Friday, April 29, 2011

Weekend Reading: Race, Education, and Privilege

I've read a lot of posts and articles that touch on race and class privilege this week. I can't quite believe that I am tackling such weighty topics this week, when I'm not sleeping well (thanks, Petunia) and super busy at work... but that's what has been on my mind and computer screen this week, so here I go.

It all started with a post from my friend Stevil about his reaction to a recent poll showing that 46% of respondants in Mississippi think that inter-racial marriage should be illegal. I share his dumbfounded response... sort of. I guess the fact that the silly Birther nonsense is still going on had already reminded me that I live in a bit of a bubble when it comes to opinions about race, equality, and related things. Because let's face it- the Birther nonsense is racism, pure and simple.

One of the bubbles Stevil and I both inhabit is science. In his post, he mentions how science is a very multi-cultural place. He's right. For the most part, I haven't heard much racism from my fellow scientists. The chemists might laugh at the biologists, and the academics might look down their noses at those of us in industry (and vice versa), but racist comments are rare. There can be some ugly xenophobia that comes up when jobs are being lost to outsourcing to China or India, but those sort of comments are usually argued down by other scientists.

He also mentions the racial mix in California as a whole, and how that diversity is generally embraced and not rejected. Again, I mostly agree... but here, my experience has diverged a bit from his. Now, I know Stevil well enough to know that he's not saying California is some sort of post-racial utopia- in fact he makes a point of saying that in his post. He is well aware of the lingering racism here. But I've recently had experiences that bring that lingering racism into the forefront.  We'll be picking a school for Pumpkin relatively soon, so I've been talking to people about education and public schools a lot, and in those conversations, people seem less accepting of diversity, particularly if you understand the standard code: "That school is a bit rough" translates to "That school has a lot of kids who aren't white." "You might find that Pumpkin doesn't really fit in at that school" translates to "She won't be in the majority race there." When I mention some of the schools we're considering, some other parents have a hard time hiding their disbelief that Hubby and I, seemingly loving parents, would consider sending our precious little girls there. Haven't we seen the school ranking data????

And there's the rub. The school ranking data provides a nice, safe veneer behind which to hide any ugly racism. Of course, it is reasonable to want to compare schools and pick the best for your child. That is exactly what I'm doing, in fact. But test scores are the most common thing to use when we want to compare schools, and there is a pretty solid consensus that the test scores- or at least how they are getting used to report on our schools- really report on family income and parental education, and not school quality. Bad Mom, Good Mom has a recent post with an excellent explanation of how misleading test scores can be.

It is a difficult topic, but I think the code that gets used when discussing schools does a great deal of harm. There are schools that are rough and have gang problems, but my local school isn't one of them, and neither are any of the magnet schools I've mentioned that I'm considering. I don't fault parents at all for looking at a school with genuine issues and deciding that they need to find another place to send their kids. Actually, I don't fault parents for choosing private schools for their kids for any reason. We all want to do what is best for our kids, and no one should be judged for trying to do that.  But when we talk about the schools with real issues in the same way as we talk about schools that just happen to have a lot of non-white kids, then we obscure our real problems.

I have no idea how we'll actually pick Pumpkin's school. We can't even register a choice until November, and don't have to do so until February of 2012, so we have some time to figure that out. We'll probably look at the numbers, take the tours, and then go with our gut feeling. Luckily, neither my husband nor I are scared by true diversity. We both went to schools that would be called "rough" in the modern code. Mine, in suburban Phoenix, AZ, had a lot of hispanic kids because we didn't live in the wealthier, predominately white part of town. Hubby's, in Auckland, NZ, had a lot of Pacific Islanders and Maori kids, because he chose to go to the one school that had Macs in the computer lab and that school also happened to be one that was in a poorer part of town and had a marae on campus.  (That this is how he chose his high school is so typically him that it cracks me up, particularly because he now prefers Linux, works under Windows 90% of the time, and ridicules the Mac I use at home.)

