Dr. Amanda Lewis (Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools, co-authored with John Diamond) joins us for this third episode of our Brown v. Board at 67: The Stories We Tell Ourselves series. Dr. Lewis’s research takes her to a school that is desegregated on paper but segregated within the building. It is a school, like many, with “race neutral” policies that hide the very real racialized practices in the building. Add to that a dose of opportunity hoarding, and equitable policies become very difficult to institute. Brown v. Board focused on desegregating schools rather than integrating classrooms, but the story we tell about it is that it ended our racist school policies. While that may feel good, our “good intentions” do not absolve us from the impact of our actions.
- Amanda Lewis Race In The Schoolyard
- Karolyn Tyson Integration Interrupted
- Charles Tilley on Opportunity Hoarding
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The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits.
Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
[email protected] - Amanda Lewis Revisited
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is Brown v Board at 67 - Amanda Lewis Revisited. We're going back to part three of our series on Brown v Board of Education - The Stories We Tell Ourselves, to dive into segregation within school buildings. Desegregation that only focuses on moving bodies and fails to get at meaningful integration within school walls, not only fails to capitalize on the potential of a truly integrated student body, but also risks reinforcing racialized societal ideas in ways that can be quite harmful. I'll let Courtney and i from two years ago take it from here:
Courtney: So for this episode, we are looking at the impact of Brown v. Board and the stories we tell ourselves about it, kind of on our schools today and, and I guess, particularly the very segregated experiences that many kids and families have in desegregated schools.
Andrew: So we're joined by Dr. Amanda Lewis, who, along with Dr. John Diamond, studied a desegregated school in the Midwest and wrote about it in their book, Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools. And you know, what their research shows is just how, how the policies and practices on the school-level can really recreate segregation, just within the school walls. And, you know, I think it's the stories that we've told ourselves about race, about parenting, about good schools, sort of in light of Brown v. Board, that really contributes to allowing this to happen.
Courtney: Yeah, like the, We did race already. The, We're done with that, after Brown v. Board, has kind of given rise to the stories that Dr. Lewis shares in her research. And I don't think I'm gonna be giving much of a spoiler here, but no, we're not.
Andrew: No, not by a long shot.
Courtney: One of the things that comes out is how White parents are really implicated in these segregated experiences, right? Like, we might not have much impact on the firing of all the Black teachers in Topeka in the 1950s, but we definitely have, as parents, a role in perpetuating inequity in schools today.
Yeah, I mean, you know, I think about Maggie Hagerman back from, jeez, way back in Episode 3…
Courtney: Way back!
Andrew: These are systemic issues, right? But we're navigating them as individuals. So, you know, I think the book title from Amanda Lewis is great, Despite the Best Intentions. You know, so even with our good intentions, if we're not aware of these systemic issues, it's really hard to push back on them.
Courtney: Yeah, and now, Dr. Lewis.
Welcome, Dr. Lewis. Could you introduce yourself?
Dr. Amanda Lewis: My name is Amanda Lewis, I’m a professor of Sociology and African American studies, and I direct a research institute called The Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy. All of that at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Courtney: Great. Welcome.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Thanks.
Andrew: Maybe we can start. You can tell us a little bit about Despite the Best Intentions and what the book is and how you guys went about researching it.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah, so can I, can I go back even one step further from that?
Courtney: Yes, please.
Andrew: Even better.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: I started doing research in schools probably fifteen years before we started the Despite the Best Intentions project and in part, I'd started doing that work because I had been a student teacher, intending to be an elementary school teacher, and had seen a bunch of different things happen in schools that were purported to be very good and award-winning teachers doing things that were intensely confusing at the time because they seemed really unfair and because nobody seemed to notice. So everything from punishing African American kids differently than other kids, to really subtle things happening in class. I was a young teacher, prospective teacher, and I thought, Man, this race thing is really confusing because it seems to be going on all the time and people don't seem to notice, and I don't understand it well enough, and I don't want to be doing this stuff and I want to understand it better.
So I kind of backed my way into going to graduate school and not really knowing what I was getting myself into. And the big kind of question for me, that drove a lot of that work, was how do we create educational institutions in which everybody can thrive? There's this tension a lot with schools between their history in this country, which is very much one of being deeply involved in projects to reproduce racial inequality and reproduce racial hierarchies. But for many of us who are deeply engaged in schools and want to work in them, we also deeply believe that they should be doing something else and that they're capable of doing something else and that they can in fact be involved in projects for racial justice, which they also have been.
And so there's this tension and I wanted to understand more about why they did both things and when they did both things, and that led me to doing some ethnographic research in schools that turned into my first book, which was called Race in the Schoolyard. Which was really about trying to understand how schools were places, in the book I talk about them as race-making institutions, and by that I mean they're places where kids actually learned race. They learn about what it means for them; they learn about what it means for other kids; they learn content about race; they learn history lessons about why the country is the way it is.
