The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When a White, liberal family enrolls at a Black and Brown school


Like their peers in so many other urban places in the United States, the White families in my liberal D.C. neighborhood make a point of showing up. We show up to bond at artisan coffeehouses over our shared love for the area’s “diversity.” We show up at our book clubs to read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Isabel Wilkerson and Colson Whitehead. We show up — often in hybrid cars festooned with Black Lives Matter decals — to protest police violence against Black men and to organize litter cleanups in area playgrounds. We pride ourselves on fully and authentically participating in our newfound urban communities.

And yet, most of us also show up to encourage our city’s education officials to secure seats in segregated, higher-quality schools for our White and wealthy kids. For so many White progressive families, diverse neighborhoods are beautiful — but diverse, integrated schools are never quite satisfactory for our children.

Almost every American city hosts a version of this dynamic. In her new book, “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America From My Daughter’s School,” White author and activist Courtney E. Martin recounts moving (from rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn) in 2013 to rapidly gentrifying Oakland, Calif., in part for its progressive politics and eclectic cultural and culinary life. She and her husband bought a house and had two daughters, and Martin was thrilled that her girls would grow up differently than she had in her “conservative hometown of Colorado Springs.”

When elementary school rounded into view for her oldest daughter, Maya, Martin realized that the students at their neighborhood school, Emerson Elementary, appeared to be almost entirely Black and Brown — even as the neighborhood became increasingly White. Most of her demographic peers, it turned out, had wrangled spots for their kids in Whiter, wealthier schools in other parts of Oakland. Some hammered away at school district officials until they secured a seat in more privileged public schools; others ponied up $30,000 in annual tuition to attend a nearby private school that marketed itself on its progressive values and pedagogy. As in so many cities, their love of diversity faltered at the schoolhouse door.

Martin decided to enroll Maya at Emerson.

“Every person has to come to terms with — even if just for themselves — the gap between what they believe and how they live their lives,” Martin writes. “And if you happen to be a parent, the gap can feel particularly wide and meaningful, the rationalizations even more garbled and urgent.”

“Learning in Public” is a book about gaps: the gulf between White progressive families’ values and their behavior, and the reality of the yawning social distances that persist even when Black, Brown and White families live side by side. The book also explores the staggering opportunity gaps that emerge when children of color are consigned to less-resourced and lower-quality schools than their White peers, creating pernicious academic achievement gaps in American education.

In “Learning in Public,” Martin chronicles her efforts to narrow the space between her progressive principles and her behavior. She tours the privileged public and private schools, and asks her peers why they’re clamoring for seats. Their justifications are as predictable as they are wide-ranging. Public schools like Emerson don’t have enough resources to meet their privileged kindergartners’ complex needs, they say. Their campuses aren’t safe, their teaching approaches are insufficiently progressive and rigorous.

Are these excuses? Mostly. Are they entirely false? Not always. They can be both. Martin doesn’t force readers to pick one view. This makes for a messy, complex story — which reflects the nature of the circumstances. She presents a compelling account of the benefits of diverse, integrated schools: Maya thrives academically, and her social life explodes as she makes friends across racially, culturally and ethnically diverse groups. And yet, “Learning in Public” is more credible because it also grapples with how the arrival of well-resourced, well-meaning White families isn’t always an inevitable, unalloyed good. Martin describes ways that White newcomers — herself included — periodically offend communities of color at Emerson by assuming that the school has simply been waiting for their energy, resources and attention.

Martin describes her integration journey as part of her “quest for the White moral life,” an effort to fully and authentically step out of the well-worn paths prepared for her and other privileged White families. And while repeatedly chewing over her intentions and choices, she tries to constructively support Emerson. But Martin’s best intentions and behavior, and her deepening commitment to her moral integrity, are no match for the deeply ingrained, structural inequities that shape Oakland public schools.

“Learning in Public” includes a sketch of Oakland’s troubled history of racial segregation. A century ago, Emerson was mostly White, but a series of political decisions and economic pressures shifted the school’s — and the city’s — demographics. Federal housing policies created racially segregated neighborhoods for Oakland’s Black families. Subsequent highway projects displaced Black residents. Regional economic struggles, the 1980s war on drugs and other factors drove White flight from the city to such a degree that, by the time Maya enrolled at Emerson, its demographics had entirely flipped.

The systemic forces driving Oakland’s — and other cities’ — gentrification and school enrollment currents are vastly more powerful than the individual anxieties Martin uncovers when she talks to other privileged parents. Indeed, according to the housing website Zillow, in the decade since Martin moved to the Temescal neighborhood, housing values have more than tripled. Intentional, moral behavior from White individuals can’t unwind the structures driving that sort of exclusionary trend. White residents can — and should — carefully curate their attitudes and behavior as they integrate schools, but their actions will not halt economic trends that increasingly displace their Black neighbors.

For instance, through Emerson, Martin’s family befriends a Black neighbor, Andre, and his son, Darius. As Martin unpeels some of the challenges they face — Andre struggles with chronic pain and lives in a house owned by his mother — she agonizes over how to live in community with them. Can she share from her family’s abundance of privilege and resources, or will that stymie their fragile new friendship? While she ruminates, strategizes and experiments, the house suddenly goes up for sale, and Darius moves out of Oakland.

Martin’s experiences in Oakland demonstrate that change must be a cultural and political two-step: No one White family’s school choices will unwind the structures that have sustained segregated neighborhoods and communities, but neither will any structural shift suddenly convert all White families into willing participants in school integration. We need fairer funding of schools, policies that weaken privileged families’ abilities to purchase higher-quality schooling through the housing market, better school transportation options and much more. But we also need accounts like Martin’s: better cultural models for how White families can show up in schools, not as saviors or anxious hoarders of opportunity, but as people participating equally in a community with peers of all backgrounds.

Learning in Public

Lessons for
a Racially Divided America From My Daughter’s School

By Courtney E. Martin

Little, Brown. 400 pp. $28