The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race


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When you feel uncomfortable or notice students squirming, acknowledge the discomfort. Let them know it is normal. It can make us all feel bad. Let students see themselves as agents of change and healing. Although slavery ended a long time ago, we still face racism today. By treating one another with respect, students are fighting racism. Encourage them to note examples of bias and stereotypes in their reading.

Children can learn to question whether derogatory depictions of other people are stereotypes. They can learn to ask who is doing what in the story's plot, and why; who is in the role of leader and who is taking the orders; and who has been left out of the story altogether. Social studies and history curricula rarely emphasize examples of black or white resistance to slavery or racism. You're not alone in your discomfort with the topic, or your search for solutions.

Share your concerns, frustrations, success stories, and resources with colleagues and friends. Coming to terms with past and present injustice is often cause for anger and guilt, frustration and despair. All children, regardless of color, need to find the hope in this history. We must not insensitively sanitize the pain of those caught in the bind of oppression.

We need to celebrate the strength of the human spirit to go beyond the roles of victim and victimizer. In doing so, we may inspire one another to do likewise in the struggle against the contemporary injustices we face. These teaching tips and resources focus on the topic of multiculturalism and diversity. Find helpful articles, rich lesson plans, and a variety of books to promote cultural sensitivity and introduce students to cultures other than their own. Create a List. List Name Save. Rename this List. Rename this list. List Name Delete from selected List.

Save to. Save to:. Save Create a List. Create a list. Save Back. The Teacher Store Cart. Checkout Now. Grades PreK—K , 1—2 , 3—5 , 6—8. Featured Book. Follow the Drinking Gourd. View not found. Download the PDF from here. Related Subjects. Appears in This Collection. The pressure of meritocracy made us apply to private schools when our son was 2—not because we wanted him to attend private preschool, but because, in New York City, where we live, getting him into a good public kindergarten later on would be even harder, and if we failed, by that point most of the private-school slots would be filled.

The mood of meritocracy is anxiety—the low-grade panic when you show up a few minutes late and all the seats are taken. New York City, with its dense population, stratified social ladder, and general pushiness, holds a fun-house mirror up to meritocracy. Only New York would force me to wake up early one Saturday morning in February, put on my parka and wool hat, and walk half a mile in the predawn darkness to register our son, then just 17 months old, for nursery school.

I arrived to find myself, at best, the 30th person in a line that led from the locked front door of the school up the sidewalk. Registration was still two hours off, and places would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. At the front of the line, parents were lying in sleeping bags. They had spent the night outside. I stood waiting in the cold with a strange mix of feelings. All for a nursery school called Huggs. But the system itself—structured on the belief that, unlike in a collectivized society, individual achievement should be the basis for rewards, and that, unlike in an inherited aristocracy, those rewards must be earned again by each new generation—is all-American.

True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

From June The 9. When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates—and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling. In his new book, The Meritocracy Trap , the Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits argues that this system turns elite families into business enterprises , and children into overworked, inauthentic success machines, while producing an economy that favors the super-educated and blights the prospects of the middle class, which sinks toward the languishing poor.

Markovits describes the immense investments in money and time that well-off couples make in their children. By kindergarten, the children of elite professionals are already a full two years ahead of middle-class children, and the achievement gap is almost unbridgeable. On that freezing sidewalk, I felt a shudder of revulsion at the perversions of meritocracy. And yet there I was, cursing myself for being 30th in line.

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Not long after he drew the picture of the moon, our son was interviewed at another private school, one of the most highly coveted in New York. He was accepted. The school had delicious attributes. Two teachers in each class of 15 children; parents who were concert pianists or playwrights, not just investment bankers; the prospect later on of classes in Latin, poetry writing, puppetry, math theory, taught by passionate scholars.

Once in, unless a kid seriously messed up, he faced little chance of ever having to leave, until, 15 years on, the school matched its graduates with top universities where it had close relations with admissions offices. Our son had a place near the very front of the line, shielded from the meritocracy at its most ruthless. There was only one competition, and he had already prevailed, in monitored group play.

