SYMPTOMS OF A PROBLEM:
Growing up in Georgia in the 60s and 70s, I learned about white supremacy from parents who had lived through WWII. “White supremacy” was related to neo-Nazism, believing that white people were superior to all other races, and it was most associated with KKK members – violent people full of hate. There was no way that I would ever be considered associated with white supremacists or any organizations that could be considered “white supremacist” I thought.
But over time, definitions can change. Here’s a newer definition of white supremacy that first arose after I finished college. Critical Race Theory describes white supremacy this way:
A political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources (money), conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings (David Gillborn).
George Floyd’s horrific death and continuing anger over hostile policing of Black Americans should force us to assess which systems are harbingers of white supremacist thoughts as described in this newer definition. Josh Singer, for example, includes America’s public school systems in his definition of white supremacy saying, “A symptom of white supremacy… A school system that is three times more likely to suspend black students than white students for the same infractions.”
And suspension rates are just the tip of the iceberg. So, it’s no wonder that the Black community in America is significantly more likely to endorse charter schools and education savings account programs than white Americans. Sadly, this opinion is rarely heard or recognized by the larger white-majority culture.
Considering these facts, I wanted to know more about my local context. Am I supporting systemic racism with my tax dollars here in Raleigh, North Carolina? In the Wake County Public School System, white students are 2.9 times more likely to be allowed to enroll in AP classes than Black students. Black students are 5.6 times more likely to be suspended than white students! And Black students trail about three academic grades behind white students.
In response to these outcomes, I know many will defend the school system by arguing that at least part of the differential outcomes between Black and white students is due to factors outside of the school system – such as family structure or growing up in concentrated poverty. And I recognize that there is some truth to this argument. After all, our mission is to address the connection between schools and neighborhood poverty. But, almost everyone agrees that at least some of the achievement gap and the unequal discipline rates are systemic. So, it should be no surprise that Black parents are suspicious of a system that produces such large racial differences.
Of course, the modern definition of white supremacy that we are working with here is about more than these symptoms – discipline and achievement gaps. It’s also about who exercises power and control over the money in the system. So, what does the power structure in the Wake County School System look like?
WHO HOLDS THE POWER?
The Wake County school system is only 45% white, but the ruling body, the school board, is overwhelmingly composed of wealthy white members. These board members express deep concern about integration and racial diversity. I trust that these are honest sentiments. Is it possible for well-intentioned leaders to construct and protect a white-supremacist system?
Consider board member and former chairperson Christine Kushner. Ms. Kushner represents the wealthiest area of Raleigh. Zillow values most of the homes in her immediate neighborhood at more than a million dollars (Raleigh’s average home value is less than $300,000). Ms. Kushner is public-spirited, and she apparently represents her constituents well. She has won re-election several times with more than 95% of her area’s vote.
One of the programs that is most popular in Ms. Kushner’s neighborhoods is the “Magnet School” system. Magnet schools were designed to keep white families from exiting the school system for private schools. These schools get extra resources so that they can provide more enriching experiences for those who choose to participate in them. Ms. Kushner’s own child attended a magnet school, as have the children of many of the other board members. I think this is good parenting on their part (I sort of have to think so. My children attended Wake magnet schools too). Historically, children in wealthy neighborhoods have actually been given preference in the magnet program, Ms. Kushner’s neighborhood included.
Perhaps because Kushner can see the benefits that the magnet program has conferred on her children and those of her constituents, this is a school choice program that Kushner likes. And yet, Ms. Kushner has expressed severe criticism of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program and of charter schools. These programs allow many Black Americans to direct state funds (money) to their preferred school. In contrast, the magnet program routes greater resources to schools that enroll more white students. In Wake County, Opportunity Scholarships and charter schools are the primary tools that Black families use to exercise choice and to opt out of their assigned school.
So why does Ms. Kushner laud the magnet program as the only “ethical way” to offer choices to families? Here is what she claims, “If we have as a school SYSTEM [Kushner’s emphasis] different choices of schools and that we [the school board] intentionally enroll them, in ways that we control for our priorities, I think that is how we do allow choice.”
Notice that Ms. Kushner wants “controlled choices” for others which really means that she wants to let the “SYSTEM” or the board on which she sits, hoard the resources and control. In doing so, she has helped maintain a system that appeals to wealthy white neighborhoods like hers while simultaneously arguing to limit the choices of poor, Black parents and cut off the exits for their children who are not as well-served by the same system.
Sadly, the Wake County Public School System, my system, seems to fit the modern definition of white supremacy too closely for my comfort. Ms. Kushner is not a villain for aggressively lobbying for better schools and better choices in white neighborhoods. We should all want quality schools and better choices everywhere. And, certainly, there is nothing wrong with public school leaders calling for better funding of public schools. But school board members should not attack Opportunity Scholarships and charter schools, which are overwhelmingly supported by less-affluent Black Americans, simply because they diminish the SYSTEM’s control, power, and influence. This is hypocritical, at best, and supremacist at worst.
So how do we end white supremacy without throwing out the whole public school system? Give the power, the money, and the control to Black families so that they can have a voice in their own children’s futures. Of course, this change will mean that the school board’s white-wing elitists will lose some power. But times have changed, and the school system needs to change too.
I recognize that this is a controversial idea, and it diverges from EEE’s usual emphasis on the environmental and economic development benefits of certain school choice programs. So, we welcome your feedback and thoughts. Here is a link that you can follow to check out how non-white children fare in your own school system. Learn more about giving others a voice here.