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What White Kids Learn About Race in School

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tags: racism, education, segregation, Race



Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. His latest book is A History of America in Ten Strikes. He blogs daily at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the segregation of schools was unconstitutional, but in fact schools have barely desegregated in the last half century. When the Court pumped the breaks on the process in 1955 by clarifying that school districts needed only to move with “all deliberate speed,” whatever that meant, it made space for most cities simply to do nothing for over a decade. The 1957 desegregation battle in Little Rock caught the nation’s attention, but the city’s choice the following year simply to close all its public schools made plain the durability of the desire for segregated schools—and not only in the South, as quickly became clear. Brown v. Board was followed by a nationwide rise of Christian private schools, which kept white children in all-white educational spaces. And as histories of conservatism have demonstrated with exacting detail—from Kevin Kruse’s White Flight (2005) to Stacie Taranto’s Kitchen Table Politics (2017)—the movement of whites to the suburbs was also explicitly, although not exclusively, about creating all-white educational spaces.

Declining school funding, exacerbated by white flight, then devastated many districts. Urban public schools became known as “troubled” or “failing,” with blame falling on both starved cities and black parents for not doing enough for their children. The handmaiden of this was the rise of neoliberalism, which argued across the board for replacing state support with private investment, said to be both more efficient and profitable. The advancement of charter schools as a solution to failing public schools reflects this logic.

But charter schools do nothing to address how structural racism underpins the problem of failing schools. One of the key mechanisms of this structural racism is that while the United States federally mandates public education, most funding for it comes from local property taxes. This arrangement inherently favors white-dominated districts, which tend also to have higher property values. A second mechanism is that in less racially homogeneous districts, wealthier whites often remove their children from public schools and send them instead to private “good schools”—which just so happen to skew disproportionately white. The cumulative effect is a U.S. education landscape that clusters around two poles: struggling schools composed disproportionately of students of color, and much better schools that are disproportionately white.

De facto school segregation perpetuates the intergenerational reproduction of racial hierarchy in at least two ways. The first is obvious: students of color receive worse education than white students. Second, in both formal and informal ways, school is where students learn about race—one of many indispensable lessons of Margaret Hagerman’s White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America (2018), which examines how white privilege and white racial ideology are produced among the next generation of the nation’s elite.

Read entire article at Boston Review

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