The word “innocent” comes up early in the new podcast “Nice White Parents,” about separate and unequal education at a public school in Brooklyn. It’s hosted and reported by Chana Joffe-Walt, a producer for “This American Life.” In New York City, as with many places in the U.S., school segregation has long been de facto, and differences in school resources correspond closely with race; the city, in lieu of an integration plan, has focussed on “school reform,” along with an elaborate, choice-based system that involves testing, wait lists, and parental strategizing. In the series, Joffe-Walt, who is white, homes in on the insidious, sometimes unwitting role of white parents in perpetuating an unjust system that benefits their kids. The innocence we hear about, you may not be surprised to learn, comes from those parents describing themselves.
The public school in question is the School for International Studies, in Cobble Hill, where Joffe-Walt lives. She began reporting on S.I.S. in 2015, when the students there—middle schoolers and high schoolers—were mostly Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern, and from working-class and poor families. Enrollment was shrinking. The district was rapidly gentrifying, and white families tended to send their kids to the same three middle schools, which were becoming “packed.” S.I.S., like many of the underattended schools, was actively recruiting. As the series opens, Joffe-Walt and some other white parents are being shown around local schools by administrators, usually people of color. Most of the children they see are Black and brown, except for a “gifted” class, which is mostly white. No one on the tours mentions race.
The episode then reveals what happens when a group of white families, en masse, decide to send their kids to S.I.S.—and, as a kind of bargaining chip, persuade the school to start a French dual-language program. What follows is like a farce. At a PTA meeting, we learn that new parents have launched an aggressive fund-raising campaign and that the French Embassy has already pledged ten thousand dollars. A PTA co-president, Imee Hernandez, an even-tempered social worker, is rattled but polite; the PTA, which allocates school funds, knew nothing about the campaign. (“I’d rather have a dinner where people of different cultures bring their food and we share together than have somebody else cater it,” she tells Joffe-Walt. “That’s how I feel you build community.”) Soon, parents are planning a lavish gala in Manhattan, at the French Embassy’s Cultural Services center. A new parent urges befuddled PTA members to help drum up auction items: Knicks tickets, Coach bags, Tiffany pieces. At the gala, a guest enthuses about her apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés—“October is my saison préférée . . . you wear your scarf, your foulard ”—and tells Hernandez, who is bilingual, “It’s so important to learn another language.” More money and white students begin flooding into S.I.S., not for the benefit of all, and subsequent episodes reveal a similar dynamic throughout the school’s sixty-year history.
“Nice White Parents” was made by Serial Productions, which was recently bought by the Times. Like all podcasts in the “This American Life” and “Serial” family, it’s expertly crafted. (The producer is Julie Snyder.) The sound design features plucky but nonintrusive original music (with a hint of Vince Guaraldi), incisive interview clips, and evocative archival recordings. In the second episode, we hear audio of chanting Black and Puerto Rican protesters at Freedom Day, a mass New York City school boycott in 1964, and of a teen-ager there, speaking to ABC News, who points out the armed police on horseback and says, “All we want is equal education. That’s all.” The richness of vocal inflection is perhaps the most powerful element of the podcast form; in that clip, the teen’s earnest calm contrasts with the skeptical, rat-a-tat tone of the interviewer. Later, we hear a similar calm from a modern-day eleventh grader, Tiffani Torres, when she asks Mayor Bill de Blasio, on a WNYC call-in show, when city schools will be integrated. “Tiffani, with all due respect, I really think you’re not hearing what we’re saying to you, so I’ll repeat it,” de Blasio says, with blithe impatience. Then he tells her that a task force is studying the issue.
We hear revealing tones in surprising places, such as in interviews with white parents who advocated for the integration of Brooklyn schools in the sixties; their voices brighten with pride as they describe the progressive bona fides of the private schools they actually sent their kids to. But the most distinguishing sound of “Nice White Parents” is Joffe-Walt’s narration, which is abundant, direct, and full of zingers. “It happens again and again—white parents wielding their power without even noticing, like a guy wandering through a crowded store with a huge backpack, knocking things over every time he turns,” she says. The backpack analogy will resonate with New Yorkers, who have observed such behavior in the cramped spaces we used to occupy all over town—and, in many ways, “Nice White Parents” seems to be speaking specifically to New Yorkers, and to well-off white ones, though it listens closely and with care to kids, parents, and administrators of color. Joffe-Walt often uses “white” as shorthand for affluent and educated, and, in neighborhoods like Cobble Hill, the association is apt, but it isn’t so everywhere in the country, or even in New York. The show has an astringently self-critical quality of wanting to straight-talk “nice white parents” into taking action, but in doing so it can feel unnervingly clubby. It can also create an impression of being told what to think, even as we agree; when this happened in school, listeners might recall, we didn’t like it.
