October 11, 2020    AmericaEducationRace

“Nice White Parents”

In the new podcast series called “Nice White Parents” from Serial, Chana Joffe-Walt did an excellent job of asking the question most white parents do not want to ask: When I advocate for my own kids’ education, what impact does it have on the people of color? Although I’m not white, I asked the same question while advocating for my daughter, who is now in high school. It was an obvious question for me because pulling strings is considered unethical in Japan, whereas it is taken for granted among white people here in the US. In fact, they even brag about it. I know many white parents who pulled strings to get their kids into their preferred schools, in some cases, illegally by lying about their home addresses.

Before I continue, here is one disclaimer: I’m going to use terms like “white”, “black,” “Latino”, and “Asian” to generalize their behavior and values for the sake of simplicity and to match the spirit of the podcast entitled “Nice White Parents,” but I do not mean to imply that everyone in each group behaves the same way or holds same values.

White people are proud of their personal influences; they don’t think of it as something shameful, which is why they don’t question the legitimacy or fairness of practices like “letter of recommendation” and “legacy admissions.” When billionaires like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg donate their money to influence politics, white people cheer as long as the billionaires are on their side.

When my kid was applying for middle school here in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I was told there are only two decent schools in our district. There was another school she could apply to, which is outside of our district: Institute for Collaborative Education or ICE. It is one of the whitest public schools in the city, and the admissions criteria included an interview and an essay. We toured the school, and my kid liked the idea of going there, so we applied. But, we were told that applying isn’t good enough to get in. We asked the principal of her primary school to recommend her to the principal of ICE.

Being Japanese, this type of behind-the-scenes operation made me feel uncomfortable, but I went along with it. My wife is white and grew up in New York City herself, so I figured she knows how the system works. In the end, my kid did not get in. We were unofficially informed that ICE already had too many Asian students. (We checked “Asian” on her application.) The percentage of Asian students at ICE was below the city-wide percentage of Asian students. The only students they had too many were, in fact, white students.

This episode left a bad taste in my mouth. I regretted applying and attempting to pull strings. My daughter cried for days because she didn’t understand the reason for rejection. If the reason were that her test scores were below their cut-off point, it would have been easy to understand and accept. The solution would be obvious too: Study harder next time she applies to schools.

Since the admissions criteria were subjective, she had no idea why she was rejected. She had no choice but to take it personally: They didn’t like her. At age ten, she had to accept that success in life depended on the forces beyond her control. Some of my white friends thought it was a good lesson for kids to learn. In other words, kids should normalize the idea that having privileges is the way to get ahead in life.

We can’t blame parents for doing their best for their children, but white parents have a huge advantage over the parents of color because the higher strata of our society are filled with white people. This game of doing their best is rigged, and the podcast vividly illustrates how. It ends with the conclusion that change can happen only when the interests of white people are aligned with those of the people of color, a social phenomenon called “interest convergence.”

The podcast ends with an upbeat story of Brooklyn’s District 15, which forced integration for middle schools by replacing the traditional admissions criteria with a random lottery. Some parents complained that it’s not fair to the kids who studied hard. The essential question here is this: Should schools be organized by students’ academic levels? Nobody, or very few, would argue that colleges should select students randomly. If the academic levels are too diverse in a classroom, most students won’t learn anything because the teacher needs to cater to the lowest common denominator. The lower students will drag the higher students down. So, what makes it acceptable for middle schools? Chana Joffe-Walt does not provide an answer. The only reason most parents can accept it is that their kids are still too young for that to matter much. In fact, many white parents eagerly send their kids to “progressive” and “diverse” primary schools because it matters even less at those ages. High school is when it starts to matter. You begin to see white parents throw their anti-racist ideologies out the window.

Random selection of students is a great solution for integrating schools once and for all, but it’s not ideal from an academic point of view. The lottery system is great only because it effectively stops white parents from pulling strings, but there are other ways to stop them.

We could, for instance, punish any parents who try to pull strings. If any parent tries to influence the admissions process by emailing the principals, teachers, or parents of the schools they are applying to, the child of that parent should be automatically disqualified.

A more obvious solution is to ban all subjective criteria for admissions, like interviews, essays, and portfolios. That is what New York’s top high schools (“SHSAT schools”) like Stuyvesant have, and they served the Jewish community well when schools were discriminating against them. SHSAT schools are now serving the Asian community well.

But, recently, SHSAT schools came under attack from white, black, and Latino parents. This is another example of “interest convergence.” It was convenient for white parents to attack SHSAT schools because they are dominated by Asians. It garnered a lot of political will and media coverage because white parents were vocal about it.

White parents are unhappy about SHSAT schools because their culture does not align with theirs. It’s too Asian and Jewish. Many white parents would not send their kids to those schools, even if they were accepted, because they would not want to be a minority voice. They want to belong to an environment where they feel their voices would be heard. Nobody likes to be a minority, and some white parents are getting a taste of that.

Increasingly fewer schools have the culture they feel comfortable with. This is why they complain there aren’t enough schools in the city even though there are many they don’t even know about. Beacon, Clinton, and Eleanor Roosevelt are the schools all white parents want to send their kids to. Their whiteness is carefully controlled through zoning or by subjective criteria like essays and interviews. The selection process is deliberately kept in the dark in order to protect themselves from charges of racism. Naturally, white parents have no interest in attacking these schools even though their admissions criteria are obviously biased, and their white dominance has no justifiable excuse.

