It’s well known that white families left central cities by the thousands in the decades following World War II, in part avoiding schools where white children were not in the majority. In recent years, some families have reversed that trend, returning to gentrifying neighborhoods and turning their attention toward the racial integration of schools that earlier generations of whites fled. A few of those parents want integration because they value racial diversity. Grassroots movements like Integrated Schools encourage white, affluent parents to send their children to schools where children of color are in the majority “intentionally, joyfully, and humbly.” But that group and others recognize that white parents have too often sought integration not because of its advantages to society as a whole but rather, in the words of Integrated Schools, “primarily as a commodity for the benefit of our own children.”
We think Integrated Schools has it right. As both research and our personal experiences demonstrate, school integration attempts by white parents often involve racial stereotyping and opportunity hoarding. A common pattern is for white parents to band together to remake local schools into places they deem fit for their children. If they are not confident they can do that, they never enroll their children.
Take Cassandra’s experience. When her children attended a Chicago public school where 86 percent of students were of color (like her own children), she heard negative talk among neighborhood parents about the school. She and other parents created a tour committee and shared positive stories about the elementary school in online parent groups and school-ranking sites.
More parents, some white, started showing up for school tours. Many parents smiled when they saw the banner proclaiming the school’s exemplary social-emotional-learning rating. But Cassandra noticed white parents’ smiles fade as the tour groups entered classrooms, where children with brown skin outnumbered children with white skin. Parents of color, having noticed social justice themes reflected in student work displayed in classrooms, began asking about the curriculum. But white parents’ questions abruptly shifted away from SEL and educational values and toward resources. “Does every student have an iPad? What world languages do students learn here?”
And every year at back-to-school festivities, Cassandra saw none of the white parents from the tours. The school’s white student enrollment continues to hold steady at around 14 percent.
Most white parents try to deny that they buy into anti-Black stereotypes when considering schools for their children. When rejecting schools where Black and brown children are in the majority, they blame test scores or deem the school “not the right fit.” But research suggests that anti-Black stereotypes play a big role in these decisions. “Some diversity-seeking parents do not just make choices that inadvertently reproduce segregation and racial inequality,” concluded sociologist Shani Evans. “Parents draw on well-worn stereotypes of Black children and families as threatening, violent, and dysfunctional when describing their avoidance of majority-Black schools.” The fact is, white parents tend to avoid schools with high percentages of Black and Latinx students.
Instead, white parents seeking racially diverse schools tend to lean toward schools with what prominent journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones calls “carefully curated diversity,” that is, a sprinkling of students of color in an otherwise white school, so that their children will be alongside more peers of their race. And most of the time, white parents follow the lead of other white parents in selecting white-predominant schools because they believe those are the best schools and will give their children a leg up for college and the workplace. Kathleen recalls her rationale for moving to a specific Chicago neighborhood when her child was approaching school age: It was where many of her white friends with school-aged kids lived. She assumed that if they were satisfied with the neighborhood school, it would be good enough for her child, too.
White parents tend to harbor white-centric notions of what children need to succeed and use their positional privilege to impose these ideas on schools.
Some white school-integration advocates point to policy as the vehicle to both counter these stereotypes and decrease school segregation in gentrifying cities. As recently argued in Education Week, policymakers should, in these advocates’ view, stop assuming that white parents want selective-enrollment and gifted options for their children and instead create policies that expand other options for school integration that will work over the long haul.
But faulty policy cannot be the focus when we consider interpersonal factors contributing to the persistence of school segregation. Nor can we possibly ignore the harm done to children of color by the new power structure that white parents often create within schools they integrate. Prioritizing policy absolves white parents from their responsibility to acknowledge and push aside the racial fears that cloud their school decisions. Further, it excuses white parents from doing the work of building solidarity with parents of color.
Without this solidarity, many white school-integration advocates continue to view racial diversity as a boon for their children and assume that schools of color will embrace them. But some Black parents are home schooling their children or, like Cassandra, opting for predominantly Black schools to avoid the anti-Blackness that comes from integrated spaces. White parents who assume their children and their ideas are welcome in schools where students of color are in the majority not only ignore the rich history of Black-parent advocacy for community control of their neighborhood schools amid a system that has for decades marginalized them and their children, they also fail to acknowledge the potentially harmful implications of their presence in schools of color.
White parents tend to harbor white-centric notions of what children need to succeed and use their positional privilege to impose these ideas on schools. Research has demonstrated that these impositions lead advantaged (middle to upper class, mostly white) parents to hoard power and opportunities in their children’s schools, thereby further marginalizing families who were there first and possibly sought a haven from the racial discrimination they and their children experience beyond school walls.
We’re not denying the benefits of school integration that centers the people who public schools have marginalized. When considering whether or how to integrate public schools, policymakers must focus on the educational goals of Black and brown parents and do so intentionally—not paternalistically as reflected in policies of the past. Until policymakers develop the political will to do so, white parents cannot be the arbiters of school integration’s necessity or benefits. Instead, white parents can work to build true solidarity with parents of color so that together they can demand school policies that ensure Black and brown children and families thrive.
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2023 edition of Education Week as White Parents Say They Want Diverse Schools, But Will They Send Their Kids?