Before You Opt Out Of That Public School, Read This
We wanted to live in the big city. We wanted to stay in the City. Then we wanted a house or big apartment in which to raise kids. Seemed straightforward. But that's when the struggle for our very souls began in earnest. The next big question facing us is existential: which school will we send our children to?
Who's we? We are the mostly white, mostly middle- and upper-middle class, schooled in liberal arts, culturally attuned to NPR and the New York Times, The Atlantic and the New Yorker, with a smattering of Mother Jones or The Nation issues in our lobby mail slots. We can go to parties and talk about racism and bemoan white supremacy in a gorgeously renovated living room with a Black Lives Matter placard in the window. We want to fix X and Y problems, and yet when it comes down to it, we support charter schools, “forest schooling,” and testing our children into the “gifted” school.
The results of this are that kids in poverty account for 51 percent of all public school attendees, per the Southern Education Foundation. And regardless of family wealth, white children will statistically out-earn black peers from a similar background, according to a joint study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau. We say we believe in equality and diversity, but in practice, we choose segregation. We're all for affordable housing; we live in unaffordable mansions that we bought utilizing low interest rates from welcoming banks, down-payments borrowed or given by relatives, and a de facto and insidious form of post-baccalaureate subsidy — the Racism Discount. Please allow this longtime arty Brooklynite (originally from the Midwest, of course) explain how I came to recognize this remarkable tool for achieving City home ownership, and why it's so hard to reconcile with the heart.
The rich friends moved to their first-choice neighborhoods, and bragged of the good schools therein.
Living in Hipville, USA, is exhilarating and challenging in equal measures. Smart, funny, fascinating, and quirky people are everywhere. Jobs come in every style, size, and income. Culture and cultures surround us, making us feel like a citizens of the world. We're never more than a subway or bus ride from intellectual stimulation. We become hooked on the daily high of intense, tightly-packed living, full of surprises and adventure. We're often car-less, and take pride that we're leaving less of a carbon footprint than our rural and suburban brethren. We try hard to hide our smugness.
Having developed a pair-bond with a like-minded mate, we decide to mate and spawn offspring. But having a child upended our carefully calibrated sense of moral balance. This was the first time we looked up from our navels and took full stock of where and how we lived. Is the neighborhood safe? Is it clean? Is it too noisy or hectic? Are there other new families to bond with, playgrounds nearby, nurturing day-cares and good schools?
Most of our specific "settling down" decisions were informed by how much money we had or could poach from relatives. (In the minds of every city-dweller you'll find a collectively determined running list of best and worst neighborhoods to live in if you have kids. The personalized version of the list fluctuates with one's own financial condition, the vagaries of hipness, trends, age, and various insecurities and prejudices.) A round of musical chairs ensued, and we all sat down in our various neighborhoods, though some couldn't find an affordable "chair" and had to leave the game. A bonus: we were finally able to confirm our suspicions about who was actually wealthy; you can't hide a four-bedroom townhouse in the middle of a real estate boom.
The rich friends moved to their first-choice neighborhoods, and bragged of the good schools therein. The middle-classes began to re-assess previously undesirable neighborhoods or assail the pricier zip codes as "over" and dull. We started talking about real estate — obsessively. We started to become our parents even before we became parents ourselves. But we're NOT our parents, we'd say. We're more progressive, more open-minded, more attuned to the needs of others and the world's ills. So we convinced ourselves it's desirable to live around other races and cultures and economic classes. We liked to chastise others for living in nearly all-white enclaves.
We bought into neighborhoods other whites had shunned. We didn't do it out of any great virtue. We did it because those areas were cheaper. And often they were cheaper because they were predominantly black or brown. We bought low to one day sell high. We assumed that more whites and wealthier types would follow our lead, because we knew the history, as one neighborhood after another went through "the change," a pendulum swing against the white flight of the post-war era. We were whites taking full advantage of the Racism Discount.
The RD was greatest for the first to arrive — the Early Bird Special. My wife and I weren't even married when we purchased our house in the Lefferts Gardens area of Flatbush back in 2003. There were just two other white folks on the block, as far we could tell, a block with somewhere close to 1,500 residents living in 30 old town-houses and nearly 500 pre-war apartments. We were a serious minority, and we took great pride in our ability to look past race and poverty. The whites didn't show up in numbers ‘til years later. In all honesty, those early years were awesome, and the least soul-crushing. We were welcomed, and we felt alive.
The black and brown residents of our block were as varied as the world itself. A great number were African-Americans whose families arrived during the Great Migration, some sending their kids down South in the summers to be with relatives, some making plans to move back down permanently once retired. Like immigrants from within their own country. There were hundreds of Caribbeans from every nation, lots of Yemenis, some Puerto Ricans, Africans, mostly citizens but plenty were just residents. No one cared about such things. And not everyone was poor.
Still living four doors down is the two-home-owning gay, black judge, and the Vietnam War veteran who was the first black electrician in the union, the black female sanitation worker who won a multi-million dollar lawsuit, lots of nurses, salespeople, social workers, business owners. There were also lots of Section 8 families, folks with little or no income but who possessed the prized housing vouchers. (Back 15 years ago, landlords would still accept them readily, as the vouchers were a steady and certain source of rental income.)
Some of the single-family homes had become boarding houses. Our three-floor 20-foot-wide row house had eight separate one-room apartments when we bought it — "SROs" in the lingo. It was mostly immigrant men living there, looking only for a place to lay their heads at night while working three, maybe four jobs.
We didn't think about the schools. We thought about how lucky we were to live near the subway, the Park, the Botanic Garden, the Museum. The other side of the park cost three times as much. The racism discount was steep then; the price differential is closer to double now, as more and more white folks have moved east. It's incredible how one can quantify people's discomfort with minorities, but there it is, right on the Zillow listings.