We had just had our second child, a girl. The private school was about to start raising its fee steeply every year into the indefinite future. This was the practical reason to leave. But there was something else—another claim on us. The current phrase for it is social justice. No institution has more power to form human beings according to this idea than the public school. One values equality and openness, the other achievement and security. Neither can answer every need. To lose sight of either makes life poorer. The essential task is to bring meritocracy and democracy into a relation where they can coexist and even flourish.

My wife and I are products of public schools. Whatever torments they inflicted on our younger selves, we believed in them. We wanted our kids to learn in classrooms that resembled the city where we lived. Public schools are a public good. The gaps in proficiency that separate white and Asian from black and Latino students in math and English are immense and growing. Some advocates argue that creating more integrated schools would reduce those gaps. Whether or not the data conclusively prove it, to be half-conscious in America is to know that schools of concentrated poverty are likely to doom the children who attend them.

This knowledge is what made our decision both political and fraught.

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From October Americans have given up on public schools. Friends had pulled their kids out after second or third grade, so when we took the tour we insisted, against the wishes of the school guide, on going upstairs from the kindergarten classrooms and seeing the upper grades, too. Students were wandering around the rooms without focus, the air was heavy with listlessness, there seemed to be little learning going on.

The school was integrating and segregating at the same time.

One day I was at a local playground with our son when I fell into conversation with an elderly black woman who had lived in the neighborhood a long time and understood all about our school dilemma, which was becoming the only subject that interested me. I mentioned a second school, half a dozen blocks away, that was probably available if we applied. Her expression turned to alarm. That school will always be a failure school. The school was mostly poor and black. We assumed it would fail our children, because we knew it was failing other children. That year, when my son turned 5, attending daytime tours and evening open houses became a second job.

We applied to eight or nine public schools. Among the schools where we went begging was one a couple of miles from our house that admitted children from several districts. That fact alone made the school a rarity in New York. Two-thirds of the students performed at or above grade level on standardized tests, which made the school one of the higher-achieving in the city though we later learned that there were large gaps, as much as 50 percent, between the results for the wealthier, white students and the poorer, Latino and black students.

And the school appeared to be a happy place. Classes seemed loose, but real work was going on. Hallways were covered with well-written compositions. Part of the playground was devoted to a vegetable garden. This combination of diversity, achievement, and well-being was nearly unheard-of in New York public schools. This school squared the hardest circle. The admission rate was less than 10 percent. We got wait-listed. She gave me five minutes to come up with an answer. I can see now that a strain of selfishness and vanity in me contaminated the decision.

I lived in a cosseted New York of successful professionals. I was ready to offer him as an emissary to that world, a token of my public-spiritedness. The public school was housed in the lower floors of an old brick building, five stories high and a block long, next to an expressway. A middle and high school occupied the upper floors. The building had the usual grim features of any public institution in New York—steel mesh over the lower windows, a police officer at the check-in desk, scuffed yellow walls, fluorescent lights with toxic PCBs, caged stairwells, ancient boilers and no air conditioners—as if to dampen the expectations of anyone who turned to government for a basic service.

The bamboo flooring and state-of-the-art science labs of private schools pandered to the desire for a special refuge from the city. I had barely encountered an American public school since leaving high school. Back then, nothing was asked of parents except that they pay their taxes and send their children to school, and everyone I knew went to the local public schools. Donations at our school paid the salaries of the science teacher, the Spanish teacher, the substitute teachers.

They even paid for furniture.


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This enormous gap was just one way inequality pursued us into the public-school system. We threw ourselves into the adventure of the new school. We sent in class snacks when it was our week, I chaperoned a field trip to study pigeons in a local park, and my wife cooked chili for an autumn fundraiser. We were ready to do just about anything to get involved.

