Structural Racism and Individual Choice

A story this week in the New York Times about the Minneapolis school district raised some interesting questions about racism, liberalism, and individualism.  The story explains how Minneapolis school officials “assigned families to new school zones, redrawing boundaries to take socioeconomic diversity — and as a consequence, racial diversity — into account.”  This is in response to legitimate concerns that Minneapolis, described in the story as “among the most segregated school districts in the country,” has tangible gaps in academic performance by race.  “Research shows that de facto school segregation is one major reason that America’s education system is so unequal, and that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools can benefit all students.” 

The article elaborates on the problem: “Research has shown that integration can deliver benefits for all children.  For example, Black children exposed to desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education experienced higher educational achievement, higher annual earnings as adults, a lower likelihood of incarceration and better health outcomes, according to longitudinal work by the economist Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley. The gains came at no cost to the educational achievement of white students.  Other research has documented how racially and economically diverse schools can benefit all students, including white children, by reducing biases and promoting skills like critical thinking.  Racially segregated schools, on the other hand, are associated with larger gaps in student performance, because they tend to concentrate students of color in high poverty environments, according to a recent paper analyzing all public school districts.”

So the plan is to increase integration, not necessarily by bussing black students to predominantly white schools, but by bussing white students to predominantly black schools.  Predictably, not every family is enthusiastic about this.  But what I found interesting about the story is that it highlights the ways in which a structure can have outcomes that are racist even if individual actors within that structure aren’t racists.   Many people bristle at the terms “structural racism” or “institutional racism” because they take them to imply that individual actors are racists.  People who use these terms typically don’t mean to imply this (though some do), but this distinction can get lost in the shuffle.  One specific anecdote in the article is helpful here.

Heather Wulfsberg, of Minnetonka, had her daughter reassigned to North High School.  She appealed this decision, but let’s see why.  Wulfsberg, “who is white, had intended to send her daughter, Isabella, 14, to Southwest High, a racially diverse but majority white public school that is a 10-minute bus ride from their home.  The school offers an international baccalaureate program, as well as Japanese, which Isabella studied in middle school. Isabella’s older brother, 18, is a senior there, and Ms. Wulfsberg envisioned her children attending together, her son helping Isabella navigate freshman year. So Ms. Wulfsberg appealed the reassignment to North, citing her son’s attendance at Southwest, and her daughter’s interest in Japanese. (North offers one language, Spanish.)  She was also concerned about transportation. There was no direct bus, and Isabella’s commute could take up to 55 minutes. She would also have to walk from the bus stop to school through an area where frequent gun shots are a problem.”

If Wulfsberg had said something like “I can’t bear the thought of my daughter going to a majority-black school,” it would be clear these are unsupportable reasons.  But the preceding paragraph gives all perfectly legitimate reasons.  Isabella can’t continue learning her language.  She would spend 2 hours a day on the bus.  Is it reasonable to force Heather to do that to Isabella?  I don’t see that it is.  And Heather didn’t either, so Isabella is going to private school.  On the community Facebook page, Heather was called a racist.  ““They were like, ‘Your cover is, you want academics for your kids, and underneath this all, you really are racist,’” she recalled. “It’s a very scary feeling to do a self-examination of yourself and think, ‘Am I?’”  She paused, reflecting. “But I don’t believe I am. I really don’t.””

I have no idea whether she is or not, but she certainly can’t be called a racist for the reasons given here.  So in this case, the parents in the community Facebook group were in fact using something about structural racism as a personal accusation, precisely what the coining of the term was meant to avoid.

It’s possible of course that both (a) the evolution of American public schooling has been heavily influenced by racism and yields outcomes that are demonstrably unequal and (b) parents like Heather aren’t motivated by racism at all.  But then we’re stuck with a conundrum: what’s the fix for (a)?  If the answer is “Isabella’s good must be sacrificed for the greater good of helping ameliorate racial inequality in schools,” you’re certainly in for rough time getting Heather to agree.  Another approach might be systemic: since the outcome problems are systemic, it wouldn’t be crazy to think the solution would be systemic as well.  The anarchist response “don’t have public schools at all” is probably correct, but politically unfeasible.  But even if we have public schools, there’s no reason they have to be structured the way they are.  One reason for the disparity in schools is that in most districts, local property taxes pay for the schools, so wealthier suburbs have better schools than poorer areas (this affects poor white areas too of course).  So maybe don’t tie school funding to local property taxes.  Or maybe don’t have school districts be drawn like Checkpoint Charlie.   Any rigidly drawn district would have some families living at its fringes – why prohibit those kids from attending school in the next district?  The classic pro-choice argument is: figure out what the state government spends per pupil, and then give that money to the families to spend on whichever school they think is best, public or private.  This would eliminate geography-based funding discrepancies.   We address the problem of people not being able to afford food not by having state-run farms and grocery stores, but by giving people money for food.  Why not give them money for school?