Is School Diversity Good for White Kids?

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In the 1980s, when our children were born, many white parents in the United States were pushing away from school diversity, pushing back on the school integration efforts of the civil rights era, a trend which continues today. Many reasoned that if school integration was good for children of color, it must be bad for white kids.

My husband and I believed that diversity among their classmates would be good for our kids. We committed to the public schools in Silver Spring, Maryland, which they attended first grade through high school. Silver Spring is right outside Washington, DC, and consistently ranks as one of the most diverse cities in the United States. When our kids attended the public schools, they had lots of classmates of color, and their high school, Montgomery Blair, was majority-minority. (Our son’s third grade class picture accompanies this post; he’s in the second row, third from the left, in the Chicago Bulls t-shirt.)

We thought this was the right thing to do, but we worried. What if we were wrong? What if we harmed these two little people we loved so fiercely?

The Explosive N-Word

Here’s one thing I worried about: that our kids would pick up the “n-word” from their African-American classmates. I knew it would happen. I thought about what I would say when it did happen. So I rehearsed a little speech, one that would make sense to an elementary-school kid.

Sure enough, one sunny Saturday as we left a local Chinese restaurant, a black kid jostled my 9-year-old son and said something rude. My son muttered, “Black-a$$ n****r.” I whirled on him and hissed, “I don’t care what your black friends call each other, decent white people do not use that word. EVER. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!?”

He calmly explained to me that, during a softball game at school the past week, he slid into second base, just beating the throw. The African-American second baseman called him a white-a$$ n****r.

I hadn’t expected that.

I asked, “What would happen if you just called him a black-a$$ honky?” He gave me that level look I have so often seen when he knows Mommy is being ridiculous, and said, “Are you trying to get me killed?”

Well, no, I wasn’t. But did he get the point? He did. They both did. I have not heard either of them use that word since.

Our children are now in their early 30s. Our son Ed writes, “I learned from one of my black friends at school that, ‘Only Black people can say that word, and say it to each other.’  I took that to heart and vowed to never use it. Even when people use the term Negro (knee-grow), I wince.”

Safety

White parents reportedly fear their children will not be safe in diverse schools. We had that worry, too. When we were talking over this issue, my husband said that was his great worry, that one of them might inadvertently say something offensive and get hurt. Or worse.  And I worried, too. It would only take a moment to lose a deeply beloved child.

That did not happen. Our kids had to deal with school bus bullying—100% of it from other white kids—and with one attempted mugging. (The would-be mugger was a kid who looked white, but who may have been bi-racial, a kid so dumb he didn’t cover his face.  Ed identified him to police with a school yearbook.) There were conflicts, yes, but Kat says the ones she experienced were mostly due to middle-school-girl meanness.  She remembers a “mixed kid who harassed me constantly from middle to high school. And a pair of girls one black, one white, whom I had overheard in summer camp laughing about picking on me and following me just because it was fun. Glad I could build a bridge between black and white kids one way or another.” Still, her diverse school environment, “[T]aught me that division by color is remarkably stupid. I mean, if my friend is smart, she’s smart. Not smart for a black girl, or smart for a Hispanic girl. Just smart.”

Did It Hurt Them Academically?

The major worry many white parents express is, “Will it hurt my child’s academic performance to go to school with kids of different races, whose performance may not be as good?” The answer, apparently, is, “No,” although some of that depends on what study you read.

Were both our kids academic stars, then? No. Ed had a particularly non-stellar academic record, which he says was due to “personal pigheadedness” and not any problems with diversity. The light went on for Ed in community college, and he went on to finish college on the Dean’s List and have a successful career in video production. He now works for the Detroit Lions, and is very happy in Detroit. I think he might not be so comfortable in a city where the African-American population is so large and influential if he hadn’t gone to school with a lot of black kids. He writes, “”When I was in school, I was never afraid of anyone who had a different skin color than I did. I recognized their differences from me, but that didn’t make me afraid of them. I grew up thinking it was normal for everyone to look different.”

