The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White parents in D.C. talk a lot about racial justice. So why do they focus on majority-White schools?

Without mentioning race, they emphasize predominantly White schools and ignore high-performing, majority-Black schools, our analysis found

Trophies line a window in the office of Roosevelt High School Principal Justin Ralston in August. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

On a playground, one parent tells another that they are moving to the suburbs “for the schools.” After a meeting, a mom asks a co-worker how they chose a preschool. Informal conversations like these can be decisive for parents’ school choices, and perceptions of school quality play a significant role in where people choose to live. But such social networks can also spread misinformation and bias.

In a study of an online parent forum in D.C. written with our colleague Hao Sun, we trace how parents’ conversations about schools recapitulate — and to the extent these conversations are influential, reinforce — racial and economic segregation.

We examined more than 400,000 messages posted to the forum between 2008 and 2020. Within each of 15,000 conversation threads, we identified more than 150 public schools and more than 500 keywords that help capture the substance of the discussion. The commenters post anonymously, so we can’t speak conclusively about the demography of the participants, but data ranging from their Zip codes to their car choices suggest that the commenters are predominantly upper middle class and White.

Because D.C.’s school lottery system gives parents a chance to access public schools across the city, much of the discussion revolves around where to apply. We were interested in what schools are seen as desirable and how these parents discuss the many school options available to them. Here’s what we found.

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Whiter schools get more attention

About two-fifths of D.C. schools were almost never discussed on the forum, appearing in less than 1 percent of conversations. Those rarely mentioned schools have higher rates of poverty and a student body that is, on average, 92 percent Black. About one-fifth of schools, by contrast, are mentioned in more than 5 percent of conversations on the forum; a plurality of students at these schools are White.

The level of attention schools receive can be explained only in part by the city’s neighborhood segregation. We looked within one rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and found that elementary schools that are less than 50 percent Black are mentioned more than four times as often per year as schools that are more than 50 percent Black.

Nor are quantitative measures of school quality a clear explanation of the differences in attention. Comparing two neighboring schools with similar test scores, the school where about half of students are White was mentioned three times as often as the school where more than 90 percent of the students are Black.

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Whiter schools are discussed differently

Schools with larger populations of White students are also discussed differently from other schools.

The graphic below shows the stark difference in language used to describe D.C. middle and high schools. The “high attention” schools are commonly discussed together and are frequently discussed on the forum; on average, 30 percent of students in these schools are White. The “low attention” group of schools are more rarely discussed, though they include some of the District’s most selective public schools, with rigorous admissions processes and high levels of college attendance. The low-attention schools are not united by the economic conditions of their students; some schools have very high levels of poverty, others have rates far below the District average. Nor are the lower-attention schools grouped in one area of the city. They are distinct, however, in their racial makeup; on average, less than 2 percent of the student body of the low-attention schools are White.

The middle and high schools in the District that these parents discussed most were more likely to be discussed in terms of academics (“homework,” “teacher,” “math”) and using positive terms, like “great” and “wonderful.” Far fewer terms are frequently used in discussions of the lower-attention schools; these words include “football,” “failing,” and “renovate.” While the low-attention schools are associated with terms for race (“Black,” “African American”), conversations about wealthier and Whiter schools are also more likely to refer to people using words like “family” and “child.”

In other words, the individuals attending schools that have a large majority of Black students are doubly invisible; their schools go unconsidered, and their families go unseen.

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These findings have implications for privileged parents

We hope these findings contribute to an ongoing public conversation about how upper-middle-class urban Whites, who often report progressive views on race in surveys, are nonetheless implicated in systems of segregation and exclusion. Though the participants in the D.C. forum are far from a representative sample, the findings fit with a growing literature showing that White families generally avoid schools with high percentages of minority students and that the racial and economic status of students are important factors for parents choosing schools.

White parents who want to root out biases in their own thinking about public schools may wish to take various steps. They could reach out for school information from outside of their personal networks; if someone’s social circle is segregated, the information they receive about schools will be segregated as well. They could visit local schools, rather than just relying on hearsay. They may also wish to watch for biases in their own thinking; for instance, adults tend to perceive Black boys and girls as more “adult” than their White peers — one reason, perhaps, that Whiter schools are so much more strongly associated in our data with the word “child.” Finally, those seeking strategies to interrupt and redirect problematic conversations in their own communities can find resources to practice these conversations.

Decades after Brown v. Board of Education, American schools remain highly — and by some measures, increasingly — segregated by both race and class, with under-resourced schools serving disproportionately poor and minority students. Unequal education is incompatible with a democratic society. The solutions are far from obvious, but well-off White parents may wish to start the work at home.

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Vanessa Williamson (@V_Williamson) is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Jackson Gode (@jackson_gode) is a research analyst at the Brookings Institution.