How Well-Intentioned White Families Can Perpetuate Racism

The sociologist Margaret Hagerman spent two years embedded in upper-middle-class white households, listening in on conversations about race.

Joe Pinkser  |  The Atlantic
When Margaret Hagerman was trying to recruit white affluent families as subjects for the research she was doing on race, one prospective interviewee told her, “I can try to connect you with my colleague at work who is black. She might be more helpful.”

To Hagerman, that response was helpful in itself. She is a sociologist at Mississippi State, and her new book, White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, summarizes the two years of research she did talking to and observing upper-middle-class white families in an unidentified Midwestern city and its suburbs. To examine how white children learn about race, she followed 36 of them between the ages of 10 and 13, interviewing them as well as watching them do homework, play video games, and otherwise go about their days.

These kids and their parents display a range of beliefs about race. “Racism is not a problem,” one girl tells Hagerman, adding that it “was a problem when all those slaves were around and that, like, bus thing and the water fountain.” Meanwhile, the girl’s mother nods along. Other parents in the book have educated themselves better, but often, intentionally or unintentionally, still end up giving their kids advantages that, in the abstract, they claim to oppose. (White Kids is not, as Hagerman writes at one point, “a particularly hopeful book.”)

I recently spoke to Hagerman, and that second group kept coming up in our conversation—how, despite their intentions, progressive-minded white families can perpetuate racial inequality. She also discussed ways they can avoid doing so. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Pinsker: One reading of your book is that the way white parents talk about race with their children does matter, but that what you call the “bundled set of choices” they make about what types of people their children encounter every day might matter even more. Can you talk about that set of choices and what it determines?

Margaret Hagerman: I use the phrase “bundled choices” because it seemed to me that there were some pretty striking patterns that emerged with these families in terms of how they set up their children’s lives. For example, I talk in the book about how choosing a neighborhood leads to a whole bunch of other choices—about schools, about the other people in the neighborhood. Decisions about who to carpool with, decisions about which soccer team to be on—you want to be on the same one as all your friends, and all these aspects of the kid’s life are connected to the parents’ choices about where to live.

I’m trying to show in the book that kids are growing up in these social environments that their parents shape. They’re having interactions with other people in these environments, and that’s, I think, where they’re developing their own ideas about race and privilege and inequality.

Pinsker: Some of the parents in your book may see the problems with choosing mostly white neighborhoods or schools, but the explanation they usually provide for those choices is that they just want what’s best for their children. This rationale is generally considered understandable, even honorable, but can you talk about its dark side?

Hagerman: One of the things I talk about in the book is what I call this “conundrum of privilege,” which is that these parents have a lot of resources economically as well as status as white people. They can then use those resources to set up their own child’s life in ways that give them the best education, the best health care, all the best things. And we have this collectively agreed-upon idea in our society that being a “good parent” means exactly that—providing the best opportunities you can for your own child.

But then, some of these parents are also people who believe strongly in the importance of diversity and multiculturalism and who want to resist racial inequality. And these two things are sort of at odds with one another. These affluent white parents are in a position where they can set up their kids’ lives so that they’re better than other kids’ lives. So the dark side is that, ultimately, people are thinking about their own kids, and that can come at the expense of other people’s kids. When we think about parents calling up the school and demanding that their child have the best math teacher, what does that mean for the kids who don’t get the best math teacher?

Pinsker: What would it look like for a white, affluent parent to make a choice not to give their children “the best”? Is it a matter of not calling the school to get the best math teacher? Or is there a more proactive thing a parent might be able to do?

Hagerman: I think part of it is how we choose to define “the best.” Some of the parents in my book, they rejected the idea that their child needed to be in all the AP classes. They valued other elements of their children’s personalities, such as their concerns about ethics or fairness or social justice. There were a handful of parents in my study who resisted having a separate track for AP students, for example, which can sometimes be a segregating force within schools.

There were also affluent parents who were very much opposed to having police officers in schools, and they were using their position of influence in the community to try to get the police officers out of there. Maybe others would be aware of their own presence at PTA meetings, making sure they’re not dominating them and making sure they’re not putting their own agenda ahead of their peers’ agendas. I’m not sure that I saw tons of behavior like that, but I certainly saw moments where some of the families were concerned more about the collective than their own kid.

