Commentary and opinion
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision and the 1968 conflict between the white New York City teachers union and the Black Ocean Hill-Brownsville community were historic events. Together they helped make well-intentioned white paternalism the primary way public education has related to Black students and their families for the last 50-plus years.
Black families and their children have not been well served by this paternalism. It is time we replace white paternalism with Black empowerment.
The Brown decision did not empower Black families to have more control over how their children are educated. Instead, it further empowered white paternalism. The court told white school boards to stop racially segregating their school buildings in the hope that Black children would benefit from sitting next to white children. Most white school boards delayed as long as possible, but by the late-1960s they were under intense legal pressure to desegregate.
In response to this ongoing legal pressure and the political opposition of white families to forced bussing, districts began implementing magnet programs in the late 1970s and early ’80s to encourage white families to voluntarily desegregate their school buildings. Magnet schools are high-quality, well-funded specialized programs that districts create in Black community schools to attract white students.
Magnet schools are a win-win solution for white families and school districts. Advantaged white children receive even more advantages, and white school boards have numbers showing their school buildings are integrated. The only losers are Black students who seldom benefit from these high-quality programs while being used as statistical props by school districts.
(Full disclosure: I helped start Florida’s first International Baccalaureate program in 1984, which was a magnet program designed to appease politically influential white families while satisfying a federal desegregation order.)
White liberal families are especially attracted to magnet programs because they enable these families to tell their likeminded friends that their children are enrolled in integrated public schools. What usually goes unsaid is that within these integrated buildings their children are attending elite programs with entrance requirements that often lead to racial and economic segregation.
White paternalism and Black disempowerment were further enhanced by a political confrontation in New York City. In 1968, all New York City schools were controlled by a Central School Board that was uninterested in integrating the school system. As their frustration grew, Ocean Hill- Brownsville families and community leaders decided the best way to meet their children’s needs was to assert greater control over their local schools. The city’s teachers union saw decentralizing control of the city’s schools as an existential threat to their business model, which requires a centralized, command-and-control management system to enable collective bargaining.
The union went on strike for 36 days, crushed the Black community’s struggle for self-determination, and reaffirmed some enduring precedents. Public education would continue to be controlled by white power, Black communities would continue to be disempowered, and white power would make good-faith efforts to educate Black children, provided all aspects of white privilege were protected—particularly relating to teachers unions.
(Full disclosure: I am the former president of two local teachers unions.)
The disempowerment of Black families and their reliance on white paternalism to meet their children’s learning needs is still the dominant reality in public education today. And it is still the prevailing philosophy of my political party (i.e., Democrats). But there are hopeful signs that enlightened progress may be possible.
Serial and The New York Times recently published a five-episode podcast, titled “Nice White Parents,” that documents the inability of well-intentioned white paternalism to improve the schooling of Black children. In a follow-up piece called “How White Progressives Undermine School Integration,” the Times interviewed progressives about the appropriateness of the current racial and economic power relationships in public education.
Times reporter Eliza Shapiro introduced these interviews by stating that, “across America, desegregation has never been tried at scale, partly because of resistance from white liberals.” Shapiro also stated the importance of focusing “on empowering Black and Latino parents who have so often been left out of the debate about their own children’s educations.”
Here are some representative quotes from Shapiro’s interviews.
Chana Joffe-Walt, the lead reporter on the Nice White Parents series: “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….it is more important to talk about race and power in more explicit terms, and to talk about this history.”
Sonya Douglass Horsford, professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College: “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.”
Richard Buery, president of a charter school network: “In this city, it’s always integration on white people’s terms…Racial oppression is obviously not new, including in schools, which were in so many ways designed to be the instruments of oppression.”
That the New York Times is willing to publish comments questioning the ability of white liberal paternalism to delivery greater equity and excellence in public education is a hopeful sign. But the paternalistic relationship between Black families and public education that the Brown decision and the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike further institutionalized has served white families and teacher unions well and will be difficult to change.
Replacing systemic white paternalism with the empowering of Black families is a necessary but not sufficient condition for improving Black student achievement. We also need to implement the support systems these families need to exercise this empowerment as effectively as possible. This is an area where well-intentioned white liberalism can be helpful. Liberation, empowerment, self-determination, and appropriate support is a formula that will help public education achieve more equity and excellence.