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Brian Lehrer: It's the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. Good morning again, everyone. On our recent Ask the mayor program with Mayor Bill de Blasio in late August, the mayor got a call from a listener who brought up the New York Times and serial productions podcast called Nice White Parents. The caller is Regina in Manhattan. Here's a 25 second snippet of the call that contains the podcast reference and two questions.
Regina: In the podcast, they primarily talk about how New York public schools are largely segregated and with the pandemic and largely potentially being online, I would suspect that there's going to be a lot of problems with accessibility and underprivileged communities. I was wondering if the mayor has anything to address that. If this may be a good time to address integration of schools.
Brian: Regina in Manhattan. Thank you again for your call back on August 28th. The mayor had not heard of the podcast, but on the issue of integration in our segregated school system, the policy heart of his answer was this.
Mayor de Blasio: We are going to be doing a lot more to address some of the barriers to a more diverse classroom. It's been working at the local level. That's where we found the greatest success from the ground up. I also will say, as I've said, Brian on this show before, I really wish people would look at the foundation. The foundation is not the school system. It is housing, it's jobs, it's economic segregation. It's a segregated city. The school system can't solve that.
Brian: People can be moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, as Kamala Harris has pointed out in her debate with Joe Biden, right?
Mayor de Blasio: I have been really clear about the fact that in some neighborhoods where communities are close together, there's a lot of that we can do and are doing. In other neighborhoods, it's a lot harder. I don't think something like large scale a school busing is a good idea for that purpose, I just don't and I've said that many times.
I think we can do a lot to make our schools more representative and inclusive, but I really think that debate-- I will believe it is an honest debate when people talk about the economic underpinnings in the housing underpinnings more and not just, act like the schools can solve the problem alone. They simply can't. We can make a lot of progress, but I'll argue with anyone any time, it cannot be the schools alone.
You want to do real-- I don't know what Nice White Parents is about. Then people in predominantly white neighborhoods let's desegregate the neighborhoods and you will desegregate the schools. That is the better way to think about this from my point of view.
Brian: Mayor Bill de Blasio here last month, the podcast, Nice White Parents, the New York Times is a five part series that grew out of the public radio program This American Life. As a summary of the times puts it. The podcast largely focuses on the story of one Brooklyn middle school that opened in 1968 and how white parents have influenced the trajectory of the school over and over even when their children didn't attend it.
With me now is the host and reporter of Nice White Parents, Chana Joffe-Walt and Rachel Lissy and editorial consultant for Nice White Parents in her day job. She is senior Program Officer at Ramapo for Children, a professional development organization that creates programs for adults to help them create successful learning environments for all young people. She is also a scholar focused on the history and practice of discipline policy in the New York city schools. Chana and Rachel, thank you so much for coming on today. Hi.
Chana: Thanks for having us.
Rachael: Good morning. Thank you.
Brian: Chana, I'll circle back to the clips of the caller and Mayor Bill de Blasio and his approach to integration and inequality. This is essentially the story of a school in Cobble Hill that started out life known as IS 293. For people not familiar with the podcast like I guess the mayor, can you describe the founding of IS 293 and what it had to do with integration?
Chana: IS 293 was founded in the 1960s, at a moment in New York city when there was a large scale Black led and Puerto Rican led movement for school integration. I went into the school in 2015, because I was interested in segregation in schools and doing some reporting for This American Life but actually it was in looking in the archives.
I went to the board of ed archives with Rachel and we found these letters that were written by white parents in the neighborhood on the Cobble Hill side of the Brooklyn neighborhood where the school is the board of ed had been planning to put this new school closer to the guana's houses, to new public housing projects.
The white parents on the other side of the neighborhood were saying, "No, put the school in the middle of these two segregated neighborhoods so that all of our kids can go to school together, we want to have an integrated school, we want to participate in an integrated school and this is an opportunity to build what at the time was called the fringe school to create integration by using, but by focusing on neighborhoods where it was actually easily possible where people were living in close proximity to each other.
The white parents wrote these letters to the board of ed, moved the planned building to court street where it stands now, at the request of these parents who had written these letters and then in researching it and looking into it and trying to track down some of these letter writers, I didn't find a single white parent who had actually sent their kids to the school once it was built.
Brian: Wow. Not one. Rachel, anything to add so far by way of historical context?
Rachael: I think what was interesting in some of the experiences with being at the archive, is just this understanding that like schools are a resource. I think we often don't really question. We pass them on the street and we think that there's always a story behind every building and that the story behind this particular school building, not unlike the story behind many school buildings, not just in New York city, but I think in probably our country is a story that intersects a lot with power and class and the access and racism.
