Despite the Best Intentions

Note-taking for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

The final reading for Learning of Culture is Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools by Amanda Lewis and John Diamond.

Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools

Lewis and Diamond study a public high school, which they call Riverview in the book. It’s a good school with ample funding and multiple swimming pools, located in a diverse and liberal community. Household incomes are above the national median. Parents are proud of the school’s diversity. Why, then, is there a sizable racial achievement gap?

White students are overrepresented in the school’s “top” tracks (honors and advanced placement), while black and Latinx students are similarly overrepresented in the school’s lower academic tracks. The book is clear that school policies and practices are “race-neutral” on their face. How can there be racist outcomes without racist people or racist rules?

John Ogbu believed that you could explain black kids’ academic underperformance relative to other minority groups as a product of history. He wanted us to distinguish between “involuntary minorities,” descendants of enslaved and colonized people, and “voluntary minorities,” descendants of immigrants. Voluntary minorities believe in the ideals of America and are invested in institutions. Involuntary minorities are cynical, despairing and resistant. I have observed the emotional truth of this observation from working in different New York City neighborhoods. However, Lewis and Diamond point to more recent research showing that black students’ supposed opposition to school or rejection of good grades as a “white thing” are not significant factors. If anything, black students value education more than their white peers. But this just deepens the mystery. How can black students have more pro-school attitudes than their white peers but still not perform as well academically? School itself must be creating emotional and intellectual obstacles.

Lewis and Diamond distinguish between the “ostensive” aspect of a school routine or procedure, meaning its ideal form, and the performative aspect, the routine as actually practiced. Riverview’s ostensive aspects are race-neutral, but the performative aspects are not. Just like America!

The ostensive aspect protects the organization’s legitimacy and provides a ready narrative for community members to use to explain “how things work.” The contradictions or divergence between aspects of the organizational routine are, then, not so much a “problem” as a “solution” for the organization, to the extent that the existence of the “fair” narrative or ostensive aspect is crucial to the legitimacy of the system (14).

A classic example is marijuana prohibition. Kids of all races smoke weed, but only the brown kids get punished for it. Black students, male ones in particular, are much more likely to be suspended and expelled from school than white students. Aside from the obvious disruption this causes to those individuals, the emotional effects spread to their peers.

[A] sense of belonging can be vital to academic achievement. Disciplinary patterns serve as a barrier to creating such a sense of belonging among students when they contribute to producing what some social psychologists refer to as a “threatening environment”—“settings where people come to suspect that they could be devalued, stigmatized, or discriminated against because of a particular social identity” (48).

It isn’t just that students of color get more disciplinary attention. It’s what happens during the disciplinary process. Lewis and Diamond cite white students’ and parents’ “sense of entitlement” when dealing with schools officials. They raise more of a fuss, and they have more social capital for getting the outcome they want. Like everyone else, school officials consistently and unconsciously defer to high-status people, and assuming them to have greater worthiness and competence. White people have more money on average, and the social capital that comes with class, but the authors point out that, in “disciplinary moments,” whiteness is a resource unto itself (53). The most surprising and demoralizing aspect of the situation is that most of the school security guards at Riverview are themselves black. Have they internalized the same negative racial stereotypes? It appears so.

Black and Latinx students can mitigate the impact of racial penalties by embracing the cultural styles of middle-class whites, or at least performing whiteness at key moments. The book cites the story of New York Times columnist Brent Staples, who finds a way to walk around his neighborhood without scaring the white people: whistling the Beatles and Vivaldi. But acting white has costs. Feeling close to your community and strong in your identity are part of the emotional well-being that leads to achievement. White people don’t have to choose between feeling pride in their identity and safety in that identity. That disparity in emotional burden might be enough to explain the achievement gap by itself.

[W]hether you feel respected, welcomed, and/ or treated well not only shapes social relations but also influences motivation, performance, and learning. Intelligence is less stable and more fragile than we typically acknowledge, and a host of contextual factors influence whether any of us are able to realize our potential (84).