Our daughter Kat did well academically, getting early acceptance to her first-choice college, and she’s now an environmental specialist with the Navy. About growing up in her diverse school environment, she writes, “It set me up with the ability to reach out to people, no matter what, and to try to understand the world they were coming from. Putting kids in diverse schools forces them to think outside themselves, whether they want to or not. If I could catapult my future children into Silver Spring for schooling, I would. Or anywhere there’s something other than a wall of white.”

“Walls of White” Are Crumbling

There’s another good reason for white parents to seek out a diverse school population: the overall population is changing. My husband and I live in Shoreline, a northern suburb of Seattle, an area where covenants for many years guaranteed an all-white population. While the older population in Shoreline is predominantly white, the school population is 42% non-white. The future population of this country is much more diverse than our past population, and diversity in schools helps prepare our children for that future.

Our kids had a lot more to say. I’ll write about more of it in my next post.

Further Reading

Journalist and MacArthur “genius” grant award winner Nikole Hannah-Jones also won a Peabody award for her NPR coverage of how school segregation is maintained. Hannah-Jones has written widely on the subject since her first series of stories, and she has remarked that, ““We have a system where white people control the outcomes, and the outcome that most white Americans want is segregation.” There was a fairly extensive review of her work on Fresh Air in 2017.

The Century Foundation, a progressive non-partisan think tank, issued a study a couple of years ago on how diverse schools benefit all students.

There is a lot of other research and writing on this subject, but I found most of it is “soft” research. The benefits of diversity cannot be easily quantified, which is why I turned to the small-scale longitudinal study effectively conducted by my own children. They had plenty to say, and I’ll have more of it in my next post.

 

2018-07-12T21:13:53+00:00 July 12th, 2018|General, Living My Century|6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Shirley McClanahan Zachry July 13, 2018 at 5:49 am - Reply

    Susan, John Zachry and I also made the choice for D.C. Area diverse public schools for our son and daughter. Our son attended Eleanor Roosevelt HIgh in P. G. Co. and our daughter attended Suitland Center for the Arts. They both valued their experiences and both believe they saw friends of diverse cultural and racial heritage as individuals to broaden their understanding. Agreed, there were some instances of conflict. I believe these are normal since I experienced these growing up in my ” White only” educational experience. The coping and resolution skills they gained they count as valuable life skills. They are both 40 yrs. old now and feel that diversity was an important element in their education.

    • Susan Storer Clark July 18, 2018 at 3:28 pm - Reply

      Thank you for this, Shirley. Our children wrote so much it’s going to go to three parts, and thanks for bringing up conflicts in a “white only” educational experience. Yours was probably very similar to mine.

  2. G. Jones July 19, 2018 at 9:47 am - Reply

    My spouse and I met at our diverse middle school in Silver Spring. We embrace diversity (biracial family) but agree that we would not send our children to any of the diverse Silver Spring MCPS schools that we attended. Anecdotally, I would like to point out that, while we attended diverse public schools, our respective friend groups were racially homogenous. Further, it seems that few cross-racial friendships extended beyond graduation. K-12 diversity is overrated if it only serves to prolong eventual post-grad segregation.

    • Susan Storer Clark July 27, 2018 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      This interests me. Would you mind letting me know why you wouldn’t send your children to the Silver Spring MCPS schools? I agree the diversity is overrated if people only end up back in their homogeneous circles, but that hasn’t been true for my kids.

  3. Alicia A (formerly Ms. Bueche) July 19, 2018 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    Thanks for writing this! I am pretty sure I was Ed’s second grade teacher at ESS. I am still working working for MCPS and I still hear families with the same concerns. Having grown up in a majority minority neighborhood myself and now my own children are Blair HS graduates I couldn’t agree more about the importance and strength of going to a diverse school. i am also from Michigan and in back in Detroit often, glad to hear it is a good fit for Ed.
    Thanks for sharing the benefits of attending diverse schools.

    • Susan Storer Clark July 27, 2018 at 2:28 pm - Reply

      You absolutely were one of Ed’s teachers, and I think you were one of Kat’s, too. She went by Katy when she was in second grade. Weren’t you the teacher who loved cows? He’ll be glad to know I heard from you.

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