote in a moving essay about deciding to send her daughter to a high poverty school, “I think it makes her a better human being. I think she gets to see that these kids aren’t any less than her. They just have less than her.” I know that understanding privilege is not an end in itself. But it is an important first step. As my kids get older, I hope they act on this understanding by lifting up those who don’t have the same advantages, through advocacy, community service, perhaps even their career choices.

I don’t mean to suggest our family hasn’t given anything up in the switch to our neighborhood school. I know my kids would love to go to the same school as their close friends from preschool. I also realize they might be more academically challenged at a school with more resources, where they would have more individualized attention from their teachers. And they also miss out on some of the perks of more affluent schools, like robotics club and chess club, activities I know they’d enjoy.

But I also realize how lucky our family is to have the resources to make up for those shortfalls. My husband and I have the time and energy to help our kids nurture friendships with people they don’t get to see at school. If we want them to be more academically challenged, we can hire a tutor, or buy them some workbooks, or sit down and teach them ourselves. If they have a hobby or passion they want to pursue, we have the time and resources to help them do that outside of school.

What does all this have to do with black lives? A lot. When white parents send their kids to schools where almost everyone else is white, it upholds a racist system. The Supreme Court outlawed segregation because it rejected the notion that schools could “separate but equal.” Segregated schools harm black lives.

I know a lot of white parents will see things differently. They will insist they are anti-racist. That’s why they took their kids to the protests in the last couple of weeks (or at least talked to them about it, if they wanted to avoid the crowds) and why they are talking to their kids about the ills of racism. And in theory, they’ll say, they’re for integrated schools. But when it comes to making choices for their own children, they’ll say, they’re just doing what any parent would do — trying to provide their child with the best.

I get it. I want the best for my kids, too. But it’s time we re-examine what we mean when we say that. Is the best school simply the one most bells and whistles, the fanciest playground, or even the one most likely to set our kids on the path to the Ivy League? To me, the best school is more than that. It’s the one that helps them become better people, better citizens — which is what public education is supposed to be about.

It’s great to take our kids to protests, to talk about racism, to read books by black writers and with black protagonists. But in the end, it’s our actions, the choices we make about how to live our day-to-day lives, that matter most.

When our kids hear black lives matter, it should make them think of people they know, kids they see and play with every day. It should be more than just a slogan.

Jennifer Richler is a freelance writer and audio producer living in Indiana.

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