We see the ways in which this school got on the whims of these white parents who didn't necessarily have the commitment to follow through got placed, where it was placed. That then had all these reverberating effects that its location over time has had all these effects in which these issues have come up again and again periodically.
Brian: Let me play one more clip of the mayor on a response to a followup question I asked about disparate PTA funding possibly causing more inequity in the covert era. All of which was still in the context of the conversation that was launched by the caller who brought up the podcast. Here's more of what the mayor had to say.
Mayor de Blasio: You really want to change things in this city, then everyone better change a lot of the way we live more foundationally. If you just talk about it and feel self satisfied, God bless you.
That's not actually going to change things. What changes things is redistribution of wealth, tax the wealthy at a much higher level, make sure that working people who in this city are overwhelmingly people of color get higher wages so they can afford better housing, help us create the affordable housing in neighborhoods that so many times there's been a Nimby effort to stop.
The Nimby effort has sometimes come from people I would've thought were more to the left, not just people more to the right. If we're going to have an honest discussion in this city, which a lot of times bluntly elite outlets and elite context don't want to have this honest conversation, you really want to break down segregation in New York city, then let's deal with the economic reality.
The economic reality is pervading the racial reality as well. I just feel like this is a lot of cocktail party comfort going on rather than people honestly dealing with this issue. Help me tax the wealthy, helped me redistribute wealth, helped me build affordable housing in white communities. If you want desegregation. If you do not want to do all those things, then you're not serious about desegregation.
Brian: Rachel Lissy, let me turn to you on this first. The question was about the schools, but his answer is housing segregation and redistribution of wealth as the real root causes that need to be addressed. I realize your expertise is more in education but what's your reaction to hearing the mayor put the emphasis where he did?
Rachel: I think that he's not wrong. Residential segregation is a hugely powerful influence on a variety of different kinds of inequities in policy and it's definitely relevant to bring that up, but that doesn't absolve you of addressing the issue that shows up where you can control this.
We see historically, I mean, this was the way that the board of ed responded to the initial recommendations for integration in the late '50s which was to say, there's nothing we can control about this when in reality, there were lots of ways in which the board of ed had the impact to control.
They could change zoning in communities and in neighborhoods, they could change the way districts were created, they could to change the ways in which teachers were assigned. I think this idea that because we can't control everything we're not responsible to control the things that we can control. I think also the, I don't know, disdain for the fact that people have the choices that they can make.
The parents that we're talking about are not parents that can necessarily control tax policy. They vote and they likely probably voted for him, but they can control where they send their kids. The idea that we don't have a responsibility or that there isn't merit or value to having honest conversations about those choices and the impacts that they have, to me, it's a red herring in terms of how we focus on this issue.
Brian: Chana, you say in the series that there might be two different visions of integration. One, comforting to white parents that's gauzy like a time when you saw your own child's very diverse class play. You use that example, a vision of integration that might make you feel good as a white parent, but that could keep you too innocent and you use that word innocent. Can you describe those visions and what you mean by innocence in that context?
Chana: Yes. One thing that was really striking to me and especially in researching the 1960s and learning more about board of ed policy that Rachel was talking about, is just how similar it felt to now and to the experience I had both as a reporter in schools and also as a parent and surrounding the conversation around integration and diversity and a bunch of words that are used in ways that I think are a little bit imprecise.
That was very true in the '60s too, that the board of ed following Brown versus Board of Education, the board of ed in New York city said, "Yes, we're on board and we support integration and we're already integrated and look at our diverse classes. Integration is about the racial harmony and coming together and being unified." At the very same moment was running two parallel school systems, unequal school systems.
At the same moment there was a movement in New York City from Black families and Puerto Rican families saying, "We want our schools to be integrated and this is not actually about racial togetherness, it's not about being on a stage and performing a sign together as moving as that actually is." This is a remedy for injustice.
This is a remedy for structural inequality that has a history and that denies our children the same thing that white children are getting and that what we want for our children is the resources, is the experienced teachers, the quality school buildings that we are seeing white children already have in New York City. There was this difference between what I think we now would call diversity as of value to celebrate that we all benefit from and something that was really being pushed as a tool to remedy inequality and injustice.
Brian: Listeners who have heard the Nice White Parents, New York Times podcast, maybe a good call in question might be what is integration and what is integration for if you're a white parent or a parent of color or anyone else? Maybe you want to answer that question and whether or not you've heard the podcast or ask a question of Chana Joffe-Walt from Nice White Parents or Rachel Lissy education historian from the group Ramapo for children and a consultant to the series 646-435-7280, 646-435-7280.