Another new series about race and education in the Northeast, “Fiasco: The Battle for Boston,” hosted by Leon Neyfakh, takes a different approach. “In September of 1974, the city of Boston faced a test,” Neyfakh says. “What would happen if thousands of white and Black children living in segregated neighborhoods were forced to go to school together?” In an archival clip, we hear a little girl named Joanne, who is Black, tell an NBC reporter, “When we go up there, we’re going to be stoned. It’s not fair.” She isn’t wrong. The series tells the story of the school system, the Black activists and parents who initiated change, and the inter-district busing, which resulted in several years of violence and mayhem, usually perpetrated by enraged white people: bus stonings, firebombings, threats, demonstrations, street scuffles. Even the gangster Whitey Bulger got involved.
Neyfakh, formerly of Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast, was a marquee hire for Luminary, “Fiasco” ’s subscription-based platform, which launched in 2019. His work tends to focus on late-twentieth-century political scandals and the experience of living through them; he chooses historical episodes that listeners think they know and upends their assumptions. Here, he starts with “the busing crisis,” the conflict’s name in much popular memory. As Tom Atkins, the head of the Boston N.A.A.C.P. at the time, says in an archival interview, “ ‘Busing’ was a nationwide code word” for keeping Black people in their place. “People could run racist campaigns without making racist statements,” he says. Neyfakh is white, and he and his team quickly learned that “busing” wasn’t the best way to describe desegregation: when they used the term, potential interviewees hung up on them.
Neyfakh creates the artful impression of subtlety. His stories always have direct, clear connections to contemporary life, but he lets listeners have the pleasure, or the illusion, of connecting the dots themselves. He has a gift for crafting memorable scenes, and his longtime executive producer, Andrew Parsons, is deft at animating them through sound design. In one scene, from April, 1968, the liberal mayor of Boston, Kevin White, has recently defeated the anti-integrationist firebrand Louise Day Hicks; he seems to be one of the only forces who can prevent the desegregation controversy from exploding into chaos. So it’s startling to learn that when he hears that Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated, he’s at a movie theatre, watching “Gone with the Wind.” (“Rhett!” Scarlett says. “Where shall I go, what shall I do?”) Officials are worried about civil unrest, and the next day, when Atkins, then a city-council member, proposes a peacekeeping plan involving that night’s James Brown concert at the Boston Garden, we learn that White isn’t sure who James Brown is. These are minor but potent details, vividly evoked, as is the concert, to powerful effect.
The series’ strengths are exemplified in an episode that focusses on the image that came to define the crisis: a photograph of an anti-desegregation demonstration in 1976 in Boston’s City Hall Plaza, in which a white teen holding a huge American flag lunges at a Black man in a three-piece suit, wielding the flagpole like a bayonet. Neyfakh describes the photo with forensic precision, telling the stories of its key players. We learn about the teen, Joseph Rakes; the man in the suit, Ted Landsmark, a lawyer on his way to a meeting about affirmative action; and the photographer, Stanley Forman, from the Herald, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the image. Landsmark’s nose had been broken by a white teen; eventually a police officer helped him. “I immediately said to him, ‘I want you to let go of my arm,’ ” Landsmark says. He worried that a photograph of them would make him look like a culprit.
The sensational violence of Boston’s early busing era came to an end, but desegregation, with modified busing, lasted. Research has long shown that school integration, in Boston and far beyond, has worked, correlating with better-resourced schools and enduring academic and social benefits for students. Yet what many white people remember is the mayhem. De Blasio, who grew up near Boston in the seventies, believes that busing there “absolutely poisoned the well,” and is a model to be avoided: “I think history is on my side here.” Both “Fiasco” and “Nice White Parents” suggest otherwise. At one point, Joffe-Walt notes that her goal is to forge a “shared sense of reality” to counterbalance the innocence, or the naïveté, among white parents that she believes stands in the way of progress. Together, these two podcasts offer ample evidence of that reality, for those who choose to listen. ♦
contributing to The New Yorker since 2007