I have linked to a 3 part video series I did on my experience with integration in the NYC Public schools starting in 1961.
“How White Progressives Undermine School Integration
A robust body of research shows the benefits of integration. Why, then, is it so hard to achieve?
By Eliza ShapiroAug. 21, 2020
New York City, one of the most demographically diverse places on the planet, is also home to one of the most segregated school districts in America. That contrast has rattled New York’s self-image and given rise to major integration efforts over the past several years. Most have failed. And across America, desegregation has never been tried at scale, partly because of resistance from white liberals.
Inspired by the release of a new podcast from Serial and The New York Times, “Nice White Parents,” we brought together a panel of five experts to discuss the obstacles to integration in New York and elsewhere, and the ways some people are beginning to reconsider its value and focus on empowering Black and Latino parents who have so often been left out of the debate about their own children’s educations.
We asked: Why is integration a talking point, but not yet a political priority, in such a proudly liberal city? What does research tell us about why integration works, and what does history reveal about why it so rarely succeeds? And will this moment of profound societal upheaval actually change anything about how our schools work?
Dana Goldstein is a national education correspondent for The New York Times.
Tiffani Torres is a rising college freshman at Georgetown University and a recent graduate of Pace High School in Manhattan.
Richard Buery is the president of Achievement First, a network of charter schools in the Northeast.
Chana Joffe-Walt is a reporter and producer at This American Life, and the host of “Nice White Parents,” a new podcast from Serial and The New York Times.
Sonya Douglass Horsford is a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“Desegregation has failed because America has not really tried.”
DANA GOLDSTEIN There’s a robust and growing body of research that pretty conclusively demonstrates the benefits of integration. We have known since the 1960s that Black and Latino students who attend integrated schools with a significant white population have more access to the arts, to newer textbooks, to better extracurricular opportunities.
We also know that when it comes to academic achievement, high school graduation rates, lower participation in the criminal justice system, and also adult earnings, those low-income students and students of color who attended integrated schools generally have better outcomes on every single one of those measures, while white and middle-class students who attend integrated schools generally do not experience adverse effects.
Indeed, there’s really interesting sociological research on the benefit to white and middle-class students of attending schools that are more racially and economically diverse. It appears to have a real long-term impact on their social beliefs, their tolerance toward diversity, their willingness to live in more diverse neighborhoods and their excitement about sending their own children to integrated schools.
SONYA DOUGLASS HORSFORD I would say most people really do support and want integrated schools. But we haven’t been able to maintain integrated schools because you really have to want integration to succeed and be willing to give something up to achieve success.
So while there has been extensive research documenting the points that Dana made about some of the benefits in terms of achievement outcomes as a result of proximity to whiteness, I just don’t know that form of integration or that evidence speaks to the ways in which desegregated spaces can create hostile environments for children of color. We’re seeing increased evidence of such hostility in the current moment.
RICHARD BUERY Something I’ve heard my wife say, which resonates for me, is that the tools we use to attack segregation are so much smaller than the tools we used to build it. So it’s not so much that desegregation has ever failed, it’s that we’ve never really tried.
If you look over the 100-year history of our country, during the long period, even after Brown vs. Board of Education, nothing really happened other than in Little Rock itself and a few other towns.
So you could just compare this 20 years or so in American history of limited desegregation efforts, and you compare that to 400 years of Black people in America. Desegregation has failed because America has not really tried. And the reason why no one in America has really tried is because, I think, the majority of Americans are not actually interested in integration.
They fear sending their children to school with Black and Latino children, or because they fear sharing resources with those students, and/or because they view education essentially as a zero-sum game and worry that, If I do something that expands opportunity for some other kid, my child may suffer in their access to privilege or access to opportunities or access to resources. And most humans are not willing to risk their own children for their values and ideals.
ELIZA SHAPIRO Dana, can you describe some of the things you learned when reporting about resistance to integration in places like Montgomery County, Md., and San Francisco?
GOLDSTEIN A busing plan in suburban Baltimore, a plan to allow more Black and Latino students to access gifted and talented education in Montgomery County, Md., and a choice system for schools in San Francisco were supposed to magically lead to integration. But, in fact, they led to neighborhoods that were more integrated than the schools in them. As you know, white and Asian families used the choice system to avoid the school down the block and instead cluster in a small group of coveted schools.
