Posted on October 26, 2020

Not So Nice

Ray Domanico, City Journal, October 20, 2020

Chana Joffe-Walt’s five-part New York Times podcast Nice White Parents argues: “If you want to understand why our schools aren’t better, that’s where you have to look. You have to look at white parents.” By “nice” white parents, she doesn’t mean all white parents. The narrative focuses on well-to-do progressives, those who espouse all the proper liberal ideals but fail to commit their own children to schools reflecting those values. Save for a brief description of “white moms in Queens” organizing an anti-busing protest in 1964, the podcast has little to say about working-class parents. Joffe-Walt explains that, while the Queens moms played a role in killing integration efforts, “there was another group of white parents who played a quieter, but I’d argue more forceful, role in killing integration—the white parents who said they supported it.”


To make the case that whites profess support for integration while acting in ways that defeat efforts in that direction, Joffe-Walt takes us back to the early 1960s, when the white community influenced the physical siting of this school (now the Boerum Hill School for International Studies). The original plan was to locate the school adjacent to a NYCHA housing project a few blocks from the eventual site on Baltic Street, made available by the 1963 relocation of St. Francis College to Brooklyn Heights. White residents of the area wrote letters to the Board of Education arguing that the site would be perfect for a new school, as it would allow for racial integration—black and Puerto Rican NYCHA families could send their children there. But when the new building on Baltic Street opened in 1968, none of the letter-writers’ children was enrolled. {snip}

A lot happened in those years, and the podcast ignores much of it in support of its narrative of white insincerity. In the early 1960s, teachers were enrolled in various weak unions; by 1968, the United Federation of Teachers had consolidated teachers into a single, powerful union. In 1964, black leaders organized a one-day student strike to protest the lack of progress toward integration in city schools. More than 400,000 students stayed out of class and peacefully demonstrated. In response, Queens moms staged a smaller counterprotest. When the Board of Education backed off its modest integration plans, the focus of black advocacy shifted from integration to local or “community control” of schools. Tensions rose as two major movements—teacher unionization and advocacy for community control—traveled on a collision course, leading to a multiweek teacher strike in the fall of 1968. Thus, between 1963 and 1968, racial tensions around school integration dramatically intensified in the city, which partially explains why few whites showed up when the Cobble Hill school opened.


In the end, the argument that white parents were the problem in public schools doesn’t hold up. Today, three schools occupy the school building on Baltic Street: Success Academy–Cobble Hill, a charter elementary school; The Digital Arts and Cinema Technology High School; and the Boerum Hill School for International Studies, the now-renamed middle school. In 2019, 32 percent of the students in the building were black, 27 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white, 6 percent Asian, and 6 percent “other.” Composed almost of equal populations of blacks, Hispanics, and whites, the building’s combined student population looks much like the ideal embraced by progressives in the 1960s. {snip}

Despite this diverse school population, Joffe-Walt is not happy with the two most integrated schools. While allowing that Success Academy has done something that she has seen no other school do—“limiting the power of white parents” and making them abide by the same rules as everyone else—she cannot abide the fact that Success Academy treats all students the same, when, in her view, children are different and require different approaches. {snip}


Joffe-Walt ignores the problems with seeking a citywide directive on school integration. Parents have options. Fifty-two percent of white students are already enrolled in private or religious schools. The city’s demographics are changing. Between 2001 and 2019, black enrollment in public, charter, and private schools combined declined by 131,000, or 31 percent. Almost 30 percent of black students in the city are enrolled in charter, private, or religious schools. Meantime, white enrollment across all sectors remained flat and dropped by only 10,000 in the traditional public schools.

Outside of a handful of school districts—the Upper West Side, the East Side, Lower East Side, and Park Slope/Carrol Gardens/Cobble Hill—school choice and school admission policies are not the driving force in school diversity. In the rest of the city, children of all races typically attend the neighborhood school. Nice White Parents does not consider these neighborhoods and the formidable challenges of moving students long distances to meet diversity goals. A more direct approach to school integration might make some nice white parents feel good about themselves, while driving others out of the system. Nonwhite families still need what they have been asking for since the early 1960s—safe schools with good teachers, close to home.