Pinsker: Some parents in the book seemed to think of diversity as something that could be let in selectively, to teach certain lessons to their kids. This came up with a lot of parents’ decisions to send their kids to public schools, which were more diverse than the private ones. Can you talk about how, for a lot of affluent white parents, diversity is something that can be toggled on and off as they please?

Hagerman: I think the best example is when these two parents decided to pull one of their children out of a public school after a racist incident there. There was a lot of turmoil, and when things basically got too challenging, they just picked their kid up and took him to a different school, a private school. And the ability to do that was not only a reflection of their economic privilege—they had the resources to suddenly, mid-school-year, send their kid to an expensive private school—but also a reflection of racial privilege in that you can somehow escape racism when you want to as a white person. Certainly that’s not the case for people of color.

Pinsker: So far we’ve talked about how white parents shape their children’s views on race. But a big theme of the book is that kids themselves actively contribute to the formation of racist beliefs. How does that work?

Hagerman: One of the things I was really struck by was how frequently some of these children used the phrase “that’s racist” or “you’re racist.” They were using this word in contexts that had nothing to do with race: They were playing chess, and they would talk about what color chess pieces they wanted to have, and then one of them would say, “Oh, that’s racist”—so, things that had to do with colors, but also sometimes just out of the blue, instead of saying “that’s stupid.” These kids have taken this phrase, “that’s racist,” and inverted it in a way such that it’s become meaningless.

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Ae B
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Ae B

The question should be how can we open our doors to all classes of people in all public schools in the most equitable and gracious way . Locking up unused classrooms and facilities so all can not have a seat is stingy. Im seeing doors being closed on protected classes by the RVSD. The need for the board President to defend herself and trustees from accusations of being evil and malicious at public meetings is a mirror to the growing discontent and disapproval from community . I don’t believe anyone making decisions is evil or malicious. However when your unanimous… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

You might educate yourself about the law. Enabling access to charters across district lines is written into the expectations for charter schools. Nothing illegal about it. Prop 39 set up to deal with antagonistic districts just like this one. MCOE presentation directly speaks to RVSD behavior – which is why their recklessness is costing taxpayers so much money and their mouthpieces are part of the problem when they spew disinformation and slander. https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=wVcA0CtOA5M

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Educate yourself. The law is what embodies the contradictions – don’t blame RVC. Prop 39 is a hammer that is unnecessarily invoked when districts are combative and uncooperative. But charter law REQUIRES charters to enroll students who apply if there is space.

http://www.ccsa.org/understanding/faqs/#admission

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

You are actively recruiting out-of-district. Therefore a prop 39 charter is inappropriate.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Certitude and simple binary thinking about things that are actually complex don’t get you very far.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Who is actively recruiting out of district? Where? How? What’s the evidence?

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

If you set up a company using laws with flawed logic, you will always have problems. Whereas if you set up an independent charter, problems will have gone. It really is that simple. Not quite sure how you don’t see this.

S.R.
Guest
S.R.

RVC is an independent charter school.

Marci
Guest
Marci

There is no such thing as a “prop 39 charter.” That’s StandSpeak. RVC is an independent charter school. It rents facilities from RVSD through Prop 39. But it is independent from the district. Charter schools in California are required to admit any California resident that applies if there is space. Prop 39 requires a district to allocate space only on the number of in-district students that are projected to enroll. That puts charter schools with prop 39 facilities in a tricky situation–all over the state. Close to half of all charter schools in California rely on prop 39 to house… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Not all charters use prop 39. So “prop 39 charter” is a way of saying a charter that used prop 39.

Unfortunately the way you continually over estimate your enrollment has made the community distrust you as a “deeper” tenant for red Hill. It would have benefitted you to be scrupulous in your honesty.

D.W.
Guest
D.W.

Distrust RVC as a tenant? If RVC is willing to pay the rent at Red Hill, and foot the bill for improvements, why would it matter if they had fewer students than projected? StanDistrict doesn’t want RVC to rent Red Hill because it still believes RVC can be snuffed out, and doesn’t want to give it any oxygen. Twice I’ve heard a concern from Stand members that if RVC moved into Red Hill, more San Anselmo residents would move their kids to RVC and it would be hard to justify maintaining three district elementary schools in San Anselmo. The real… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Some good advice would be be scrupulously honest. Show the community how upstanding you can be.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Same advice could be given to the district. There’s no trust on either side at the moment. It could be rebuilt if there was a will.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Sincere honesty on both sides is really what is needed. Show the community your good will by being meticulous with your enrollment numbers. This is the major sticking point.I have no doubt that resistance to the charter would melt if you are utterly honest with this. Just take space for your in-district kids and do what you like with that space.