My conclusion was similar to one of the points Chana makes in the podcast, which is that accidental integration is not a type of integration that’s very likely to work for Black and brown and low-income children. Because white and privileged parents who go into diverse spaces without believing that it is important to be part of an equal, diverse community of parents and students end up trying to mold these schools to the benefit of their own kids above all others. And it just happens again and again.
New York’s most competitive public high school, Stuyvesant, had the lowest percentage of Black students of any high school in the city last year.
New York’s most competitive public high school, Stuyvesant, had the lowest percentage of Black students of any high school in the city last year.Christopher Lee for The New York Times
“Do I think I got into Harvard because of affirmative action?”
SHAPIRO Rich, can you speak briefly about what it was like to be one of the very few Black students at Stuyvesant High School, a specialized school in New York City, back in the early 1980s?
BUERY I went to middle school in Bushwick, which is an exam school which served entirely Black and Latino students at the time. Going to Stuyvesant was a culture shock for me. Remember, this was the 1980s, so Stuyvesant, although it was not diverse by any stretch, was significantly more diverse than it is now. There were many more Black and Latino students then there are now.
It was a deeply disorienting experience from a lens of race, from a lens of class. I still to this day struggle with some of the anxiety that I developed, the impostor syndrome, the stereotype threat, which I think were all sparked at Stuyvesant. And the microaggressions from people today, who I consider my friends, who asked me, do I think I got into Harvard because of affirmative action? I still carry these things with me.
There was no effort at Stuyvesant to think about what it would be like for a Black kid from East New York to come to that school, and to make sure that it was a truly integrated environment that supported members of all races. The fact of the matter is that in this city, it’s always integration on white people’s terms.
I know that so much of who I am and where I’ve gotten in life comes from the privilege of attending Stuyvesant, the way it prepared me academically, the way it educated me about the world, the way it launched me into elite private college education. At the same time, it would be hard to describe an experience as a reaffirming experience.
For me it represents a foundational failure of our city. Specialized high schools are just emblematic of the extreme version of a systemic problem. Why did our city continue to rely so deeply on admissions requirements like grades and tests for competitive schools when we know the discriminatory impact they have? It can only be because we don’t think that Black students and Latino students are as smart as other students, that they deserve as much as other students.
GOLDSTEIN I was part of a desegregation program and was bused in a town in the Hudson Valley called Ossining, N.Y. And all through my teenage years, and into college, I considered it to be one of the most positive and powerful aspects of my life. I really strongly identified as a white person who benefited from attending an integrated school, through exposure to people whose backgrounds were not similar to mine, through having a more diverse group of friends.
When I became an education reporter, however, I reflected a lot on how poorly integration had worked for so many of my classmates of color. We were a town that had a very large Black and Latino population, and yet the advanced placement college track that I was on was overwhelmingly white. I had maybe two Black teachers my entire education. I don’t think I had any Latino teachers.
So I think anyone who immerses themselves for years in these questions is going to come out with a much more nuanced perspective on it. But I do ultimately still find the empirical evidence in support of integration really compelling.
DOUGLASS HORSFORD It wasn’t until I began studying desegregation when I really became interested in my own educational experience and being bused in the sixth grade. And so here in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, we have the fifth largest school district in the country, but a very small African-American population. In 1968, the NAACP challenged the Clark County School District for maintaining intentionally segregated schools, in Kelly v. Mason. And the court found in favor of the NAACP.
But then it required this very small population of Black students to be bused to other parts of the county, into west Las Vegas. And it required that other students, white students predominantly — I was included in that because I lived outside of west Las Vegas — to be bused into the historic African-American community for one year.
But I never really viewed my experience as negative. I had a diverse group of friends, based on where I stayed. I had exposure and experiences with individuals whose background was different than mine. We also shared a lot of things in common. And I feel that, in this moment, rather than focus on the things that we do share in common, we are so obsessed and focused on the things that differentiate us.
SHAPIRO Tiffani, you had excellent grades in middle school. You then applied to Eleanor Roosevelt High School, a selective school on the Upper East Side that has a geographic preference for admission. But you didn’t meet that preference, since you live far from Manhattan, in Brownsville, a mostly low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. How did you feel about getting rejected from what was at one time your dream school?
TIFFANI TORRES I believed the process had been advertised to me as open choice, where if I worked hard throughout middle school and got good grades — and I did — then there was no reason why I shouldn’t be able to attend any of the schools in the city. That’s what I thought.
And then I didn’t get a seat at any specialized high school. I did not understand a lot of the material that was on the test at all. My parents kind of saw it as, OK, she gets good grades so she’s prepared for anything that the school system has to throw at her. But I realized that that wasn’t the case.