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Volunteerism had a limit, and that was it. He would reimburse me. I took turns with a few other parents ferrying a group of kids to and from school. Navigating the strike required a flexible schedule and a car, and it put immense pressure on families. Parents have one layer of skin too few. In a divided city, in a stratified society, that missing skin—the intensity of every little worry and breakthrough—is the shortest and maybe the only way to intimacy between people who would otherwise never cross paths.

Children become a great leveler. Parents have in common the one subject that never ceases to absorb them. He had mirthful eyes, a faint smile, and an air of imperturbable calm—he was at ease with everyone, never visibly agitated or angry. His parents were working-class immigrants from the Caribbean. His family and ours were separated by race, class, and the dozen city blocks that spell the difference between a neighborhood with tree-lined streets, regular garbage collection, and upscale cupcake shops, and a neighborhood with aboveground power lines and occasional shootings.

Our son kept quiet, whether out of embarrassment or an early intuition that human connections require certain omissions. This arrangement was established from the start without ever being discussed. I felt that the friendship flourished in a kind of benign avoidance of this crucial fact. At school our son fell in with a group of boys who had no interest in joining the lunchtime soccer games.

Their freewheeling playground scrums often led to good-natured insults, wrestling matches, outraged feelings, an occasional punch, then reconciliation, until the next day. And they were the image of diversity. He would do this his own way. Instead of worksheets and tests, there were field trips to the shoreline and the Noguchi sculpture museum. Even as we continued to volunteer, my wife and I never stopped wondering if we had cheated our son of a better education.

We got antsy with the endless craft projects, the utter indifference to spelling. But our son learned well only when a subject interested him. In this way the school succeeded in its highest purpose. Around , a new mood germinated in America—at first in a few places, among limited numbers of people, but growing with amazing rapidity and force, as new things tend to do today. It rose up toward the end of the Obama years, in part out of disillusionment with the early promise of his presidency—out of expectations raised and frustrated, especially among people under 30, which is how most revolutionary surges begin.

This new mood was progressive but not hopeful. A few short years after the teachers at the private preschool had crafted Obama pendants with their 4-year-olds, hope was gone. At the heart of the new progressivism was indignation, sometimes rage, about ongoing injustice against groups of Americans who had always been relegated to the outskirts of power and dignity. An incident—a police shooting of an unarmed black man; news reports of predatory sexual behavior by a Hollywood mogul; a pro quarterback who took to kneeling during the national anthem—would light a fire that would spread overnight and keep on burning because it was fed by anger at injustices deeper and older than the inflaming incident.

Over time the new mood took on the substance and hard edges of a radically egalitarian ideology. At points where the ideology touched policy, it demanded, and in some cases achieved, important reforms: body cameras on cops, reduced prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, changes in the workplace. But its biggest influence came in realms more inchoate than policy: the private spaces where we think and imagine and talk and write, and the public spaces where institutions shape the contours of our culture and guard its perimeter.

Who was driving the new progressivism? Young people, influencers on social media, leaders of cultural organizations, artists, journalists, educators, and, more and more, elected Democrats. You could almost believe they spoke for a majority—but you would be wrong. Other polls found that white progressives were readier to embrace diversity and immigration, and to blame racism for the problems of minority groups, than black Americans were.

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The new progressivism was a limited, mainly elite phenomenon. Every spring, starting in third grade, public-school students in New York State take two standardized tests geared to the national Common Core curriculum—one in math, one in English. They all carried the message that the tests were not mandatory. During the George W. These standardized tests could determine the fate of teachers and schools.

Some schools began devoting months of class time to preparing students for the tests. In , four families at our school, with the support of the administration, kept their kids from taking the tests. These parents had decided that the tests were so stressful for students and teachers alike, consumed so much of the school year with mindless preparation, and were so irrelevant to the purpose of education that they were actually harmful.