We both came out of our experiences thinking that the diversity in and of itself was valuable, and that our education, while not perfect, was certainly sufficient to set us up to succeed in life. Our schools weren't flashy, but they had the funds to do their job, some really good teachers (and of course, some not so good teachers, too), and kids from a range of backgrounds so that they felt representative of the world for which they were supposedly preparing us.

And that is the real tragedy of how our education system seems to be evolving now, with so many parents not even considering public schools: it is no longer safe to assume that most schools will meet those criteria, given the funding cuts and general nasty climate around public education these days. I worry for our future, because if all of the people like us buy our way out of the system, then what incentive do we have to advocate for changes that would make that system better? Because really, my kids will do just fine no matter where I end up sending them to school. They have all of the advantages and subtle privileges of our society lined up in their favor. (Except gender, of course. If they decide to go into a STEM field, they will probably be told by some asshat that they are biologically inferior to their male colleagues. In fact, they'll probably get told this by at least one asshat per year. But I digress.)

It is the kids that don't come from such privilege that suffer when the people like me start turning our backs on public schools. I'm sure most people don't intentionally decide that since their kids are in private schools, the public schools don't matter. But without the personal connection, it is easier to vote against that tax increase, to shrug your shoulders when the latest round of draconian cuts happen. Then our public schools will slowly decay, and will create a system in which kids from poorer families get an education that is not even on par with the education the wealthier kids are getting. When this happens, we will ossify our society, making it ever harder for people to rise to the levels of their natural talents and efforts.

This matters, because as much as we like to tell ourselves that America is a true meritocracy, it is not. This week, I also came across several posts about the subtle (and not so subtle) privileges that come from being white. The first is a short story from a white man, about the conversation he had in a college class that made him understand "privilege", which I found via a comment on OneTiredEma's thoughtful post about her discomfort reading the Little House books. Then the excellent Blue Milk blog led me to two more interesting posts on the topic: a thought-provoking post from Fugitvus about the accommodations white parents must be willing to make when contemplating interracial adoption, and then, in the comments on the post linking to that post, a meditation from Peggy McIntosh about "unpacking the invisible backpack" that is white privilege.

It has been interesting reading so many posts on race and privilege. I find myself thinking about the topic more deeply than I have since college. I've been thinking about why people in privileged groups will often fight recognizing their privilege. I think part of it stems from defensiveness, which I have certainly felt. When you post or talk about some problem you're having and get a dismissive "that's a white woman's problem" reply, it stings. You think "well, yes, because I am a white woman." And even a problem that is somehow a "nicer" problem to have than those faced by other people is still a problem that you might want to solve. I often think back to a documentary I watched many years ago, in a hotel room while on a business trip, about the children of the very wealthy and how they often struggle to build meaningful lives. Most of us would look at these kids born into the epitome of privilege and dismiss their problems as trivial. But the documentary did a really good job of taking us into their world, and making us see the very real problem of how hard it is to define a meaningful life when you actually don't need to do anything at all.

Along those lines, I think that it is easy to forget that being born into a certain level of privilege does not guarantee success. We all know the smart kid from a good home who could just never get his act together and ended up having a miserable life. Even with a head start, you still have to work- it is the classic tortoise and hare scenario. So being told that you are a beneficiary of privilege does not negate the fact that you probably worked very hard to achieve success. It just highlights the fact that some other person who happened to have been born into a less privileged group could have worked just as hard and not succeeded.

Then, while I was thinking all of these rather abstract things about race and privilege, I heard a story on NPR about the death rate from pregnancy complications in California, and how it is four times higher for black women than white women.  That just blew me away, because really, I hadn't put "I can expect to live through the birth of my children" in the bucket of privileges that attach to me via my race- my nationality, maybe, but not my race. And yet, clearly it is.

Updated to add: I finally read some of last week's Economist, which has a special feature on how screwed up California is. There is an article about what has gone wrong in the financing of public education here, which might help people who don't live in California understand why (1) complaints about our public education system are not necessarily racist or alarmist, and (2) why I think we need to keep a critical mass of people invested in finding a solution for the mess we've created.