I am a first-generation student. I’m Dominican Latina. My parents came here in the ’70s, in a very different time. And so they have very different views than I do on integration and what it means to be a first-generation student in the school system and what it means to go to schools that are majority Black and Hispanic.
What they saw was that white people didn’t live in our communities. But white people were successful. And they were more fearful of my future than I was because they saw that. Because I wasn’t in spaces where white people lived or where they went to school, they worried I wouldn’t be successful.
But I’m very glad that I didn’t go to Eleanor Roosevelt. I remember a few years ago a student was handed a tampon with the N-word written across it. She was, I think, one of the only Black students in her grade. And the school itself is majority white students. I have never gone to a school that wasn’t majority Black and Latinx students, or where there wasn’t a majority of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch like me.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has largely avoided using the word “segregation” to describe the state of city schools.Sarah Blesener for The New York Times
“Integration is no longer the most important issue for Black families.”
SHAPIRO It is notable, as Tiffani has pointed out, that Mayor Bill de Blasio has mostly avoided using the word segregation to describe the state of New York City schools, which we know are, in fact, segregated. He has instead used the word diversity.
Chana, can you tell us how you’ve come to understand the difference between integration and diversity, equality and equity?
CHANA JOFFE-WALT One thing that I really came away with from even just the first year I spent reporting in the school, where the school saw this huge influx of advantaged white families in a single year, was just how limited our language is or how intentionally imprecise our language is in talking about integration. Within that school year, diversity was used to describe what was happening to the school: That this large group of white families was coming in, and it was becoming a diverse community.
But that word seemed a stand-in meaning different things to different people. So you would hear white families talking about wanting to be part of a diverse school. For them, diverse seemed to describe the fact that the school had Black and Latinx kids in it. Families of color would describe all of the diversity coming in, referring to the white kids. Some were excited this would mean more resources coming to the school. Others saw it as a threat that their school would be taken over.
I think there was also a lack of clarity when the school was being planned in the early 1960s in the middle of the school integration movement in New York City. The schools were de facto segregated. But the Board of Ed would not say the word segregation because, I think, segregation implied intent and also responsibility. So if the schools were segregated, then it was the fault of the institution that runs the schools and the responsibility of that institution to fix it. So the Board of Ed would talk about racial imbalance or racial separation.
Integration advocates, and Black and Puerto Rican parents and organizers then talked about integration as a tool to access all of the things that white kids in the city already had access to — to experienced teachers, to reasonable class sizes and functioning toilets. And the Board of Ed, instead, talked about this idea of coming together in racial harmony and that integration was not a remedy for injustice. They were using the word the way that we use the word diversity today.
So I think that you can see that even back in the 1960s, Black parents really talked about integration as a means to an end. But the Board of Ed and white parents talked about integration as a virtue in and of itself.
SHAPIRO That brings me to a foundational question: Who is integration actually for? Do we have diverse schools to make white people feel less guilty? Or do we have integration to dismantle structures of systemic racism that have excluded Black and Latino kids from having access to all that public education can offer them?
DOUGLASS HORSFORD I think the integration conversation is more of a conversation that’s happening among those who enjoy some level of privilege — nice white parents. Where is the groundswell of pro-integration efforts and support led by Black and other disenfranchised communities? I just don’t see it coming from the families that integration is supposed to benefit.
Integration is no longer the most important issue for Black families. Today, Black parents are worried about whether or not their children will be safe — whether because of Covid or violence on campuses or hate crimes or police brutality. In this moment, talking about integration feels like such a distraction.
JOFFE-WALT When I began the podcast, I took the need for school integration as a given. I thought of it both from my own perspective, with some sentimental ideas about the benefits of diversity, and wanting that for my own children. I also thought integration seems like an obvious goal because of the empirical evidence we’ve discussed. But also, segregation is anathema to the American promise. Separating people by races is caste. So it seemed like integration was an obvious good.
I think that what has changed for me is that I walked through the history of a school where integration has been invoked over and over again as a virtue, and used as a reason to pursue policies and programs that benefit white parents, that benefit advantaged parents — and that didn’t actually shift power within the school. After that, I started to have some doubts.
There were so many ways in which the school system and white parents maintained segregation in the school by creating separate academic tracks, by clustering in certain schools, or by hoarding resources. And I was especially struck by how this was true when white families were inside of the school I profiled during that first episode.
