Watch Whiteness Work

As I mentioned in the Reading List this morning, Chalkbeat is covering a group of “Concerned Parents” in New York City who have organized to prevent their local public school from moving locations:

… private communications provide a window into how a group of parents at a high-performing school in an affluent neighborhood has tried to block a move that is supported by school faculty members, and would give the school more space and a more diverse student body. The proposal would shift P.S. 452 into a building on 61st Street that sits across from a public-housing development, which would likely lead it to enroll more low-income families.

Public data shows that P.S. 452 enrolls a population that is 64% white, 13% free and reduced lunch, and 2% English language learners. Let’s see how that compares to NYC as a whole:

 

To summarize, P.S. 452 is one of the whitest, richest schools in a city whose school system serves mostly nonwhite, low-income communities. My instinct is that this organizing is an effort at protecting privilege, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions. The Chalkbeat article outlines the various strategies and talking points that the parents of P.S. 452 are deploying to justify their opposition. Gothamist reported on one of those messages, featured on a sign in the lobby of the “Schwab House,” a building where the average unit sells for over $3 million:

“There is a consideration to move the school to a neighborhood (61st and Amsterdam) that has a very different demographic makeup,” read the message, which urged residents to call their elected officials. “THIS CAN GREATLY IMPACT THE VALUE OF OUR HOMES. The great schools are part of what makes this area very desirable.”

Welp! I can throw “benefit of the doubt” out of the window after reading that!

While some parents are pushing back on the more extreme rhetoric, the entire effort reeks of White America’s tendency to wall itself off from everyone else, using pecuniary excuses to justify segregationist behavior. The Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein details the various ways in which White America has used property rights to justify both residential segregation and exclusive public schooling throughout history. Ta-Nehisi Coates also looks at how exclusionary housing, zoning policies, and schools segregation have been intertwined throughout time.

While the “Concerned Parents” of P.S. 452 might not know how closely their behavior hews to the worst tendencies of the past, that doesn’t mean we should let them off the hook. This is how privilege works, as individuals justify personal behavior based on the fact that their status – whether race- or class-based – entitles them to something "more." In this case, the “Concerned Parents” argue that their ability to afford expensive condos entitles their kids to an elite educational experience. Moreover, they’re arguing that offering that experience to students with less privilege will inevitably diminish not just their own privileged children’s experience, but also their property values.

If there’s another way to construe this, I can’t see it. If you find yourself sympathizing with the “Concerned Parents,” I am not implying that you are a racist, or a classist, or a jerk. I am saying, though, that you should interrogate your own behavior and mindsets. These are the exact same mindsets that drove the overtly racist segregation of schools before the 1950s, and the covertly racist “white flight” in the aftermath of integration efforts. We white folks have found cleverer, less racist ways of describing the manifestation of those mindsets, but the aggregate result of the individual privileged decisions is segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods.

Nobody wants to stand up and say, “I’m a racist.” We are all, however, participating in a system that was set up to perpetuate discrimination based on race. The Concerned Parents of P.S. 452, whether they mean to or not, are perpetuating that system in a particularly egregious manner right now. They shouldn’t be able to launder that behavior through the euphemism of protecting their property values and children's educational privilege.