in black and white…


A few months ago, as I was putting the final preparations on my filming trip to Asia, This American Life did a story about school integration. I was in the busiest stretch of my year, so I put off listening to it until this morning. The basic premise was that in order for black students to receive a full and effective education, there must be engineered school integration. Though it largely fails to prove the thesis –sending black kids to school with white kids is the only path to large scale black educational reform- it is worth listening to, if for no other reason than it explains a certain failure of current black thinking.

I am not one of those people who would push aggressively for the integration of schools. Obviously, schools must be desegregated, and we do need to think about ways to fund and administer schools that are not so closely linked to local revenue and politics, but the basic idea that a good education must necessarily include anyone of any particular race is odd, if not downright offensive.

The basic failing of the report is that Nikole Hannah-Jones mistakes story for evidence. Her central narrative focuses on how much better a select group of black students did when they elected to leave their failing inner-city school and make the long trip to a mostly white suburban school. In making her story compelling on a personal level, though, Hannah-Jones undermines the very point she’s trying to make. In short, it makes little sense to compare the success and experience of a child whose parents elect to drive their kid an hour each morning to a better school versus a parent who elects to keep their child in a failing inner-city school. This might speak to the quality of two particular schools, but says nothing about the inherent capacity of mostly-black schools.

If the argument is that such a child can *only* be saved by sending them to a majority white school (the point she makes), then the point is being made without a proper kind of comparison. If the student (or, better, a random and statistically significant mass of students) who succeeded in a mostly white school failed in a functional, well-funded, safe mostly-black school, then this conversation would make sense. Instead, Hannah-Jones seems to be comparing apples to rotten oranges while also attributing the successes and benefits that occurred because of the choices and qualities of the parents to the new white school.

To move beyond the anecdotal, studies that compare children whose parents entered and won the lottery for a charter school and those who entered and lost suggest the power of the dynamic at work here.  In short, the parents’ intense desire to have their kid in a better school was a better predictor of success than actually getting into the school. Though the story of one sympathetic girl with a motivated and loving mother might make for nice radio, her story doesn’t actually end up proving the point the reporter wants it to.

On a deeper level, I am deeply suspicious of any approach that suggests black inability to accomplish things on our own. Has it come to this? We cannot learn unless there are white folks around? The only argument for the sort of extraordinary engineered integration that makes sense at all is that white folks will never give resources to black communities unless white folks have kin in the game. That may in some instances be true, but we’ve also seen (often in Missouri, where this story takes place) that money is not the entire answer. When federal judges took over the running of several St. Louis schools, the resulting influx of funds to mostly black schools didn’t actually do much to improve black performance. There is a much bigger story to tell here that requires a more expansive analysis and solution; but, it almost certainly is a solution that has as a major component the decisions and actions -political, familial, individual- of black folks in black communities.

The current accepted liberal black perspective is that any talk of how to reform the black community from within gets slapped with the label “respectability politics,” and the person suggesting it gets shouted down. But, when you’re unwilling to countenance the idea that we need to do better (which, of course, in no way necessarily diminishes broader –that is, white- culpability) you end up with loony, and frankly pretty pathetic, ideas like this one. We can’t fix our schools, only white people can. We can’t educate our children, but white people can. We can’t learn how to learn unless we stay a step ahead of white flight. It seems like an abject surrender of black self-respect and an admission of inherent black incompetence.

Somehow this has become an acceptable liberal black critique, but suggesting that we can and must do better is out of bounds.

2 thoughts on “in black and white…”

  1. Hi Brian,

    You don’t know me. I am a Facebook friend of one of your Facebook friends. I usually find you comments insightful and your writing style exhilarating. But today, I find myself disagreeing with an important aspect of the point you make here.

    It isn’t always about solutions which save every black kid from being permanently damaged by dysfunctional schools. Often, a parent does not have the luxury to wait for a revolution to fix the broken system that condemns so many black kids to a lives of ignorance, deprivation and often crime. If you are a worried parent of a middle school kid in a dysfunctional school system, all you would think about is the fact that you only have what is left of middle school and the four years of high school to prepare your kid for life.

    I listened to the worried voices of the 3 kids and the one mother who were featured in the story. They are in no position to sit and debate whether it is the absence of white kids, or the abominable condition of everything in their school–from the teachers (when present), to the curriculum, to the facilities and the administrators–that is responsible for the grisly educational outcomes there. All they know is that the 13 year olds will soon be seniors and society would throw them out on the street to fend for themselves with zero chances of success.

    In their circumstances, I would do the same thing. Well, I did the same thing to make sure my kid had an opportunity for a descent education.

    Thank you for your work and for your frequent contrarian views.

  2. Hi Brian,

    After reading your post, I have a number of questions. I’ll give you my thoughts, though. I decided to listen to the story on school integration and developed a feeling of both love and hate for the system these children are in. Having grown up in a predominantly white community, I’ve still witnessed differing levels of scholastic opportunity. Here, the percentage of non-white students range from 10-15 % or less. Although white students are far more likely to engage in scholarly after-school-activities, I’ve noticed that it all comes down to the level of parental involvement in the kids life. Kids with parents that are heavily involved in the kids school life (ie helping with hw, driving kids to school, P&T conferences, and even PTA meetings), are much more likely to receive a quality education. There is a big difference in wanting a quality education for your kids, and doing something about it on a daily basis. The same goes for sports, my parents were highly involved and I worked to play for our state’s Olympic Development Program, while other kids whose parents were less involved, didn’t. In fact, they didn’t even come try out. Consistent parental involvement and encouragement play a much larger role in this than the color of the student’s skin. Particularly, latinos in my area are very unlikely to engage in after-school activities. When asked why, the consistent answer was that they were needed at home.

    You referenced the need for an internal fix among black communities, and I think it’s really an internal fix within the nation as a whole. I’ve seen that whether a student is white, black, latino, poly, asian, etc the issue on quality education falls to the responsibility of parents to secure it for their kids. The issue is not necessarily the bad schools, that’s just a result. The root problem is the need for a higher level of parental involvement in kids lives.

    The radio show spoke about the kids who were sent to a predominantly white school, and how they did better work. I agree with Mr. Alemayehu, you can’t blame parents for wanting the best for their kids. In fact, that should be the focus. If every parent did that, and every parent fought for quality education within their school, the school system would get better. Though the poor school system is the problem, they exist to meet the needs of the communities they serve. If the community decides that changes need to be made, then the change will be made. The problem comes down to people making time and showing how much of a priority it should be.

    To clarify, I’m definitely not saying that white people are better parents. Just that quality parenting can help increase a students opportunities. There may be a case that white people have been accustomed to high quality education, and therefore are much more aware and demanding when quality standards go down, but a study and analysis would need to be made.

    All in all, quality education and parental involvement are very important to me. My family took in three kids while I was growing up. I noticed that each one had grade improvement, not because they magically had an increase of intelligence, but because my parents demanded more of them and their teachers. Anyway, I’ll be a student of yours at the Extension School this semester, and I appreciated your views on this subject. I look forward to learning from you over the next few months!

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