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But even after the city eased the consequences of the tests, the opt-out movement grew astronomically. In the spring of , children were kept from taking the tests. The critique widened, too: Educators argued that the tests were structurally biased, even racist, because nonwhite students had the lowest scores. It is torturous for black, Latino, and low-income children, because they will never catch up, due to institutionalized racism. Our school became the citywide leader of the new movement; the principal was interviewed by the New York media.

Opting out became a form of civil disobedience against a prime tool of meritocracy. It started as a spontaneous, grassroots protest against a wrongheaded state of affairs. Then, with breathtaking speed, it transcended the realm of politics and became a form of moral absolutism, with little tolerance for dissent. We took the school at face value when it said that this decision was ours to make. The question was out of place— no one should want her child to take the tests.

Opting out required an action—parents had to sign and return a letter—and the administration needed to educate new parents about the party line using other parents who had already accepted it, because school employees were forbidden to propagandize. Instead of giving grades, teachers at our school wrote long, detailed, often deeply knowledgeable reports on each student. But we wanted to know how well our son was learning against an external standard. If he took the tests, he would miss a couple of days of class, but he would also learn to perform a basic task that would be part of his education for years to come.

Something else about the opt-out movement troubled me. Its advocates claimed that the tests penalized poor and minority kids. I began to think that the real penalty might come from not taking them. Opting out had become so pervasive at our school that the Department of Education no longer had enough data to publish the kind of information that prospective applicants had once used to assess the school. In the name of equality, disadvantaged kids were likelier to falter and disappear behind a mist of togetherness and self-deception.


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Banishing tests seemed like a way to let everyone off the hook. This was the price of dismissing meritocracy. I took a sounding of parents at our bus stop. One parent was trying to find a way to have her daughter take the tests off school grounds. A careful silence fell over the whole subject. It struck me that this would punish kids whom the movement was supposed to protect. If orthodoxy reduced dissenters to whispering—if the entire weight of public opinion at the school was against the tests—then, I thought, our son should take them.

The week of the tests, one of the administrators approached me in the school hallway. Less than four years later, it was the only truth. Later that afternoon we spent an hour on the phone. She described all the harm that could come to our son if he took the tests—the immense stress, the potential for demoralization. I replied with our reason for going ahead—we wanted him to learn this necessary skill.

The tests had become secondary. This was a political argument. Our son was among the 15 or so students who took the tests. A 95 percent opt-out rate was a resounding success. It rivaled election results in Turkmenistan. As for our son, he finished the tests feeling neither triumphant nor defeated. The issue that had roiled the grown-ups in his life seemed to have had no effect on him at all. He returned to class and continued working on his report about the mountain gorillas of Central Africa.

The battleground of the new progressivism is identity. In the past five years, identity has set off a burst of exploration and recrimination and creation in every domain, from television to cooking. But progressive politics meant thinking in groups. When our son was in third or fourth grade, students began to form groups that met to discuss issues based on identity—race, sexuality, disability. I understood the solidarity that could come from these meetings, but I also worried that they might entrench differences that the school, by its very nature, did so much to reduce.

Our son and his friends, whose classroom study included slavery and civil rights, hardly ever discussed the subject of race with one another. The school already lived what it taught. The bathroom crisis hit our school the same year our son took the standardized tests. They could have met the very real needs of students like Q by creating a single-stall bathroom—the one in the second-floor clinic would have served the purpose.

A practical problem was solved in conformity with a new idea about identity. Within two years, almost every bathroom in the school, from kindergarten through fifth grade, had become gender-neutral. Where signs had once said boys and girls , they now said students.

Kids would be conditioned to the new norm at such a young age that they would become the first cohort in history for whom gender had nothing to do with whether they sat or stood to pee. All that biology entailed—curiosity, fear, shame, aggression, pubescence, the thing between the legs—was erased or wished away. Parents only heard about it when children started arriving home desperate to get to the bathroom after holding it in all day.

The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race
The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race
The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race
The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race
The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race

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