Dave G
Guest
Dave G

Meticulous with enrollment numbers .
Huh? RVSD is meticulous ?
Nope.
It’s a crap shoot that administration every year has to estimate . Parents enroll and disenroll innyhd last hour and the flux continues throughout the year . If you followed RVSD you would see the sane variables .
The intent to enrolls are part of the flawed laws . Inane to get enrollment commitments in Oct that will reflect accurately the following Aug.
Stand circulating there is malicious intent to grab and hord space is fake news . Fake and pathetic strategy to anger and abuse people!

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Think about this: RVC is forced to project the following year’s enrollment in October. How many schools could accurately do that? Sometimes more kids show up than are predicted, sometimes less. Those are the rules of Prop 39, and because it’s such a challenge to accurately predict, the state has allowed a buffer: a charter school can have 25 students under their projection (or 10% fewer students, whichever is greater) and not be penalized. For this year, RVC has already crossed that threshold. In other words, RVC’s estimate is considered “close enough” for Prop 39 purposes. If charter schools overproject… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Incorrect – the judge said pull-out space – not a room.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

As far as projected enrollment numbers, you still use incorrect numbers to secure space. When you take space for 144 kids even though you know you have less, it seems you aren’t being totally honest. I am trying to find ways so that everyone wins. This is the way forward.

D.W.
Guest
D.W.

The judge said the district must give RVC approximately 650 sq. ft. in addition to its current space. That’s a small classroom, which the district offered at Hidden Valley (a ridiculous “offer” that is unusable by RVC). Last year, RVC gained 40 new students during the course of the school year. If it even gained half that number this school year, it would be at 144. The projected enrollment is for the spring of the school year, with the assumption that more students may enroll after the start of school. Three new in-district students enrolled at RVC in September, so… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

You gained 40 in-district kids? Is this true?

Anonymous
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Anonymous

RVC gained 40 students total during last school year. I’m not sure how many were in-district vs. out-of-district. The point is that new students continue to enroll at RVC, so they will continue to get closer to their projected enrollment as the year goes on.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I think many RVC parents don’t realize how important in-district enrollment numbers are. This is how you are allocated space. I can tell by your replies you don’t really understand the issues here. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

RVC parents are very aware of how important in-district enrollment numbers are -which is why they’re very clear why StanDistrict forces are working so hard to intimidate and harass their neighbors and spread divisive, misleading rumors and rhetoric to make them fearful of applying.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Stand doesn’t care about honesty or integrity or factual information. Stand has been spreading lies and rumors for years. Stand will say or do whatever it feels will keep a controversy going, just to try to drive down RVC’s enrollment.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

This is how you perpetuate this nonsense. You do realize that you could easily neutralize Stand? I am here to tell you that deep honesty and integrity will always win. No one will be able to rile a community up against people that consistently act in this way. I can see part of the problem is you will not acknowledge where you can absolutely shine. You will always see this as Stand’s fault – thus giving away all your power.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

“I am here to tell you” that RVC HAS acted with honesty and integrity. But it has been continuously questioned and maligned so that it’s seen as the opposite. Here are examples of “opinion” being spun as truth just from the comments on this post: You will have to constantly break the law year after year this way. You place all of your out of district families in a tenuous position. You are actively recruiting out-of-district. Unfortunately the way you continually over estimate your enrollment has made the community distrust you as a “deeper” tenant for red Hill. Show the… Read more »

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

I think you may be confused about one of the major sticking points of how you set up your school. It’s an important point to note. The school district only has to supply facilities for in-district kids. When you say you gained 40 kids during the school year, I can tell you are not making the distinction. Only take space for in-district. When you battle for additional space the community gets riled up. Start acting to the letter of the law. No one can fault you that.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

A Stand member stood on the street in front of RVC this week to hand out flyers asking people who were arriving for a tour not to sign Intent to Enroll forms. When confronted, this person said she didn’t like that people were signing forms without seeing the school first. Duh–these people WERE coming to see the school– she was trying to intimidate them so they wouldn’t sign the form.

One couple came into the RVC office and laughed, handed the flyer to the office staff and said, “We met some of your ‘friends’ out there.”