Also, we'll get to their final episode, which is about District 15 in Brooklyn, trying a district-wide middle school integration model now. Anyone from District 15 school communities is welcome to call too and maybe describe your experience or your thought on the broader context, 646-435-7286, 646-435-7280. Rachel, did you want to add anything maybe to Chana's answer about notions of integration and if the word is heard differently in different communities and means things in general differently to people in different communities?
Rachel: Yes, I think that the word integration is often used in a way that particularly for white people can be similar to assimilation, which is this idea that integration just means that Black kids will come to our schools and then become more like us. I think that the ways in which the Black communities are talking about integration has much more to do with resources, which Chana has called out.
I also think for white parents, particularly those who are interested in participating in integration, I think it's important to challenge some of those ideas and the ways in which through integration calls upon us all to change, calls upon white people in particular to question some of the ideas and practices that they have and the ways in which they move typically in public spaces.
Brian: Let's take a call that I think is on point for this Desiree in Park Slope. Desiree you're on WNYC. Thanks so much for calling today.
Desiree: Hi, good morning. Thank you for having me. I have a pretty unique experience in that I started my education Jackson, Mississippi in the '70s as a child, and then I finished my education in the Bronx. I have the advantage of having been exposed to post Jim Crow, schooling and busing, and being bused to far away school, but also going to a primarily Black and brown school for high school.
I don't think that the way that people are talking about integration is useful for students. I think that if the focus was on making sure that Black and brown schools have all of the same resources in their neighborhoods that the white schools do, and I'm calling her white schools do, and I'm calling them white schools knowing that they're not necessarily all white, that would actually [inaudible 00:15:35] more.
I don't think just wanting to have Black and brown and Asian and other kinds of kids all in one class is necessarily the right goal, particularly for New York City, because it's not Jim Crow and kids are not isolated. They ride the bus with other kinds of kids, they take the train, they go to the park. It's not like they have no interaction with kids who are not like them ever.
The idea to put them all in the same class so the can get to know each other, I just feel like that's not really a useful idea in 2020 in New York city. I feel like the focus should be on boys and girls high school, what do they need? What do they not have that Carol Gardens schools have? Make sure that they have that.
Brian: Chana, you want to react to this? Talk to Desiree. Rachel you're too. Do you deal with this explicitly in the series?
Chana: I think that everything you're saying comes up throughout the series and comes up in the initial early parts of the school of what integration was actually for, what was the purpose of integration who was it serving and also who was going to have to sacrifice to make integration possible? Who was going to have to bear the burden of traveling on buses and being in schools where they maybe weren't welcomed and weren't treated well.
I do think that one thing that struck me about the history of this school in particular was over after the white parents wrote letters wanting this integrated school and didn't go to the school, there were several decades in which there were not white families in the school, but the school is part of District 15, which has always had advantaged white families in it.
It struck me how much, what actually happened, the conditions on the ground in the school were still shaped by the interests and priorities of white families who existed in the system with them. I hear what you're saying and I think that the conversation does need to be more precise and shift more. I think it also is true that kids are always part of-- We're all sharing the same public systems. There are ways in which even when there isn't the presence of white families in schools that there's still an influence. It's still a powerful force.
Brian: Rachel, do you want to expand on that anymore? I think that's one of the really interesting themes of the podcast series that a lot of people might not have been exposed to before, even when they're not going to the same schools, white parents have a lot of influence over what happens in mostly Black and brown kids' schools.
Rachel: Yes, and I would say just, I think it was a great question that the caller brings up, but I also think that historically that approach, which is let's just put more resources and try to equalize the resources is not an approach that has worked. New York City tried that approach. They had a more effective schools program in the '60s when it seemed like the integration efforts were really not going to be successful.
I think part of it has to do with some of what Chana just named, which is that white parents, there's a concept of a opportunity hoarding, which is that even when white parents aren't in that school, because of the ways in which when we treat schooling as this competitive private good, there is always going to be a desire on the part of white parents to get more stuff.
We'll raise your community garden and show you a STEM lab or whatever it is. I think part of the value of integration is in part in equalizing some of those reset resources and access to some of those resources, more so than it is about just like a gauzy idea around diversity.
Brian: We'll continue with Chana and Rachel and more of your calls and more clips from the New York Times and serial productions podcast series Nice White Parents, right after this.
Brian: Brian Lehrer on WNYC, as we continue with Chana Joffe-Walt host and reporter of Nice White Parents, the new podcast series from the New York Times and serial productions and listeners, many of you know serial, remember that Sarah Koenig series that has had a couple of seasons. Well, now that public radio production has been acquired by the New York Times. Serial productions is part of the New York Times. Sarah Koenig was an editor on this series.