So I think it is more important to talk about race and power in more explicit terms, and to talk about this history. I think people like me need to reckon with what our legacy is with public schools and to really question what we mean when we say that we are striving to achieve integration, or diversity, or whatever word we use.
“It would be enormously controversial in New York City.”
SHAPIRO Rich, you oversaw an initiative when you were at City Hall to try to get more Black male teachers into city schools. I know at KIPP and at Achievement First, you have really put an emphasis on having a staff that looks like the kids that they serve. Why is it important for Black students to have Black teachers?
BUERY When I was at City Hall, about 40 percent of our students were Black or Latino males and about 8 percent of our teachers were Black and Latino males. I had only two Black male teachers during my entire public education career, both in middle school.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen really compelling research around the positive impact that having even one teacher of color can have on the educational trajectory of Black students. And also how few young people actually have exposure to Black teachers, particularly male teachers of color.
But there are all sorts of barriers, including regulatory barriers such as teacher licensing exams in many states that disproportionately exclude people of color, even though there is little or no evidence that your score on those exams impacts the quality of instruction.
SHAPIRO I wanted to dig into this question about what we talk about when we talk about resources. In a lot of ways we’re talking about fund-raising and the power that comes with fund-raising prowess. We know that schools across New York City, for example, have radically different P.T.A. annual fund-raising totals every year.
Dana has written about this idea of pooling P.T.A. donations across schools and districts and had a wonderful story a few years ago about the controversy such pooling set off in Southern California. Some parents said they did not want their donations going to other children’s schools. Can you talk about what you found there and whether you think the idea might have a shot in other places?
GOLDSTEIN The depressing thing is that in Santa Monica and Malibu, which is the district that attempted the P.T.A. pooling, it sort of added fuel to the fire of this simmering movement for the Malibu part of the district, which is the whiter, wealthier part, to secede, essentially. And we’ve seen these secession movements across the country.
So I don’t know how hopeful I am that it can be done without an enormous amount of controversy in other places as well. But I was impressed with some of the concrete and pragmatic things I saw that the pool donation system was able to accomplish.
It purchased things like a beautiful arts program, a drama program, a telescope for astronomy for the students. It was something they were able to do because the overall district was diverse even though there was still some segregation within the school buildings themselves and across the building. We’re largely talking about a program that was intended to benefit low-income Latino families and the schools their children attended.
I think it would be enormously controversial in New York City. When I looked at the data on the richest P.T.A.s in the country, a lot of them are in places like the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, the Village, brownstone Brooklyn. So telling those parents that some certain percentage of what you give will not be for your kid’s school is going to be enormously controversial here.
SHAPIRO I’d be remiss not to ask about the rise of these home-schooling pods. We are hearing a lot of anecdotes about white families with means who believe their children should not have to suffer through another year of remote learning. And they are getting together and, in some cases, taking their kids out of the public school system, possibly hiring teachers away from the public school system.
And it strikes me that these pods, even if they are a small trend, tell us a fair amount about how accidental segregation happens by well-meaning people who just don’t want their kids to lose out.
DOUGLASS HORSFORD As a parent, I think parents are going to do what they think is in the best interest of their kids. I don’t believe that investing in strategies that will try to change their behavior around that is going to work.
I mean, just to be honest, in the culture that we live in, it’s about individualism. It’s about getting the upper hand. You have people writing letters for kindergarten students in New York City to get into a kindergarten program. So I think we just have to be realistic about that, the culture that we live in, and what history has shown us.
But I think the question for me is how should parents who may not have the means, but have the wherewithal, can create their own educational networks and communities to help them during the pandemic — and beyond. So that’s what I’ve been giving thought to — and to how educators and community organizations could be working directly with parents and families to meet those needs.
The focus needs to be shifting, for those who are focused on justice, from equity to emancipation. That means for students of color, for immigrant students, for others who have been marginalized in the U.S. school system, to recognize the system that they’re in and to begin to think about ways to liberate themselves from that.
“I’m hopeful because I know that I can change something.”
SHAPIRO We are in the midst of this huge reckoning over race and justice. And we don’t really know how this movement is going to trickle down to schools. To wrap up, I would love everyone to talk about whether you feel any optimism that this sort of reckoning could change anything about how whether school districts work for equity.
JOFFE-WALT I was reading something the other day about how every article about reopening schools reaches a point where it talks about the need for federal funds and for investment. And that we are all really failed by the lack of planning and investment and coordination across all of our public systems. We’re all harmed by the lack of investment in public institutions. I am not very hopeful that it is going to go in the direction of more equitable schools.