And all of that work had me thinking much more deeply about racial dynamics in everyday interactions, but also about the kind of multiple levels on which race works, kind of structurally shaping what kinds of resources we have access to, what kind of resources schools have access to, and why kids are in different school buildings. But it also led to a deep dive into looking at how people talked about these dynamics and how people thought about why race was connected to school outcomes. Because, of course, it really shouldn't be. Race is a social and political category and there is nothing inherent about it that we should be able to so easily use race to predict school outcomes. And the fact that we can use race to produce school outcomes is very much about our social doing. It's about kind of these long histories of structural racism in the United States.
So that gets you to the place where John Diamond and I began to have a set of conversations about feeling dissatisfied with the conversation in the field of education and about schools, about how race mattered and about why it mattered. And right around that time, an assistant principal, who we refer to in the book as Mr. Weber, reached out to us asking if we would come and do a project at his school to understand why racial achievement gaps had persisted over decades. He was about to retire, he’s an African American gentleman who had been at the school for most of his career, from a teacher to a dean to an assistant principal. And he felt really dissatisfied with how little progress they had made, even though he felt like much of what he thought they all had been doing for years was trying to somehow close the gaps in achievement between, primarily between, Black and White kids in this community.
And when he invited us in, he initially invited us in in a way that for us echoed this kind of larger conversation about race and school outcomes, in which he said, Will you come in and talk to the low-achieving Black kids and find out what's going on? Like, why, why they're not doing well. And for us that was very much like this larger set of conversations in which, if you step back a minute, what you see is what we have throughout our history, funded schools completely differently, we've created inferior schools to send Black and Brown kids to, There’s been no moment in our, the history of U. S schools in which we provided kids anywhere near an equal educational experience. But we still, despite all of that, when we look at school outcomes, say, What's wrong with these kids who aren't…
Courtney: What's wrong with the Brown and Black kids?
Dr. Amanda Lewis: For us, in many ways, doing this research in Riverview offered a chance to kind of study this best-case scenario, which is a school which had lots of resources, an abundance of goodwill, and was this community that had a relatively, you know, either stable working class or middle class Black community, some really upper, upper middle class Black families. So it wasn't a place where there was the kind of intransigent race/ class overlaps that make it hard to pull apart all those things. And because Mr. Weber invited us in and, and after a couple of conversations in which we said, Look, we're happy to come, but we need to talk to everybody, you know, this is not…
Andrew: Just talking to the Black kids is not gonna, gonna tell us much.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah. Yeah. And he was like, Great. So in that way, it felt like a project that was really collaborative and an opportunity to dig in in a deep kind of way.
Andrew: Can you go back even one step further, like, Why do you care? Why did you, when you got into teaching, when you showed up, what do you think it was that made you think, Hang on, something's not right here? Because I feel like the, the river is flowing and people just jump in and don't usually stop to recognize those things.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: So one of the stories I tell in Race in the Schoolyard is going into a classroom. Third grade in a school district that had been desegregated for decades. It was a school where half the kids were Black and half were White, literally, because of this organized busing program they had. It was supposed to be my like good placement. I was with an award-winning teacher. She really was amazing in lots of ways. But one of the things, this was a kind of a pivotal moment for me, because there was a kid in the class named Kenny who is by far the smartest kid in the class. He was from a very low income Black family, he had three outfits that he rotated. Um, they were always clean, they were always pressed, but that was it. And he was just super engaged. He would stay in at lunchtime to do math word problems with me. So I really connected with him. And one day, right after lunch, so he had asked to go to the bathroom, and the teacher had said no. And then a couple of other kids, you know, asked to go and they went. And then, you know, ten or fifteen minutes later, he asked again, and the teacher again said no. And I watched him walk back to the seat and I watched him quite visibly swallowing, trying not to cry. And at the time I was totally perplexed what was going on. And I did something that I have since said regularly is not necessarily what a student teacher should do, but I used my little tiny bit of authority, and I went over and I said, You know, wait two minutes and then come ask me. And then, so he did and I let him go to the bathroom. But I spent weeks afterwards trying to understand not just that moment, but moments like that.
And what eventually became clear to me is that was the class that had five African American boys in it, and one of the boys in particular, this boy Anthony, had some pretty severe emotional challenges. And any time Anthony was having a bad day, it was a bad day for all those Black boys. Without even realizing it, she would just hammer down on all of them. She monitored them more closely. But what became clear in that moment, what you know, again, probably takes me 20 years to really be able to articulate this in a way that makes sense, is that those kind of moments are moments where a kid like Kenny learns that he's a kind of second-class citizen in the world, and he doesn't totally understand why. But he understands that things work differently for him and that those moments add up over time in really consequential ways. And also tell us a lot about how race works today, where you know, when people are engaged in discriminatory behavior, it's often subtle. It often has nothing to do with what their intentions are, but it still has a huge impact over time. Part of what happens, is when you start seeing you can't stop seeing, right?
