Not So Nice

Oct 21, 2020 by

A popular podcast about New York City schools ignores salient facts about race and neighborhoods.

Ray Domanico

Chana Joffe-Walt’s five-part New York Times podcast Nice White Parents argues: “If you want to understand why our schools aren’t better, that’s where you have to look. You have to look at white parents.” By “nice” white parents, she doesn’t mean all white parents. The narrative focuses on well-to-do progressives, those who espouse all the proper liberal ideals but fail to commit their own children to schools reflecting those values. Save for a brief description of “white moms in Queens” organizing an anti-busing protest in 1964, the podcast has little to say about working-class parents. Joffe-Walt explains that, while the Queens moms played a role in killing integration efforts, “there was another group of white parents who played a quieter, but I’d argue more forceful, role in killing integration—the white parents who said they supported it.”

The podcast gives engaging first-person accounts of events from 50 years ago, offering insights into what black and Puerto Rican parents and leaders wanted from the schools in those days and describing how their vision of integration varied from that of both the white progressives and the Queens moms. It’s disappointing, and revealing, that the podcast makes no mention of the United Federation of Teachers, the union that consolidated power in the sixties and which, through most of the following three decades, was considered the most potent force in New York politics.

The series begins with a cringe-worthy account of a group of white parents who descended upon a predominantly black and Hispanic school in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood in 2015 and act presumptuously to establish a dual-language French program. They’re pushy, overzealous, and generally indifferent to the feelings of the minority parents whose children had been enrolled there during the years that whites shunned the school. This story sets the tone for the series: progressive white parents behaving badly.

To make the case that whites profess support for integration while acting in ways that defeat efforts in that direction, Joffe-Walt takes us back to the early 1960s, when the white community influenced the physical siting of this school (now the Boerum Hill School for International Studies). The original plan was to locate the school adjacent to a NYCHA housing project a few blocks from the eventual site on Baltic Street, made available by the 1963 relocation of St. Francis College to Brooklyn Heights. White residents of the area wrote letters to the Board of Education arguing that the site would be perfect for a new school, as it would allow for racial integration—black and Puerto Rican NYCHA families could send their children there. But when the new building on Baltic Street opened in 1968, none of the letter-writers’ children was enrolled. “What happened in those five years between 1963, when these white parents planted an impassioned pro-integration flag on the school, and 1968, when it came time to enroll their children?” Joffe-Walt asks. “Why didn’t they show up?”

A lot happened in those years, and the podcast ignores much of it in support of its narrative of white insincerity. In the early 1960s, teachers were enrolled in various weak unions; by 1968, the United Federation of Teachers had consolidated teachers into a single, powerful union. In 1964, black leaders organized a one-day student strike to protest the lack of progress toward integration in city schools. More than 400,000 students stayed out of class and peacefully demonstrated. In response, Queens moms staged a smaller counterprotest. When the Board of Education backed off its modest integration plans, the focus of black advocacy shifted from integration to local or “community control” of schools. Tensions rose as two major movements—teacher unionization and advocacy for community control—traveled on a collision course, leading to a multiweek teacher strike in the fall of 1968. Thus, between 1963 and 1968, racial tensions around school integration dramatically intensified in the city, which partially explains why few whites showed up when the Cobble Hill school opened.

Later in the podcast, we learn that the white letter-writers numbered “a couple of dozen.” At the same time, a letter claiming to represent the interests of over 1,000 residents from the tenant association of the Gowanus NYCHA houses asked that the school be sited at its original planned location. The “couple of dozen” white parents won that battle, but it isn’t clear that their failure to enroll their kids in the school five years later amounted to hypocrisy on a large scale.

Joffe-Walt notes that the black and Puerto Rican parents were not asking to send their children to school with white kids—they wanted functional schools, period. “For black parents,” she says, “integration was about safe schools for their children, with qualified teachers and functioning toilets, a full day of school. . . . The Board of Ed, though, took that definition and retooled it. Integration wasn’t a means to an end. It was about racial harmony and diversity. The Board spun integration into a virtue that white parents could feel good about.”