We are all harmed by the lack of investment in public institutions but we are not all harmed in the same way. We don’t all have the same options available to us when it comes to filling in gaps where our public systems fail. If we have no collective response to this crisis, and if we don’t demand leadership and robust public institutions then yes, inequities will get worse.
GOLDSTEIN When I was watching the George Floyd protests, I was noticing that many of the white neighborhoods where a lot of white liberals were out participating in Black Lives Matter demonstrations were some of the same neighborhoods that resisted school integration. And that filled me with a lot of despair. I am not sure when those people on the street are going to grapple with resistance to policies like integrating schools and building affordable housing.
I then had to cover the news that tens of millions of the nation’s children are going to be learning online in the fall. And that led many of my peers and so many socioeconomically privileged parents of all races to talk about fleeing the public system into so-called learning pods. Or to embrace the idea that if you pay a private school tuition, you might be more likely to get in-person education this year. So when I consider all of these things, I don’t feel particularly hopeful.
I do, however, think that some of the families that are participating in segregating practices, like the whole private podding thing, are at least talking about and acknowledging the impact of their decisions. That’s a step forward from where we may have been a year ago, before the pandemic and before George Floyd.
BUERY I guess I’m of two minds here. Other than the pandemic itself, the crises that we face today are not really new. Racial oppression is obviously not new, including in schools, which were in so many ways designed to be the instruments of oppression. And public health has been a crisis for Black people for generations.
So on the one hand, I’m not hopeful. Historically, just because there was a big dislocation doesn’t usually resolve to the benefit of people without power. It’s not like we got more wealth equality after the ’08 financial crisis.
But on the other hand, I also realize that all the great changes in our society probably seemed impossible on the other side of the change. I think hope is a discipline. Because hope is a fuel that keeps you working. So I think I am hopeful. But I think you wake up every morning and you force yourself to be hopeful.
And I will say one last thing that gives me fuel. Not to put her on the spot, but it’s people like Tiffani. When I go out and see marches, it’s really the energy of young people who have been at the forefront of every movement for social change in this country and who are in the forefront of this movement.
TORRES Thank you, Richard. I feel like I’m just getting started. And there have been a lot of disappointments, I think, especially this year.
I’m going one day to be in a position where I can change something. And I think that I’m not necessarily hopeful in the sense that I think everything will change overnight. Because obviously, that won’t happen. I know that there are going to be a lot of people who oppose the movement for racial and educational equity.
But I’m hopeful in the sense that I think that there will be progress. I’m hopeful because I know that I can change something. And I’ve seen that already happening, not just with myself, but also with other students whose experiences are currently being elevated.
DOUGLASS HORSFORD Well, I’m very hopeful, actually. And I think it’s because I’ve been beating this drum for a minute. And I feel like the consciousness is changing around these issues.
I’m also very encouraged by the work of young people like Tiffani and even my children, and by just seeing how this moment has ignited their activism and their boldness. They’re just not going to put up with things in ways that even I did.
I think that we just need to make sure that we’re really supporting young people and giving them the tools and the space and the resources to engage in that activism. And that we continue to really focus on resources and representation. But we’ve got to also go back to the political space, the political dimension of all of this, and make sure that we are engaging in political participation, voting, electing people who share our commitment to equity and justice, and support them in doing their work. And with that we will get through this.
Dana Goldstein is a national correspondent for The New York Times, writing about the impact of education policies on families, students and teachers across the country. She is the author of the best-selling “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.”
Tiffani Torres is a rising college freshman at Georgetown University and a recent graduate of Pace High School in Manhattan. She lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and is an activist at Teens Take Charge, a student-led group that advocates integration of New York City’s public schools.
Richard Buery is the president of Achievement First, a network of charter schools in the Northeast. He previously worked as the chief of policy and public affairs at the KIPP Foundation, a national charter network; as a deputy mayor in the de Blasio administration; and as the chief executive of the Children’s Aid Society, a social service agency. He is a graduate of New York City public schools.
Chana Joffe-Walt is a reporter and producer at This American Life, and the host of “Nice White Parents,” a new podcast from Serial and The New York Times. The five-part series tells the story of a 60-year relationship between white parents and the local public school down the block.
Sonya Douglass Horsford is a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who studies the politics of race in education leadership, policy and reform. She is the author of several books, including “Learning in a Burning House: Educational Inequality, Ideology, and (Dis) Integration.”