Courtney: That’s right.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Especially as a White person in this country, there's a lot that organizes to keep us ignorant about our role in the world and how the world has shaped us. But once that peels back a little bit and you start seeing, it's really hard not to keep seeing.
Courtney: That’s right. We've been, you know, more or less trying for 65 years to work toward desegregation.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah.
Courtney: Right? And largely we have failed, right? Like, dramatically failed, spectacularly failed. But even in places where we have desegregated, your work looks at like the difference between desegregation and integration, like in this desegregated building, the kids are still segregated.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: We have been ambivalently, in highly contested ways, with lots of conflict along the way, sort of been trying to desegregate for 65 years. What we have not been doing is really sincerely trying to integrate for 65 years. And I think the work that you guys, is really important along these lines, because partly there has never been a partnership in this. Part of the reason why, even I think John I would both say, that we both continue to feel really ambivalent about the pursuit of desegregation and integration today is because of experiences like watching what happened at Riverview in which, if you're just trying to get people in the same building, by no means it means they have the same experiences. And in fact, if you have kids in the same building and they're having these racially stratified academic experiences, it often reinforces all these negative stereotypes.
Courtney: That's right.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Really, they’re just less pernicious. On the other hand, I think it would be impossible not to notice that the Black kids at Riverview were having a better experience than a lot of the Black kids in the city nearby. Because Riverview just has more money, you know, there are just more resources, there are better teachers, there’s better paid teachers. There's layers of this.
You know, part of why integration, I think, still remains important is because the fact that we all share this country together and we really ought to be in the same spaces. But it's also about the fact that because resources are still so vastly unfairly allocated, segregated schools just fundamentally mean unequal schools. And that's not okay. And nobody has yet figured out how to solve that problem without also trying to make sure kids are sharing space.
Courtney: Yeah, one of those things that really stands out for me in your book, Despite the Best Intentions, is the difference between this, like, formal policy stuff that happens and like the everyday hallway decisions that happen. There's so much business that goes on before you even get to any kind of policy implementation. And...
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah, no, I think it's honestly, when we've been doing work since the book came out with superintendents and school districts, one of the things that I think people really hold on to is this argument we're making, that you can say, in the book we talk about the difference in organizational routines between the austensive or the formal or the official policy and then the informal performative everyday improvisational, like what actually happens.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: And it's another thing, but it's like, What are the rules and what are really the rules, right?
Dr. Amanda Lewis: And that resonates with people ‘cause that's true in all the organizations we’re in in many ways. I mean, I don't know, as soon as we start talking about it, somebody’s like Oh, yeah, that's like in my law firm, that's you know what I mean? People recognize that that's in some ways how organizations work. But in schools, part of what we say very clearly is that you can say your policy is that any kid in the hallway without a hall pass during class gets detention. But if what you're actually doing is that any African American kid in the hallway gets detention, then that's really your policy. Right? It doesn't matter what you say your policy is, if your practice is different than that really is what your policy is, and you should be able to say out loud, Our policy is to punish Black kids differently. And if that's an uncomfortable thing to say out loud, then you need to do something about it.
So I'll give you one example. I was working with some folks in a district, and one of the assistant superintendents called me up over the summer, and she said, We have just been made aware that a dynamic like this is going on in one of our schools around class placement where, you know, as kids get assigned to different classes for the next year, you know, like which third grade class is your kids going to get put in, there's a kind of formal way that that's supposed to happen, and then there's also often the implicit way that happens in which people have more connections, more influence, more knowledge, just get more control over where their kid gets placed. Or, you know, a lot of schools say you can't request a teacher. But if you know somebody, you sort of can request a teacher, all that kind of stuff.
Courtney: The wink and a nod way in.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah. Or even principles will say, you know, I'm open to feedback from anybody. But if only few parents know that, or if only a few parents really feel like even entitled to email the principal. So they went through a really rigorous and, I thought, really good process to come up with a new policy about class placement that was going to try to deal with a lot of this and just make it very transparent, make it very clear, and very consistent across all the schools. And as you can imagine, I mean, most parents were happy about it, but the parents they really heard from, were the parents who recognized immediately that this was going to impact them, you know, they felt a sense of loss. They certainly raised a lot of questions and a lot of meetings.