The schools? Education was being delivered, for sure. But our zoned school and the others nearby were nearly all black and all poor. Even the wealthier black and mixed-race couples we'd met sent their kids out of the neighborhood, many to private or parochial schools. Solid, progressive liberal arts grads would say, with straight faces, that their conscience told them to go local, but they didn't want their own kids to be guinea pigs for a school's diversification. It should be noted that most of these parents have still never set foot in any of these schools, let alone taken the time to meet the principal or take a tour. Many used test scores to decide whether a school met the acceptable threshold, even though, as Leonie Haimsen wrote in the New York Times, they are vulnerable to cheating and tend to respond directly to injections of money. On top of which, “the National Academy of Sciences has not once but twice spoken out against imposing this sort of high stakes accountability scheme on our schools.”
A few white parents went as far as to create a charter school to address the lack of good options in the area. Initially, a fair number of white families proudly attended the newly minted Charter School, which had been gracelessly co-located into a beautiful old school building housing longtime neighborhood school PSXY, which was suffering a steep drop-off in attendance. Which, by the way, was a direct result of the accelerating gentrification in the neighborhood that was bringing more school-aged families - plenty to fill the seats at the two under-enrolled zoned schools. But not one (quite literally, not one) of the newcomers felt comfortable sending their kids to the local-zoned schools. The excuses were always a variation on the guinea-pig defense.
I tried to convince playground friends to give it a shot — together if necessary — to just go to the zoned school. A few meetings were held, but one by one our preschool friends chose other options. A couple Montessories here, a couple fancy private schools there, a few homeschoolers and lots of out-of-neighborhood schoolers. The well-regarded local private pre-school actively encouraged parents to go out of zone, even out of district. That well-regarded school leader coached parents on how to "work the system" legally, and how to find schools that were still accepting out-of-zone students to fill their seats. The unstated irony? Her own children were bi-racial.
Children had been attending my local elementary schools for years, largely without incident, and with their students leaving the fifth grade reading, writing and multiplying the same 26 letters and 10 digits.
As in any massive clandestine effort, code words were used to hide the issue facing parents. The Racism Discount had provided for cheaper housing. But it didn't mean the local public schools would also gradually add new wealthier residents at the rate of home equity increase, and the longtime local proud experienced principals weren't going to beg parents to come "save" their schools from lack of cultural and fiscal capital. For many well-bred whites, this was the first time their privilege met a dead-end. Local elected officials weren't much help either. They, too, were black and proud, or white and smarter than to play race games, and they weren't interested in hearing solutions that didn't involve parents simply crossing out of their comfort zones and going local.
After all, actual flesh and bone children had been attending my local elementary schools for years, largely without incident, and with their students leaving the fifth grade reading, writing and multiplying the same 26 letters and 10 digits. Granted, the test scores weren't stellar. Absenteeism was higher than the W&W schools (my new code for White and Wealthy). There were above-average issues with discipline, and unpleasant words came out of some young kids' mouths. Teenagers would hang out sometimes near playgrounds, smoking weed, talking loud and rough-housing.
But wait. Wasn't that precisely the behavior I experienced with certain kids in my idyllic midwestern hometown? It's just that the rough kids weren't black; they were mostly whites who lived on the wrong side of the tracks. By the time we were in third grade we knew exactly where the tracks were, and what sorts of people lived there. I don't think it even had to be taught to us. We just knew, by the way parents acted and the little things they'd say and the comments at school, the dress code, the accents.
After making all the connections and writing blog essays for years, painfully learning lesson after lesson out loud and online, I started to see myself and my parenting in a new light. And racism, too, was not the only ism in the schools equation.
Comfortable liberal whites aren't nearly as afraid of blackness as they are a certain kind of blackness. Myself, I wasn't afraid of whites growing up — just a certain kind of whites, the kids we called "dirtheads" and who lived in trailers and cussed young and smoked weed before they became teenagers. The kids of single moms who often worked menial jobs. The kids who never seemed to have support outside of school. Kids who shot guns, rode ATVs. The kids who turned away from society at an early age, uninvited and unwelcome in a world of privilege and all the sorts of expectations of civility and middle-class custom.
The reason my soul feels so tormented is that in my heart I know I'm no better than anyone else, but in practice, I act as if I were. I expect the world to want what I have — that cultural capital, my relative ease among the wealthy and powerful. I expect to be treated with respect and when I don't get it, I demand it, and if I still don't get it, I use the levers of powers at my disposal to exact revenge. I use my abilities and clout whenever it's to my advantage to do so.
Worse, I sometimes change my behavior around people whom I recognize as poor, uneducated, from the wrong side of the tracks. And all the while I say I'm doing it because it's important to all get along, to meet halfway, to assimilate in a neighborhood that seemed different from me, foreign. By changing my behavior I admitted, if subconsciously, that I believe I don't fit in either. That I believe I belong in the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.
When it comes to my children though, I can't help but wonder… sure, I've made my peace with this uncomfortable reality. But why should my children not grow up as I did, surrounded by high achievers from the dominant classes? Am I selling them, and myself, short?
My wife and I split the difference. We sent our kids to a public school that had enough white people not to feel like aliens, but not so many that we felt like hypocrites. What sort of changes in our own behavior were we willing to make to create the world we say we believe in? I'm losing faith. I'm neither brave nor noble. And I certainly don't deserve the trappings of entitlement.
Postscript: Our house is worth five times what we paid for it. Almost all our newest neighbors are white. The schools, even now, haven't changed at all. The Racism Discount paid great fiscal dividends. So why don’t I feel richer?