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Race and Schools

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I know how much LGM readers hate talking about how their school choices directly lead to reinforcing racism, but the fact is that they do. Noah Berlatsky–who admits the choices he makes for his own children does this very thing, as many of you should do–talks to the sociologist Margaret Hagerman, whose new book White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, provides critical research on how privileged parenting is part and parcel with white privilege and structural racism. She discusses both conservative parents and liberal parents. Here is some of the material on liberal parents:

People who identified as more politically liberal were much more willing to acknowledge the existence of racism, and to talk to their children about it. Many of these parents identified as specifically anti-racist, and were determined to teach their kids to work against bigotry and inequality. Parents encouraged their kids to do charitable work, for example, both in their own communities and on (expensive) overseas trips.

Yet, as Hagerman told me, “all of these families in their own ways were participating in the reproduction of racial inequality.” Children were sent to private school, or when they went to public school benefited from private tutors or enrichment classes. Even community service can reproduce racist ideas. It’s hard to see people as equals when you always have power over them, or when your primary experience with them involves giving them charity.

The spectacle of well-intentioned people working, half unconsciously, to solidify and perpetuate their own power is not an encouraging one. “I feel like my findings are pretty dismal,” Hagerman admits. “When you have people who have a lot of wealth alongside this racial privilege, they’re ultimately making decision that benefit their own kids, and I don’t know how you really interrupt that.”

Hagerman’s findings do offer at least one glimmer of hope. White children, she found, don’t automatically reproduce the racial ideology of their parents. One white boy she interviewed, for example, disliked his private school in part because he felt the children were too privileged and too racially isolated.

On the other hand, children of anti-racist parents would sometimes use racist stereotypes or make racist comments. Kids aren’t copies of their parents, which means as a society they can become better…or worse. “I don’t want to paint this as, ‘we’re all going to be okay because of the kids!'” Hagerman told me. But the possibility for change is at least potentially positive.

As for white adults, Hagerman says, if they really want a less racist world, they may need to rethink how they approach parenting. “Everyone is trying to do the best for their kid,” she says. “But I actually think that there are times when maybe the best interest of your own kid isn’t actually the best choice. Ultimately, being a good citizen sometimes conflicts with being good parents. And sometimes maybe parents should decide to be good citizens over being good parents.” That could mean voting to raise taxes so to better fund public schools. Maybe in our case it should have meant choosing a public school rather than a private one.

Of course, as a parent, you want the best possible future for your child. But the best possible future should include a society that isn’t organized around racism. Hagerman’s book is a careful, painful and convincing argument that when white people give their children advantages, they are often disadvantaging others. Racism is so hard to overturn, in part, because white people prop it up when they work to make sure their children succeed.

I am so excited to read this book. There’s obviously no easy way to fight these things. But as we have hashed out here over and over again, it is the responsibility of white parents who can make choices about their children’s education not to actively add to the racial privilege of their children. Voting Democratic or talking to your children about Martin Luther King is not even close to enough. If you don’t admit this is a problem, then you need to confront your own racism and act upon that.

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