Andrew: I mean, to me, the thing, the sort of next level of that that was super interesting about the book, was there the connected parents who know what levers to pull and they, that’s sort of one category. But then the school system lumps all parents like that into the same boat. So even if you're not the one who's calling the principal, even you're not the one who's going in and demanding that your kid get into whatever, the system is set up to say, Well, I mean, probably that's the kind of parent that he or she is, so like, let's just go ahead and avoid the dilemma.
Courtney: And get Andrew's kids into the highest class because we know he's gonna be that parent.
Andrew: He's that kind of parent. So even if I don't show up and demand it, I still get the benefit of it.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you know, we talk about it in the book, but there was this young African American teacher who sort of named having noticed herself that she had come into teaching because she wanted to be an advocate for kids like her in a school like this. And then she recognized several years in that the kids that she was worrying about at home were not the African Americans in her class. They were these White kids. Again, it's one of the subtle ways that race works, where it kind of, there's a generalizing thing that happens, and it just seems easier to act proactively on behalf or to, you know, you're extra careful with the process with some kids, you assume that some kids are just like, Man, if that kids doesn't get an A, they're gonna be a pain in the butt, so I'm gonna remind them a couple more times to turn in their homework. And it's kind of the reverse, I mean, what we try to talk about is that in the same way that, like assumptions about Black criminality or all the work we've been hearing recently about how young African American kids get adultified, you know, they get all kinds of deliberate negative intentions impugned to them, even when they're little and in a way that White kids people think of as kind of inherently innocent and engaging and developmentally appropriate silliness. Those kinds of things happen in lots of ways, so that people are reading some kids as inherently maybe not just more talented, but really on a trajectory that you don't want to get in the way of.
You know, people talk a lot these days about implicit bias, and I'm ambivalent about that as a term. I think it's really useful, especially when you're trying to get people to do things, it's kind of low blame but high responsibility. It says, Look, you know, everybody's got it. You don't, shouldn't feel bad about it but it does mean you've got to do something. You know, you gotta act differently. And I think that's partly the point here, is that race is part of the air we breathe, it’s sort of, as we sort of talk about in the book, it colors our response to each other. And so if you know that, then you've gotta just pay a little more attention, like who am I calling on, who am I reminding about their homework? And the more, again, that you teach, not just teachers, I mean, we've been talking also to like medical professionals, other people about this, when people start having that lens, they start seeing it all the time and and then you can't really unsee it, or hopefully you can’t unsee it.
Courtney: One of the things that, and you kinda hinted at this just a second ago, but like how this sort of imagined future looks different for White kids versus Black kids. And how parents employ those different narratives around their kids and how staff and administrators and teachers, you know, respond to those. You know, My White kid got nabbed for having a little bit of marijuana in his locker, but you know, he's such a good kid, he has such a bright future.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: And it's also about this thing about innocence, right? Parents were saying, you know, like, He was holding it, but it's not really possession. You know what I mean? There’s all this, you know, like it is a sense of what's good enough. I will tell you, as a parent, one of the things I've learned even more as a parent, on the other side of this. I have an African American daughter, and one of the things that makes us crazy in trying to deal with the school is what we, my husband and I talked a lot to other parents, parents of Black kids, about this feeling like you're getting the Okey Doke from teachers, never knowing if they're accepting mediocrity from your kid. Right? What they perceive as good enough and having to constantly reset for teachers, your own expectations, to say, Look, you know, we think she could do better than this, and it's hard to say to a teacher directly, you know, We think your expectations are too low for a kid, you know.
Andrew: Especially because she's Black.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah. Exactly..
Andrew: Not only are you not a great teacher, but also you’re racist. That’s a tough conversation.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Right. Trying to figure out how to do that every fall with the new teacher of like, Hey, we're paying attention, you know. Like, I will tell you a very funny story. One day my daughter was in my office, she took a copy of Despite the Best Intentions, and she was like, Can I have it, and I said, Sure. She came home the next day from school, she said, I gave it to my teacher. And I said, and I knew she had given it because she wanted to say, Look, my mom wrote a book. But it was like, I had to email the teacher that night and say, Look, this was not like a subtle message I was trying to give you about how your good intentions are still leading to all kinds of racist outcomes for my kid.
So I think you're exactly right. So you can say you can see the process on the micro level, but you can also see it on a much larger level in society, right? Which is, and this is part of what John and I are trying to engage with, which is we have spent hundreds of years in this country denying the full humanity of Black folks in particular, but of Brown folks too, in lots of different ways. And we have done that for hundreds of years precisely because we needed to justify their exploitation, their enslavement, their exclusion, and that hasn't gone anywhere. So when we don't prescribe pain medication the same way for Black folks, when we don't feel as badly when their kids get shot.