Chana Joffe-Walt is the reporter and also with us as Rachel Lissy, an editorial consultant for a Nice White Parents. In her day job, as I said at the beginning, she is senior program officer at Ramapo for children. A professional development organization that creates programs for adults to help them create successful learning environments for our young people.
She is also a scholar focused on the history and practice of discipline policy in the New York City schools.
I want to jump ahead to the final episode in this five part series, in which you describe something going on today in Brooklyn's District 15, what may be an actual serious attempt at integration that began last school year. District 15, which happens to be the mayor's own home district, I believe, where his kids went to school includes all our parts of Carroll Gardens, Sunset Park, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Boerum Hill, Fort Green and Red Hook.
Tell me if I got that right, but here's one of the organizers behind that effort. A white parent who happens to have worked as a lawyer for the civil rights division of the US education department named Miriam Nunberg. She talks here about ways that middle schools used to screen for students that have now been ended.
Miriam Nunberg: There was a principal of one of the middle schools, one of the selective ones who said, "We'll screen for nice. We look for nice kids." I'm like, "Oh my God. This is so discriminatory. How do you define nice. How could you possibly not have some cultural bias in your brain when you were deciding that one kid is nice and another kid isn't?"
There was another time when for one of the schools that interviewed, the parent coordinator was asked, "Well, what are you looking for in these interviews? She said, I can't tell you, but we know it when we see it."
Brian: Chana, what's significant about that clip.
Chana: I think that at that period of time, which is not very long ago, it's fairly recently, the system that had evolved within District 15 to sort kids into middle schools had become totally just insane. There were three middle schools that most of the white advantaged families wanted to go to. There was a growth in that population and the district, and those schools were no longer able to accommodate all of those families in the same school.
What had evolved from basically what we tracked earlier in this series as these specialized programs, as like a gifted program that the district created to maintain a white middle class population in schools in the '80s, had evolved into each school, having its own kind of individual and ever changing admission criteria for getting into the school that you really needed to know and needed to know someone and needed to understand how it operated and navigate it and show up for tours at 10:00 AM on a weekday.
When they broke it down, when they got further into this process of trying to figure out what a new system should look like and broke down each of these screens, they're called screens of the way schools, screen kids. Every single one of them excluded low income kids, African American kids and kids of color.
That was a striking thing that I think even for parents like Miriam Nunberg, who we just heard who would have been normally prioritized by this previous system was able to navigate the system, knew it really well, was not able to get her child into one of what was called the big three, these three most sought after schools and were unhappy with it. There was a moment in which the system was clearly no longer working for the most advantaged families either and I think that that had a large role in there being impetus for changing it.
Brian: You quote to that point the late scholar, Derrick Bell, who talked about the idea of interest convergence. That is progress for civil rights for African-Americans tends to come when white people see it as in their interest too. What you just described as the interest convergence at work in District 15?
Chana: Yes, and what was interesting to me about Derrick Bell. Derrick Bell talks about interest convergence in looking at Brown vs Board of Education, that there was this moment and the 1950s where white leaders and government leaders in the US really had an interest in undoing school segregation because it was making the country look bad abroad in this cold war era.
I think to me, I had thought more of interest convergence as a just cynical self-interest of individual people and to think of it more broadly as associated with shame and reputation and our image of ourselves and who we are felt like a new way for me to think about the way nice white parents operate with schools and our attachment to ourselves as liberals and people who believe in racial equality and March for Black Lives Matter and will tell you that they believe schools should not be segregated and yet New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country.
Brian: Let's take a phone call from Fanny in Brooklyn who says she's the PTA co-President of the middle school whose history you traced, IS 293. Fannie you are on WNYC with Chana Joffe-Walt and Rachel Lissy. Hi.
Fanny: Hi Brian. Hi, Chana. I want to just clarify that I'm the out going PTA President for this past year only. I wasn't around for much of what the podcast covered from five years ago when Chana started this podcast, but I wanted to just clarify--
Brian: Do you know each other already?
Chana: I don't think so no.
Brian: Okay. Go ahead. Just curious.
Fanny: I just call her that because I really enjoy her a lot of her reporting on This American life and generally I find her to be a great reporter. This case too, I thought the reporting was interesting and I found out a lot better my own school from back in the '60s and I thought that the historical research was interesting, but I also thought that this research could have taken her in many different ways and that this main premise of the podcast that nice white parents are the main cause, the main, not cause of inequity in the entirety of the New York City system is a little bit tenuous.