Policies regarding teacher appointments and prerogatives of seniority and tenure were the key points of contention between the black and Puerto Rican community and the teachers’ union in the late sixties. The ability of the community school boards (installed on a trial basis in 1967) to hire and fire teachers was the issue at the heart of the 1968 teachers’ strike: it was a conflict between the concepts of due process for teachers and community control of the schools, and it remained contentious for decades, though the 1970 decentralization law largely gave the union what it wanted. The failure of Nice White Parents to address this salient question undercuts its argument that white parents weren’t walking their talk.

In the end, the argument that white parents were the problem in public schools doesn’t hold up. Today, three schools occupy the school building on Baltic Street: Success Academy–Cobble Hill, a charter elementary school; The Digital Arts and Cinema Technology High School; and the Boerum Hill School for International Studies, the now-renamed middle school. In 2019, 32 percent of the students in the building were black, 27 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white, 6 percent Asian, and 6 percent “other.” Composed almost of equal populations of blacks, Hispanics, and whites, the building’s combined student population looks much like the ideal embraced by progressives in the 1960s. Individually, the three schools vary in their makeup. Success Academy is 24 percent white and 12 percent Asian, with black and Hispanic students each accounting for about 30 percent of enrollment. The Boerum Hill school is 40 percent white, 27 percent black, and 22 percent Hispanic. The Digital Arts school, the smallest school by far, is the outlier: it is 50 percent black, 39 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent white.

Despite this diverse school population, Joffe-Walt is not happy with the two most integrated schools. While allowing that Success Academy has done something that she has seen no other school do—“limiting the power of white parents” and making them abide by the same rules as everyone else—she cannot abide the fact that Success Academy treats all students the same, when, in her view, children are different and require different approaches. And while white parents and students are treated the same as others in Success Academy, Joffe-Walt is disturbed that its board “includes millionaire hedge fund managers—sorry, billionaire hedge fund managers.” Because “rich white people control the agenda, the priorities, and the money,” Success Academy fails to be a “disruption to the social order.” So much for nonwhite students attending a racially integrated school that produces some of the highest achievement levels in the state.

The Boerum Hill school has made many changes since the original influx of white students. It now reserves 40 percent of seats in its entering class for students from low-income families; its principal is dedicated to what Joffe-Walt calls “true equity,” engaging the school community in “direct and constant” conversations about race. She has revamped the school’s discipline policy and installed a restorative-justice program. Yet Joffe-Walt remains concerned. The students in the Digital Arts High School feel displaced by all the exciting things going on in the Boerum Hill school—and, more important from Joffe-Walt’s perspective, the situation in the Boerum Hill school was brought about through the process of choice. White, affluent parents were drawn to the school, now a hot property in that corner of Brooklyn. Joffe-Walt laments that “we don’t have a shared vision now. What we have is choice. You can choose your vision for a public school. You can go to the test score school, like Success Academy, or the racial justice school, like BHS. There is no city policy that says every school needs to be integrated and equitable. . . . For families with the most power, the most choices, that means we get to choose.”

Joffe-Walt ignores the problems with seeking a citywide directive on school integration. Parents have options. Fifty-two percent of white students are already enrolled in private or religious schools. The city’s demographics are changing. Between 2001 and 2019, black enrollment in public, charter, and private schools combined declined by 131,000, or 31 percent. Almost 30 percent of black students in the city are enrolled in charter, private, or religious schools. Meantime, white enrollment across all sectors remained flat and dropped by only 10,000 in the traditional public schools.

Outside of a handful of school districts—the Upper West Side, the East Side, Lower East Side, and Park Slope/Carrol Gardens/Cobble Hill—school choice and school admission policies are not the driving force in school diversity. In the rest of the city, children of all races typically attend the neighborhood school. Nice White Parents does not consider these neighborhoods and the formidable challenges of moving students long distances to meet diversity goals. A more direct approach to school integration might make some nice white parents feel good about themselves, while driving others out of the system. Nonwhite families still need what they have been asking for since the early 1960s—safe schools with good teachers, close to home.

Source: Not So Nice | City Journal

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