I mean, there's all kinds of ways in which those kinds of bigger practices also end up in our school building, so that we just worry differently about kids. Or our sense of what's good enough for them or empathy. You know, it's partly about what kind of empathy we have for different kinds of kids. Like in that story I told about Kenny earlier, it's really painful watching kids come to understand, I mean obviously it’s more painful for them, but watching kids come to understand that who they are doesn't count as much. And thank gosh for our editor, David McBride, who gave us this much better title for the book. I don't even remember what the original title was, but it was not very good. Because it's an easy way to say right away what the biggest finding was, which is that lots of people in schools, most people in schools, I would even argue, have good intentions. But it's sort of irrelevant. The questions we always have to ask ourselves are, What our outcomes, what are we doing? Who has the sense of belonging? Who's doing well? All those things.
Andrew: Yeah, I wonder if maybe you could talk a little bit about the racial differences in parental reactions to things like discipline, to things like tracking, the sort of, you know, should the rules apply to me or not mindset, uh, you know, should my kid be disciplined or not? And the ways that those sort of differed based on the race of the families that you talked to.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: So in general, the White families, you know, these are all on average, right, in general the White families just offered with a much higher sense of entitlement. Schools had always worked for them. This is obviously you know, a very middle class community. This is not representative of all communities everywhere in the US, but they expected the school to work for their kid, they expected their kid to be in the higher level classes, they believed strongly that the school should be an advocate for their kid, that even if their kid misbehaved, the school's role wasn't to necessarily discipline or punish, but to be understanding.
And most of the Black families we talked to really wanted their kids to do well and a lot of them did try. I mean, one of things we talk about in the book is the difference between what we label as White parents opportunity hoarding, where they have all these advantages and there's working really hard to keep them. And Black families opportunity prying, which is sort of unsuccessfully often trying to make the schools work better for their kids. But not, not having a lot of success. And some of that was about a sense of entitlement or not taking No. Like the head of the department says, I don't think it's the best fit for your kid and they say Okay, okay. They actually want discipline, about thinking that their kids should face consequences from their actions and with White families that just never being the orientation. We even would talk to parents who are like, Yeah, you know, my kid, I sort of wish the school would come down a little harder on him because he's not really learning much about the parameters. So even some White parents, who didn't feel that way, they sort of recognized that the school was letting their kid off more.
So I wanna jump a little bit on what you were talking about with opportunity hoarding. And I'll tell you, I started underlining a little bit in that chapter, and I pretty much underlined like all but five words. Um, it was, it was such a great chapter, and I strongly recommend every listener buy this book and especially read this chapter. But we talk a lot about opportunity hoarding, but I don't think we've ever kind of stopped to really define it. Could you sort of do that and then put it in the context of your research here?
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. So I'm gonna describe the process that it captures for us. So one of the puzzles for John and I in doing this book was, that in society now in the United States, there are lots of patterns of racial inequality that look the same as they did 40 or 50 years ago. But the original mechanisms that produced them aren't, aren’t there anymore. So the question is, how do they get perpetuated, even absent those mechanisms? And how do we name what the new mechanisms and processes are?
So opportunity hoarding is a term that came out of some work by a guy named Charles Tilly. And then another sociologist named Douglas Massey wrote about it. And for them, it was the process that went along with a more explicit kind of dynamic, which they name as exploitation, as a way to understand durable inequality. As the way to understand why inequality persists over time. And it names a process whereby those who have advantages in certain domains, work hard to maintain those advantages.
And, you know, interestingly, and a lot of that prior work that we had seen, it's not always described very well, you know, they're not necessarily talking about specific data and examples. But as soon as we really dug in and tried to describe what it was that we were seeing these White families doing, and in fact like to answer the question for us at Riverview which was, why was there so little change given that a lot of the folks at the school knew what was going on? And how do you name a process where an assistant superintendent says, We're trying to do this one minor intervention in inequity, but we didn't get much done because I had to have 200 meetings with parents at the school to explain that this wasn't gonna water down their kids' curriculum or, you know, hearing from parents over and over again that they're not about White flight in the old fashioned sense but they make it very clear that if their kid is not in honors and AP classes then they're not gonna stay at the school and that that collective behavior means that the school is not able to change the things that contribute in the most pernicious way to maintaining racial hierarchies within the buildings.
So how do you name all that? Because they're not doing what people used to do, which to say, we don't want Black people here. They like the fact that there's a couple of Black kids in the honors and AP classes, right? So they're not acting in a kind of old fashioned sense to block others, to keep others out. All they're doing is acting proactively all the time, very vigorously on behalf of their own kids. And all that adds up to maintaining the status quo and one that protects their advantages. So that's the kind of, How I would capture what the kind of larger process is.