  1. I think that white privilege, like the patriarchy, is another one of those "either you get it, or you don't" types of cultural constructs. While they seem so obvious enough to most of us in the know, I've known too many supposedly "smart" people on the political right who simply refuse to acknowledge their reality, in favor of eye-roll-worthy, Randian fantasy rationalizations like "they just need to make better choices" and "take responsibility for themselves" and "stop accepting government handouts" etc etc. Recently, I had some moron cite the facts that Obama is president and Thomas is on the Supreme Court as proof that racism no longer exists. Yep, they just don't get it.

    The statistic about MI should hardly be surprising. I'm a bit relieved the number was 46% and not greater! Remember the Ole Miss anti-integration riots of the 60s? The murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner? Wasn't that long ago. Those same rioters and murder enablers are now my parents' age. People don't change that much, I'm sorry. These are the same people who insist today that the Civil War was about something other than slavery. Haley Barbour probably thinks he's not a racist.

  2. Great post!

    "So being told that you are a beneficiary of privilege does not negate the fact that you probably worked very hard to achieve success. It just highlights the fact that some other person who happened to have been born into a less privileged group could have worked just as hard and not succeeded."

    YES. I would much rather focus my efforts on helping give boosts to people who haven't had my privilege than feeling guilty about having been privileged. Even if not everybody agrees.

    We are actually sending my son to private school... I'm not sure that he *would* be ok in public school because they don't do grade skips, and I cannot imagine him going backwards in learning a full year from now to get colors and numbers and letters etc. when he's just tested as reading at a third grade level and doing math at a second grade level. He gets antsy when he's bored. That leads to behavioral problems.

    Ironically, we'd be more likely to be able to grade skip in public if we were living in the "rougher" town next to ours. They have less money so they're more creative with their solutions to differing abilities. They don't insist that one size fits all. But we didn't know that (or that we would even be able to have children) when we bought the house.

    One of the private schools is excited about his intelligence instead of wary of it. They tested him and are letting him start early (he'll be the second youngest in the class, and one of 3 kids starting early), and are going to single subject accelerate his math and language arts another year to the first graders. So I think it will be a good fit for us.

    His current preschool is very diverse, racially, ethnically, religiously, economically, but sadly private school will not be. After we get my husband's relatives kids through college maybe we'll work on some scholarships for that.

  3. I'm very interested to go back and read the articles you linked. I'm finishing up my con law/civil rights class so the racism and education topic is on my mind, too. School choice is still code for moving your white kid to a white school and/or your non-poor kid to a non-poor school. Unlikely Heroes is good book for understanding the court's role in desegregation. Also Eyes on the Prize is a great documentary. Seeing the blatant, unabashed racism was shocking even to me and I've lived in the south my whole life.

    And what is up with states like Connecticut and Maryland prosecuting moms for sending their children to the wrong elementary schools? Single, black women being arrested and tried for theft of an education. That is shameful.

  4. Interesting post, though I have a hard time with the idea of sending my kid to public school because it's for the greater good. I don't disagree that more privileged parents putting their kids in public school would improve things, but I am not about to sacrifice my own child's education for the nebulous "greater good". I'm sure she'd do FINE, at the local public school, but I want better than FINE for her.

    I guess I see this as the same argument that is made about why privileged mothers who have a choice *should* work outside the home fulltime and not "opt out" to work part time or stay home with kids. Because it's better for all working women, and improves the working climate for all women, etc.

    But really, I'm not going to sacrifice what my OWN family needs because the "greater good" needs me to work 50+ hours a week.

    I guess where each family draws this line is different, and I'm just saying *I* have a hard time with that. I guess I'm insular and selfish that way :)

  5. @ARC, I don't think you (or anyone) should send your kids to public school for the greater good. I think everyone should do what is best for their kids, to their best ability to provide that. I don't think that is selfish at all.

    But I do think that most of us should at least consider public schools, and think about whether the education they provide is what we want for our kids. If it isn't, then we should think about what that says about our supposed meritocracy, remembering that for many people, there is no choice, and that public education is all that is on offer for their children.

    And we should remember that test scores are a poor way to assess a school, really. I don't mind using tests as one way to assess a school. But I hate the way they have become the one and only way to assess a school, because I think that creates a "teach to the test" environment that does no one any long term good.

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