How White Parents Can Resist Modern-Day Segregation in Schools
School segregation is not just a part of history—it's the present. This segregation is reflected in the numbers: a 2019 EdBuild report found more than half of U.S. children are in racially concentrated districts and nonwhite schools receive $23 billion less than white schools. The school decisions white parents make for their kids are very much a part of the story of modern-day segregation.
"White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is white," Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Black education journalist and MacArthur Fellow, pointed out in a 2017 interview with The Atlantic. "If their neighborhood school is black, they want choice…we have a system where white people control the outcomes, and the outcome that most white Americans want is segregation."
Integrated Schools—an organization mobilizing white parents, who've historically perpetuated school segregation, to actively integrate schools—believes that white parents can work toward equality in education by making different choices. The solution: get white families to enroll their children in schools where they are not the racial majority. Integrated Schools folks call these "global-majority schools," which is a way to reject the "minoritization" of Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
Many white parents still continuously oppose policies that would integrate schools, such as through active fights for their kids' white schools to stay that way during a redistricting process. As the Nice White Parents podcast points out, the voices of white families seem to hold far more currency to the school districts, because if they aren't happy, they'll just move their kid, and their money goes with them.
"It's really important for families to understand that their individual choices either hold up or undermine the system," said the late Integrated Schools founder Courtney Everts Mykytyn, who was white, in a previous Parents.com article.
It's also critical for white families to acknowledge the way white norms have created harm. "I think the idea of segregation is rooted in the idea that there isn't worth [in Black and brown schools]," says Val Brown, who is Black and principal academic officer for the Center for Anti-Racist Education and is currently pursuing her doctorate in curriculum, teaching, and teacher Education. "That the value is only found in all-white spaces." And on a deeper level, she believes that a lot of white families know that they're making decisions based on race, but don't want to face it, and "that takes a lot of unlearning to get over that."
The reality is diversity leads to better outcomes for kids, as Heather McGhee, who is Black and the author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, points out. "The research is very clear that racial and cultural and economic diversity helps children develop critical thinking, creative problem solving, empathy, and resilience in a way that is simply better than segregated environments," she says.
So, how can white parents be a part of that change? Organizations like Integrated Schools provide support for white families to move their children to global-majority schools, but to do it in a way that doesn't center themselves. Below are five steps for white families who want to help make a positive difference.
Build Relationships with Other Like-Minded Parents
"The pull of the white norm/middle-class culture and doing that 'good parent' thing is very powerful," says Ali Takata, a biracial Japanese and Italian mom and one of a six-person leadership team at Integrated Schools.
Parents often come to Integrated Schools feeling the tension between their values and what seem to be the accepted norm for their white community. It helps to have a community of people around you who are questioning what is right. For that, Integrated Schools has parent-to-parent programs and chapters all over the country. Some other communities committed to activating white allies to reject systemic racism, although not exclusively for parents, include Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) (which has chapters all over the country) and The Barnraisers Project.
"When we show up in these [global-majority] spaces, we need to have done the work on ourselves and not get swept up in the river of racism because white supremacy is present in our education system," says Anna Lodder, a white mom and another member of Integrated Schools' leadership team. She sees this as actively cutting through the "smog," a metaphor that Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., expert on the psychology of racism, uses to discuss systemic racism.
What should parents do? "Be curious and to assume that our teachers, our education system, lie by omission about how explicit racism has shaped our communities and be curious about learning the real truth," suggests McGhee. "There are so many wonderful resources out there now."
Parents can get these sources through Integrated Schools' podcast and book club. Additionally there's Embrace Race (provides tools about talking to kids about race and racism), Learning for Justice (provides resources to educators around social justice issues and dismantling white supremacy in the classroom), and The Conscious Kid (a racial equity-focused education, research, and policy organization promoting healthy racial identity development).
Send Your Kids to a Diverse School
The process of selecting a school is going to depend on where you live and what your current circumstances are, but Lodder says it plays out in similar ways in cities across the country.
"Rather than using school ranking websites, I went looking for a school that was under-enrolled—meaning it had a spot for my kids, and they weren't taking a spot from someone else—and a school based on the demographics of the city where it wasn't concentrating whiteness," says Lodder about finding a school for her kids after her family's recent move to Arizona.
For some parents, it might just be the public school down the street versus moving them to a magnet or private school (which is what Lodder did with her kids a few years ago in Los Angeles). For those who live in a majority white neighborhood, you might look to an under-enrolled global-majority school in another part of town (which is what Takata did with her kids in Austin, Texas).
Parents can also get a little help from Integrated Schools' Two Tour Pledge program, which is where families pledge to tour at least two global-majority schools. Another resource is Courtney E. Martin's recently published book Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter's School about her white family's school journey (she also leads the Oakland chapter of Integrated Schools).
Show Up with Critical Humility
The school decision is one important piece of the puzzle, but the other is how to show up, which relies on self-reflection, or "critical humility," as Lodder calls it. White families shouldn't come with the assumption that their presence "improves" a school. This deficit mindset is what Integrated Schools folks call "white saviorism," which they reject.
"It's a part of practicing followership," says Takata. "We don't need to go in and create a PTA or start an organic garden; we can just join and be a part of a community. That's it." By becoming a part of the community without actively trying to change it, you're participating with an asset-based mindset seeing the richness the ranking systems ignore.
Commit to Lifelong Growth
There is no end point to the work. "All of us as parents have to ask ourselves...how do we live out our values to create a better world for all children, not just our children," says McGhee. "We want our kids to be citizens in a world that is improving, not a world that looks like our grandparents'."
Integrated Schools itself is in a place of transition. Not only is it grappling with the leadership structure after Mykytyn's untimely death, but it's also seeing the gaps in its approach. "I do feel like we could potentially be a stronger movement if we were more multi-racial," says Takata. "It would speak to people of color who are interested in grappling with anti-Black racism in their own communities."