So it's, it’s for folks who have more, have extra access, and a lot of what they're doing is working hard to try to make sure none of that changes. And in doing so, whether or not they're explicitly trying to do this or it's just a side effect, they are blocking other people from having access to those same things. We actually got some pushback in the review process from some folks who said that they didn't think it was the right term because in the kind of abstract sense, they said, Well, you know, it's not really zero sum because really everybody could be in AP classes if they wanted to.
Courtney: Well, then White people would want to go into AP plus.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Exactly, yeah. Because it misses the point that part of what we're talking about is a very competitive, hierarchical process in which they know there's a competitive process that they're trying to get their kid an edge in, right? You know, every time I've been in a context talking about opportunity hoarding with people in higher education, particularly people in selective universities, when I talked about the early version of this with a dean at Emory University, when I was teaching there, he sort of said, Look, I feel very implicated you know, he didn’t say it in a defensive way. He said, Look, we contribute to this ‘cause we allow people to use weighted grades, you know, I mean, they're doing it because they
Andrew: ’Cause it works.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah, because it works. And it's a way that people often sacrifice their values in their parenting. I know you've talked to Maggie Hagerman before, but it's sort of what she talks about, about, you know, people willing to trade off their commitment to their values in order to get more for their kids. And it has sort of disastrous consequences for other folks.
Courtney: You know, I'm thinking, as we're talking about this in the context of 65 years since Brown v. Board, the stories that we tell around the time of the Little Rock Nine and in implementing these desegregation strategies, the White people are behaving badly by throwing Coke bottles at Black children entering the building. And this is a much nicer way, but no less violent.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that's been really interesting over the last two years, and I would say, I often say, it's one of the ironic gifts of 2016. Is that 2014 or 2015, you know, when I would talk about sections of the book when it was in progress and it really first came out and I would talk about it, people in general, you know, it was part of a moment when if you talked about race, people said, You know that race stuff, we’re kind of done with that aren't we? You know, we’ve got this Black president, things seem pretty good.
Andrew: We are good. We nailed this. We are done.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Exactly. We’re like, you know, two steps away from Nirvana. And one of the things that's been really interesting is that people now are much more willing to acknowledge what you just said. And in fact, in a couple of districts, there are much more organized White parent communities that are really trying to think about how to explicitly partner with other parents to be advocates for racial equity because they recognize that just moving to a diverse community was not enough. Or just having liberal values, that in fact, the world needs them to be engaged in a different kind of way, and they really want to do that.
Andrew: Yeah, I wonder if people are more willing to, like acknowledge the racism that is built in. And I think you sort of hinted at this briefly earlier that, like, one of the problems with these supposedly colorblind discipline policies that everybody knows don't actually work in a colorblind way. If you don't acknowledge that piece of it, especially for the kids in those situations, they're left to assume that you're being honest with them, right? Like you're telling them the truth, that this is colorblind. All of the Black kids are the ones who are getting disciplined, there must be something different about Black kids. If you don't give people the context of the racism that sort of has built this, then we set our kids up to not understand it in those contexts and then they're left with nothing but actually fundamentally racist understandings.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah, on both ends, you know, I mean, I think that's true for White kids who are really being socialized in these spaces. Karolyn Tyson's written a great book called Integration Interrupted about this. But in these kinds of spaces, the lessons that kids learn, both Black and White kids, are really destructive.
Andrew: So what do we do about it? You know, we are, you know, a podcast largely with a White and privileged audience talking to White and privileged people, you know, showing up in segregated spaces, you know, hopefully leading to more integrated spaces. How do we deal with that? Recognizing that we get all of these privileges, even if we don't ask for them, even if we're the parent who keeps their mouth shut, we're still part of a system that privileges us. What do you do about it?
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Well, I think there's lots of things. So I have a colleague here named Crystal Laura, who writes a lot about school-to-prison-pipelines and one of the things that she says, which I often quote her and I think is brilliant, she says to pick a lane and go hard. And by that she means that sometimes when we think about these kinds of challenges, it feels overwhelming. It feels like there's way too much and it's too hard and we don't know what to do. And when we feel like that, we end up not doing anything. It's sort of like thinking about climate change. You know, the documentary comes on basically saying the world's gonna burn up in two years and we just, we just turn it off. We're just like, I can't even think about this because it feels too big, too overwhelming, whatever. So I was start that with people, which is, pick a lane and go hard. Like you don't, you can't do everything, but you can do something and do it well.
For parents in particular, um, I think there are lots of ways to be deliberate about, you know, for instance, not engaging in opportunity hoarding. We've been facilitating a whole series of conversations with a large group of parents in one district about trying to think critically about all the ways that that manifests in their own schools. You know, everything from resistance to change, to advocating for your kid rather than all kids, try to think about, How do you operate as a different kind of member of the community?
