I’d become pretty pleased with myself. My children’s Shaker Heights elementary school is a beautiful model of integration — socio-economic, international, religious, and, most obviously, racial.
I congratulate myself on sending them to a public school system that provides excellent academic instruction and boasts accomplished graduates, including two 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners. I love the sense of community, exemplified by the front office food bank the school quietly maintains, and the spirit of empathy these very different students show for each other. All of this is true and good.
I wanted to focus on this reality — that we can create excellent schools for all children, schools that more closely reflect our nation’s demographics. As Aisha Sultan pointed out in her 2015 Atlantic article, “The Limitations of Teaching ‘Grit’ in the Classroom,” “if a hypothetical classroom of 30 children were based on current demographics in the United States … seven would live in poverty, 11 would be nonwhite, six wouldn’t speak English as a first language, six wouldn’t be reared by their biological parents, one would be homeless and six would be victims of abuse.”
Despite what schools in white suburban bubbles look like, this is the real America. It’s also pretty much what Shaker looks like.
I believe we can build quality, integrated schools, and there’s something abnormal about America’s largely racially segregated schools. (Furthermore, integration has been repeatedly demonstrated to be singularly effective in reducing — though not eliminating — achievement gaps between white and black students.)
But, in my self-satisfaction, perhaps I failed to admit some of the difficulties of racial integration. Or, rather, the parenting complications, which isn’t as dramatic as pretending that it’s been truly difficult for this white family to attend a top-notch, well-funded integrated school.
Consider this: Like many white Americans, I grew up knowing exactly zero black people until my teens and, still then, a precious few. I was neither prejudiced nor racist and believed absolutely in the equal dignity and worthiness of black people. I also believed that black people had pretty much the same opportunities I did. That was easy. Things were simple. I was a good person.
My children, on the other hand, are having a very different experience of race. Nearly half the students in our city schools are black. They have black friends, black teachers, black priests, black baby sitters, even black relatives. It’s wonderful.
Yet, race is neither easy nor simple in our house.
Kids, unlike many adults, aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions: “Why are most of the kids who get pulled out of class for help black?” I stumble over explaining historic and current inequalities and the persistent intersection of socio-economic and educational disadvantage with blackness.
“Why don’t any black people live on our block?” I stumble over why our town is diverse by the numbers, but strong racial lines still divide our neighborhoods. We are diverse, yet not truly integrated.
Always, I point out numerous real-life exceptions to these worrisome stereotypes. Stumble, stumble, stumble. Am I doing this right? Am I a good person?
Integration has extraordinary benefits for people of all races, but it doesn’t necessarily feel good for well-meaning white families. It is much more comfortable to be Not Racist from afar.
A few years ago, I was startled when my child came home from her very first day of kindergarten talking about the struggle for racial equality in America. That day was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, so naturally it was a topic at school.
Why was I startled? I suppose I’d preferred to maintain the natural preschool inattention to race and to preserve the pure innocence of my child. Wasn’t she too young to learn about ugliness in the world, even through the lens of combatting it?
Of course she wasn’t, as I quickly reminded myself. Are black kindergartners too young to learn about racial inequalities? Are they given the choice, the privilege, to defer that reality? Too often, they are not.
When I was growing up in my white suburban bubble, I don’t recall ever hearing a racist comment. Now, living in an integrated area, I’ve heard many: “I pulled her out of that school. There were too many black kids and not enough white kids,” acquaintances have twice explained to me in an unapologetic tone as if, of course, I would understand the trouble.
Mercifully, comments like this are very rare (to my ears), but each one shocks me anew. They remind me why it is better that my children ask hard questions than comfortably ask no questions at all. We are not done with racism in America, as much as we might like to be.
Diversity and integration in our schools might not always be easy, but they are essential to repairing our continued racial divide in this country. Knowing each other as people and as friends is essential to empathizing, connecting and seeing ourselves as part of the same community as fellow Americans.
I still believe, just as I did as a sheltered white child, in equality and opportunity in America. The difference is that I know now these are precious ideals and promises to work toward, not reality. We have far to go. I can’t be afraid to let my kids know that. And, so, uncomfortably, we walk together into the