Not only do white families have more financial and social resources for dealing with disciplinary and academic situations, they don’t even need to actively use those resources to benefit from them. An African American teacher in the English Department worries more about the white students in her class, not because she cares more about them, but because she knows that their parents will hassle her more.

Aside from disciplinary issues, the biggest driver of racial disparities at Riverside is the academic tracking system. In theory, kids are sorted into tracks according to relatively objective standards: their grades, along with teacher recommendations. In reality, there is discretion at several steps in the process. The authors point out: “Literature on occupational inequality shows that in places where discretion is possible, discrimination is likely” (110-111). Teachers are driven by unconscious stereotypes to expect less of students of color. The school administration can also intervene in tracking decisions. And white parents work the system hard to make sure their kids are placed well.

Once kids are tracked, the system becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Higher-track classes look good on transcripts, not least because grades are weighted one whole GPA point for students who take AP classes and an AP exam. Lower-track classes aren’t just “easier” or more slowly paced; they are generally worse, taught by less experienced teachers, offering less challenge. The supposed race-neutrality of tracking becomes its own justification, and white parents can avoid talking about the race of kids in the bottom track. Instead, they explain the situation using euphemistic terms like “family backgrounds.” The tracking system is a meritocracy. White parents resist detracking strongly, not because they are racist, but because they want their kids in classes where students are “equally motivated,” and have the same “family values” (144).

Racialized tracking is not an organized conspiracy. It’s more a form of institutional inertia. For that reason, it’s easy to point to it and say, well, that’s the way it is. And because of its ostensible meritocratic goals, it seems legitimate. The authors link tracking to “racial apathy,” which is more socially acceptable than outright prejudice. White people don’t necessarily hate minorities; they are just indifferent to what happens to them, or misunderstand their problems in self-serving ways.

White Riverview parents are outspokenly sympathetic to the hardships they perceive black families facing. The nice reading is that black families have less energy and time for their kids’ education. The less nice reading is that black parents and their kids just don’t care as much about education as white parents. Either way, the achievement gaps aren’t the school’s fault, because they arise from family situations that are beyond the school’s (and white parents’) responsibility. And while white parents want their kids to have diverse experiences, they won’t sacrifice any advantage to get there.

So what do the authors recommend we do?

When asked in public lectures for solutions to the challenges addressed in this book, we often begin with, “well, first, redistribute wealth.” While this typically receives chuckles, it is only humorous because it is so unlikely (180).

Okay, so failing that? Lewis and Diamond want us to focus on impacts rather than intention. Contemporary racial inequality is reproduced through the accumulation of actions that don’t necessarily require intent. We shouldn’t get bogged down in trying to determine intentionality if it gets in the way of enacting remedies for harm. We also need to be honest about the history of our supposed meritocracy. Supposedly neutral tools like IQ tests emerged out of the eugenics movement and had motivations that, with historical distance, seem grotesquely prejudicial. And tracking systems are not inevitable. Japan doesn’t have tracking, for example; they consider students to be equally capable but differently motivated. (That said, it’s easier for them politically because Japan is extremely homogenous.)

Lewis and Diamond also urge restorative justice in place of criminalizing kids: “shifting away from a focus on blame and punishment to a focus on repairing harm that violations to community norms do to relationships and communities (178).” As for what to do about white parents “hoarding opportunities,” using their social capital and personal connections to ensure better outcomes for their kids at the expense of others? Lewis and Diamond ask us to expand our concerns beyond our own families out to our broader communities.

This topic is a real and uncomfortable one for me personally, as a white parent in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. I like living there because of its diversity. I want to send my kids to public school so they form relationships with kids who are different from them. And I believe in equality and dismantling white supremacy. But. I want them to have the best education they have. I want them to be in gifted and talented programs, in honors and AP classes, in enriching afterschool programs. Would I sacrifice any of that for a black kid I don’t know? I don’t have a good answer.