John offers a great example sometimes of recognizing with his son at the middle school that he was at, that there was a problem in how special ed services were being delivered. And his initial instinct, which was to make sure it didn't function that way for his son, and then having to really check his own class privilege in some ways and saying, OK, this is a problem I've seen. Now I need to make sure it doesn't have any, you know, how do we advocate to change the policy or the practice rather than just making sure it doesn't get applied to our kid?
I mean, that's one of the things that we talked about in the book with the, related to discipline, is if privileged parents are able to keep opting out of bad rules, the rules themselves are not gonna change. So if the rule is the problem, the only way to get privileged parents’ leveraged help to change it, is by making sure they feel the pain, too. You know, I'm very, I always try to say to families and to parents, I recognize we're each individually trying to solve what are fundamentally structural problems. The organization of higher education and the organization of our school systems, all that stuff. But you know, I also say only sort of jokingly, Look, we've got to recognize our kids are not that special.
You know, like one of the things that I regularly say that people don't like, is that I think most gifted and talented programs are really problematic. I mean, this gets me more hostility than most other things I say. And you know, we talk about how much the testing into them is so class-based. I mean, there's so many problems with how they're organized and the kind of logic underneath them. There's almost no educationally defensible, I mean, it really is a system set up to try to retain middle class families in the district.
I think that wherever we are, given whatever context we are in, raise questions. Try to be in community with the full community of schools that we’re in. Try to raise questions that are about policies and practices rather than just trying to make sure that our kid gets around the systems as they're currently functioning. You know, I think for a lot of White and privileged parents, there's a lot of learning to do. I mean, as we talked about earlier, there's a lot of ways in which we are trained to not see what is right in front of us. The kind of lack of knowing, the lack of seeing that we started talking about the beginning of the conversation, is stuff that we opt into. We try to live in places where we don't have to really see things that much.
So I think parents have a lot of work to do. You know, Whiteness is so powerful. So you kind of want people to do exactly what you guys are doing. Read a lot, talk to people, learn from each other, be in community with other people that are gonna push you when you're stopping too early. You know there’s intellectual and emotional work that has to go along with all of this. And then there's the kind of engagement stuff.
Courtney: Right. Do your homework and then…
Andrew: And then, right, and then show up. Don't, don't just, don't start by showing up, because that's...
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah. One of the parents I talked to who has been doing a lot of organizing in a community here, she was talking to me about some of the lessons she learned, like when she first was trying to show up. She came in to the principal with all kinds of fury about, like, Why are you doing this thing, or more actually, she came in saying, You can't do this thing this time. And she realized after a while that she was coming in with so much of a sense that she knew the answer. And when she started coming in and saying to people in the school, Can you help me understand why you're doing this? That she learned all kinds of things that she didn't know. And I think that's another dynamic that's really, that especially White, upper middle class, you know, entitled families need to pay attention to is.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: I also want to say how important I think the work is that you guys are doing, and I just really, um, I appreciate this conversation, but I just really appreciate the organizing. You know, I think this is kind of organizing work and really important community work. Like, it's really important for people who want to do this to know that they're not doing it alone, and to be able to learn from the important work other people are doing. So I just want to really appreciate that.
Andrew: Thank you.
Courtney: Well, thank you. I, I did so much of this wrong that there's, that there's a lot that I wish I had known when my kids were little. So this is really important for us to be able to talk to you and learn from your research and…
Andrew: Thank you. Thank you very much for your time and for your research and for sharing with us. It's been great.
Dr. Amanda Lewis: Yeah. Thanks. Anytime.
Courtney: So yeah, best intentions, right? The path paved to hell and all.
Courtney: I guess what feels important to me about this conversation and probably the series in general, is that we know that, that bad intentions is a pretty solid guarantee for bad impact, right?
Andrew: Right, that part is clear.
Courtney: Yeah, but stopping at intent and not critically addressing the impact that we have is, you know, pretty terrible, too.
Andrew: Yeah, right, right. So the stories we tell ourselves have to include the intentions, the implied intentions, but also the sort of stated intentions. But that, that can't be the full scope of it. The efforts we've made have been so focused on moving kids around, giving a few, quote unquote lucky kids of color, access to these White spaces. And in those spaces, we see this opportunity hoarding still rearing its ugly head.
Courtney: Yeah, yeah, her definition of opportunity hoarding was really great. You know, I think that the ways we've thought about and talked about Brown v. Board has muddied the waters a bit. But I think that Dr. Lewis really helps us see what used to show itself as like separate water fountains or White and Black schools now shows up as AP classes and discipline policies.
