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.”
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.
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.