In contrast, there are no Asian parents covertly adding biases to the entrance exams to favor Asian students. If anything, the tests are biased against Asian students because many Asian parents do not speak English well and are unable to help their kids. Asians have no friends in high places who can do them favors either. Even if they did, it wouldn’t work for SHSAT schools anyway. Yet, white parents chose to attack SHSAT schools instead of their own schools like Beacon, Clinton, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They want the culture of SHSAT schools to align with theirs so that they would have more choices, not because they care about black and Latino students. Their interest happens to converge with those of blacks and Latinos.

I don’t have a good solution for white parents’ ability to garner media attention, but I’ve seen how it works many times. At my kid’s primary school, whenever something needs media attention, there are always some white parents who have connections to major media outlets. Either they themselves are journalists, or they have friends who are. They all mean well and think they are doing the school huge favors, but they don’t stop and think about their bias in deciding which story needs attention. They are usually convinced that they are always morally right on every issue and do not realize how differently other people perceive it. In the podcast, we see some of the white parents learning the hard way how biased they are. This is one of the best illustrations of how racism works without anyone intending to be racist.

Another way to solve the segregation problem is to personalize education and get rid of classrooms. We now have advanced enough technologies to achieve it. Much of the problem discussed in the podcast arose from the fact that teaching had to be done in groups for economic reasons. If there is no need to group students, we wouldn’t have any of these problems. Each school could have students at a wide range of academic levels. The lowest would not drag down the highest. During recess and after school, they would be able to socialize with a truly diverse group of kids. In other words, we can decouple socialization from academic education and address them as separate problems.

The question that kept popping into my head while listening to the podcast is: Why is it on white parents to solve the problem for blacks and Latinos? The central thesis of the podcast is that when well-meaning white parents try to solve the problem, they create even bigger problems. As you listen to the podcast, the reason becomes abundantly clear: It’s ethnocentrism more than racism.

These nice white parents assumed what is good for them is good for everyone. We see a cringy example of it in the first episode of the podcast. The white parents loved the idea of their kids learning French at school and assumed that blacks and Latinos would love it also. They don’t realize that many Latino and Asian kids are already bilingual and do not need to learn a third language.

According to the data published by New York City, as of 2018, the poverty rate among the Asian community (21.7%) is higher than the poverty rate among the black community (19.2%), yet, academically, Asian students perform the highest. White people have done nothing for Asians. How do we explain this phenomenon? The podcast does not mention Asians at all, which is expected; what Asians do is always cast aside as a strange anomaly that does not require explanations.

There are many schools in New York City that are predominantly Asian, mostly Chinese. Even though everyone interviewed in the podcast seems to assume that integration is the solution for the academic gap, Asians disprove this. I’m all for racial integration, but it does not make sense as a solution for bridging the academic gap. Segregated Asian schools perform better academically, which would imply that it’s not integration that bridges the academic gap. It’s the particular combination of white and black/Latino students that somehow solves that problem. If so, further studies should be conducted to see why that particular combination works, and why segregation enhances academic achievement for Asians. “Integration” as a solution is only an assumption. Why do black and Latino students perform better in the presence of white students? That is a mystery to me.

You might assume it’s because white students bring more money and resources with them, but that cannot be the reason given the high poverty rate among Asians, and Asian parents do not have connections to rich and powerful donors, like the white parents in the first episode of the podcast do.

Besides, as expressed in the podcast, many blacks and Latinos resent the money raised by white parents. I’ve seen this resentment first hand too in my kid’s primary school. They feel the money ruins their communities, and I think there is a great deal of truth to that. I stopped volunteering for fundraising events when my kid started middle school.

Again, I need to reiterate that I’m for integration and against segregation. I just don’t think that segregation per se is causing the academic gap. Outside of academic education, integrated schools are clearly better for social education. Mostly for that reason, I didn’t push my daughter to attend predominantly Asian schools.

Today, there are many liberal white parents who are eager to alleviate the pain of white guilt. Many of them think they are solving the problems for the people of color when, in fact, they are just trying to ease their own pain. This is why the perfect solution for them is a school that is culturally as white as Dalton but looks diverse. They only want the appearance that eases their pain. The podcast is quite successful at exposing their hypocrisy.

When we are young, we can be as idealistic as we want to be without being accountable. Young white kids can talk about racism, criticize their parents, and join the Black Lives Matter protests, and act as if racism is someone else’s problem, but when they have their own kids, the truth comes out. That’s when we see them fleeing to the suburbs or private schools.

“Diversity” is now a buzzword that everyone casually utters without thinking much about what it means. Diversity is filled with conflicts. There is no shortage of them in public schools. To love diversity, you have to love conflicts. You have to thrive in them. If you are conflict-averse, diversity is not for you. You’d be better off staying in your bubble and keeping your kids in private schools. It’s through conflicts that we learn and grow. Even as kids, our needs and desires conflicted with those of our parents, and through those conflicts, we learned to be who we are.

If you don’t love conflicts and what you learn from them, don’t try to help others you don’t know, because you’ll end up projecting and imposing your desires on them without their consent. That is what “Nice White Parents” do. They are “nice” because they avoid conflicts.