Andrew: Right, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, the expectations that we have for kids makes a difference, right? Like what we expect kids to achieve, you know, I think Noliwe Rooks in the last episode really highlighted that, that some of the power that Black schools and Black teachers had to educating Black kids just came from this fundamental belief in their capacity to learn. And I think, you know, one of the tragedies of Brown v. Board in my mind is that we tell ourselves that we moved past race, right? That since we no longer have White and Black schools, the disparate outcomes we see must be based on something other than like racist school policies.
Courtney: Yes. So, like if our formal policies are race-neutral, right, like the informal everyday practices, sure as hell are not. Yeah, so we're like, if we're not able to acknowledge that, we certainly won't be able to address it, which not only allows it to continue, but makes it worse. And this is one of the things that just feels so utterly heartbreaking to me. The incredible and terrible impact, you know, on White kids in some ways and kids of color in other ways, of the everyday all day at school witnessing of difference in the treatment of kids in the same schools. That the White kids are in the advanced placement classes, that the Black kids are getting detentions or whatever the examples are.
Andrew: Right, right where we tell our kids we have a meritocracy, right? We tell our teachers you teach in a meritocracy. We tell our parents our school is a meritocracy. And then we see the ways that that quote unquote meritocracy actually plays out in the actual practices in the building . And then we somehow act surprised when kids start to internalize these racial distinctions, right? Like kids of color very early hear this message that the school doesn't value them. White kids are left to assume that, that these differences must have something to do with individuals and not with the systemic forces at play.
Courtney: Yeah, and I think another thing that struck me in this is , it's this sense of powerlessness in the face of White supremacy. Right? Like the systemic forces that we’re up against. It’s…
Courtney: Like we hear this a lot, The school segregation is just too huge of a monster, right? The problem’s too large, that the structural is bigger than each of us. And sure, that's true, right? But the ways that we act either perpetuate or chip away. And, you know, what if we all chipped away?
Andrew: And there are no innocent bystanders, right? Like, if we do nothing at all, we are still recreating these systems, and we're still benefiting from them as White and privileged parents. You know, I think the story of Brown v. Board as the end of racist school policies is one of these ways that we fool ourselves into thinking that this isn't a problem anymore.
Courtney: Yeah, and the story that desegregation is a] done and b] the goal, right? Like desegregation is just the first step. It might even be the easiest step. It's a step we haven't really taken well, but integration is, is so much bigger, right? And it's so much more powerful in building the world we want our kids to be adults in.
Andrew: 2021 Andrew back again. And you know, once again, I, I think the national conversation really has shifted in important ways since Courtney and I had this conversation two years ago. I think there are far fewer people today who would say that Brown ended racist school policies. And there are many school leaders and teachers who are really trying to dig into equity work - who are becoming more comfortable addressing this idea that Dr. Lewis talks about, right, that how your policies function is actually what your policies are, kind of, regardless of how you claim they're supposed to work. And, and that is hard, often messy work, and, and it both can't be rushed and can't possibly go fast enough at the same time.
And additionally, I think there's been a real massive push around culturally responsive and sustaining education recently - really trying to get at the content students are taught and how that teaching happens. These are important steps. They are by no means a panacea, but when they're engaged in thoughtfully, I, I think they really do represent progress.
Where it feels like maybe less progress has been made is on the White and/or privileged parent front. There's no doubt that there are more people joining book clubs, having uncomfortable conversations, thinking in new ways about race in America. However, if you think of opportunity hoarding, as Dr. Lewis defined it, right, as this explanation for durable inequality - the mechanism that keeps inequality in place, even if that isn't the intent - I think we still have a long ways to go.
Particularly in the wake of the pandemic, when so many parents are feeling, rightfully, that the future is uncertain for ourselves and for our children, we, we fall back on this habit of opportunity hoarding. We aren't trying to block access for others, but just trying to proactively get whatever we can for our kids at all times.
But it seems problematic if we engage in that without a recognition of how structural racism makes our efforts more or less effective - makes the needs of our kids more or less acute. Right. The, the result is that we end up maintaining this status quo. A status quo in which our advantages are baked in, and that allows inequities to continue.
Many thanks to Dr. Lewis. You know, Despite the Best Intentions continues to feel like really foundational work for Integrated Schools, and Drs. Lewis and Diamond are working on a second edition, featuring three new chapters, including an update on Riverview High School, and some lessons that they've learned from talking to schools and districts since the book came out. That second edition should be out by fall. If you haven't read it, there's a link to buy it in the show notes - bookshop.org - support local bookstores, and also send a portion of proceeds back to Integrated Schools.
Tomorrow, we revisit our conversation with David Hinohosa and try to move beyond the typical Black / White framing that school segregation so often has.
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We also welcome your feedback - [email protected] or on social media @integratedschools. Please share this episode, leave us a rating or review wherever you're listening now. And as always, I'm grateful to be in this with you as I try to know better and do better. See you tomorrow.