Despite six and a half decades since the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools are not equal schools, our public schools are still tremendously segregated. We lament the monster policies and boundary demarcations and red-lines that corral white and/or privileged children into some schools and children of color into others. Our policies, we read, have largely failed.
But planting the problem of our segregated schools in the lap of policy is comfort, a distancing, a way of locating the problem elsewhere. It provides cover for us everyday white and/or privileged parents. Blaming the structures for this problem negates our role in their creation.
Maybe we aren’t throwing glass bottles at the Little Rock Nine or personally gerrymandering our district boundaries to ‘protect our real estate values,’ we nonetheless tolerate and support a caste public education system perpetuating that legacy.
Our individual choices have been the thousand little cuts that have undermined the promise of Brown v. Board. We are the problem when we use online school ratings (that-which-must-not-be-named) to find the “best” fit for our kids, when we move to certain neighborhoods “for the schools,” when we enroll our children in schools that have a disproportionately high concentration of white and/or privileged kids, when we support school booster organizations that raise far more money than other schools in our cities, when we support zoning laws in the name of “neighborhood schools” and choice programs in the name of “good school options,” when we colonize black and brown schools under the guise of “fixing” them.
En masse, white parents have never committed to desegregating our schools, much less the messier and more radically hopeful work of integration. Even when we rally around ideas like diversity and equity, we allow “good” parenting to trump justice. And in so doing, we have hijacked the public in our public schools.
The need to “fix policy” to create sustainable and meaningful integration is real – and there is no excuse not to. The research is pretty clear; racially diverse classrooms benefit all kids – and even the kids of desegregated kids.
But in so many ways, we are policy. Our choices matter and impact others — where we live (and why), who else has access to living there (and why), in which schools we enroll our children (and why), and how we show up in those spaces. They provide much of the fodder for legislation, district practices, school programming and our national discourse. Policy is not over there. Justice is not furthered by wringing our hands and waiting for our officials to get plucky while we shuttle the kids to capoeira classes.
Fortunately there things that we, as individual families, can do to disrupt school segregation.
Research and Reflect. Be aware of the ways that segregation plays out in your districts – and neighboring districts as well. Read the research and reporting on segregation. As you are thinking about your own child, envision the world you are creating for her adulthood. As you are thinking about your community, consider how your choices contribute to its shape. Speak Up. Share your thinking with your friends. Work in every way to publicly question the “good/bad” school narratives that promote segregation. Parents choose schools in large part based on what other parents in their networks are saying; be a voice here.
Set Foot. Before you write off that school with low test scores, the one that you’ve heard is “bad,” the one that serves mostly global-majority kids, go see for yourself. Take. A. Look. You might just be surprised. You will certainly see a building filled with kids, boisterous and messy and beautiful kids.
Desegregate Your Kid. Enroll your child in an integrated/integrating school. Send them to a school that serves a majority of kids who come from a different racial, socioeconomic and/or linguistic background than yours. And yes, you can even be ‘the only one’ white and/or privileged family. This isn’t possible everywhere, especially when we live segregated communities– but if you have the luxury of living in a diverse area or the ability to drive your kid past the privilege-segregated neighborhood school to the under-enrolled Title 1 school on the other side of the highway, exercise it.
Integrate Your Family. As an integrating family, take seriously the difference between good intentions and positive impact. Know that your child, your presence and your privilege aren’t magical. Your child is there to attend class, you are not there to “fix” a “broken” school. If you’re the itchin’ to pitch-in, cut-construction-paper-flowers type, put yourself in service to the community – it was there before you. Listen, be humble, build relationships. Integrating is not colonizing.
Speak Up. Tell your school board members and district officials that you value equity and integration and that you vote. Then tell them again. Ask what they doing about it. Make all this public on your social media. Ask them which schools their kids attend. Vote. Write articles for your local paper. Counter the noise in your social circles and social media spaces. Your voice matters.
By all means, if you have time and energy and fancy yourself a butt-kicking kind of parent, advocate and organize. Run for school board, coordinate a grassroots campaign in your district, marshall every resource to push for courageous policy. But if you’re not able or willing to dig in this deep – these six steps, the everyday choices we make in how we speak and how we show up, have tremendous impact.
A passionately progressive school board member once told me that as much as he would *like* to work on integration, it was too large an issue, too divisive, and would hamper his ability to put forth any equity measures. “I can’t do anything about integration in this climate,” he said, “because I don’t have a constituency of parents who will support it.” Policymakers need vocal voters with skin in the game.
Let’s be clear. In taking some/all of these steps, you will not save the school with your white and/or privileged presence. You will not heroically cure racism by the end of second grade; ours is a deep hole, centuries in the making. However, you can interrupt segregation by challenging the “good/bad school” narratives that perpetuate it. You can interrupt segregation by refusing to participate in it. You can interrupt segregation by creating a voice and vote for equity and integration. Every time we muddy the waters of white supremacy, we dilute its power.
As we observe the Brown v. Board anniversary, we need not feel resigned to awaiting superhero policy. There is a lot that one family can do.