I also wanted to just for the record say that I'm an immigrant, so I'm a white person, but I'm from Hungary. I did not grow up in this country. The only reason I became PTA co-president at the school was because of probably a nice white mom wrote an email at the end of the first year. My kid was at that school saying, please, pleading with all the parents participate in the PTA. We need your help.
In the end, I accepted this PTA co-President position with another immigrant who's a Belgian woman, only because nobody really wanted to do the work and the fundraising. For me personally, this idea that PTA even exists to do mostly fundraising is crazy. I'm from Europe.
I never understood why a public school would need to beg for money from parents to fund like basic things like after school or as it's so happens during the COVID era our PTA raised $30,000 to distribute computers to kids who were less fortunate or poor were not able to access to computers.
Generally, I think my main point is that there's so many different reasons for inequity and the entirety of the system that has to do with the way schools are funded back to Desiree's point about how resources are distributed. I think that framing the problem as this nice wealthy parents versus Black parents who have no agency or no power is a little bit too simplistic and it somehow ends up centering white people too much for my liking.
I don't want to go into too many details of how I thought the reporting was a little bit tendentious when you had that lovely French lady at the fancy reception in the beginning of the podcast who actually had nothing to do with the school. She was an irresistible interview for sure. I enjoyed her as a character, but that's not the main point.
I just find that it centers whiteness again, a little bit too much and our school in fact, and our leadership at the school has been doing a lot of so-called equity work for the past year and we're continuing to do that and I--
Brian: Let me jump in Fanny, only because you've put up a lot of the big questions on the table and we are running out of time as well. Chana, want to talk to Fanny?
Chana: Sure. You brought up a lot of really good points. I think in terms of funding, absolutely, I think it's crazy that schools rely so much on PTAs to fundraise for them. Obviously, most schools don't have PTAs that can fundraise in the way that the school in this story did in 2015, and so that in and of itself is a problem. I think the funding that we have for public education is responsive to the demand of us.
In some ways, if we had more people demanding more funding for all schools, instead of spending a tremendous amount of time and effort and goodwill, investing in fundraising for individual schools, but actually pushing for equitable funding for all schools, that would be better.
In terms of centering whiteness, I mean, the reason that we wanted to focus on white parents and white parents interaction in schools, is it felt like in 2015, we were coming off a long period of ambitious school reform that really focused in pretty much entirely on the lowest-performing kids and defined the problem in public schools as the lowest-performing kids and looking at the people who the schools were failing in a somewhat pathologizing way.
I think we wanted to say, "Well, you also need to look at who the schools are serving." What you see in the history of this school is this insidious pattern of white parents participating in and creating, tracking and gifted programs and PTA fundraising for their individual schools and maintaining school zones that benefit them, and school discipline that benefits them.
All of these things are maintained by the people who participate in them and white parents have a lot of power in public schools. They're not the only powerful force, but I argue that they are one of the most powerful forces. I think it definitely was a tricky thing to try to be precise about my argument of why it felt important to look at white parents and to look at specifically the inequitable and anti-democratic practices that I think many white parents bring to public schools.
It's obviously also important to tell stories about parents of color organizing and Black struggles for liberation. There's an excellent podcast actually, that is based in Brooklyn that does called School Colors, which people should check out. The goal of this show was really to critique whiteness in particular.
Brian: Rachel, do you want to get a last word here as an education expert who acted as a consultant to the podcast series. What good do you hope will come from it that school districts outside District 15 in Brooklyn might be able to learn from?
Rachel: Never one to pass up the last word, Brian, so thank you. Yes, I mean, I think I would just say that what we see, I think happening at one small school here can really be extrapolated to the ways in which districts operate in relationship to each other, the ways in which systems operate in a larger scale. I think, to just be thoughtful about the ways in which white parents in particular, participate in these systems, and to have a deeper understanding of how that whiteness operates, I think it was the goal.
To have the idea of thinking about, I think, in particular, at this moment in time, the ways in which we're interconnected with one another and interdependent and to have more sensitivity about that as we think about creating communities for young people.
Brian: By the way, Chana since you mentioned School Colors, for people who've been interested in this conversation I mentioned that we also had on this show, the producer of that podcast Mark Winston Griffith, so listeners you can, besides listening to his own podcast, you can go back and listen to our conversation from our archives if you're interested. We thank Chana Joffe-Walt, host of Nice White Parents, The New York Times and Serial productions podcast series, and Rachel Lissy from Ramapo for children, who is an educational expert and served as a consultant.
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