This May marks 65 years since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that school segregation is unconstitutional and “inherently unequal.” Yet Seattle schools continue to be racially segregated, with a significant number counted as “hypersegregated.”
I first learned about this issue from the eye-opening reporting of Nikole Hannah-Jones for This American Life. The audio of white parents’ voices raised in rage against school integration was horrifying. I knew that when it came time to send my kids to school, I wanted to be part of the solution, or at least not part of the problem.
But while I have worked as an anti-racism activist and continue to write about race and social justice issues, many friends and acquaintances seemed shocked that I would willingly choose to send my son to our neighborhood school, where he would likely be the only white kid in his class
When I talk with other white parents about school choice, the reactions vary from “you are sacrificing your son on the altar of social justice” to “I admire your decision, but I could never make that kind of sacrifice.” This is how the conversation is generally framed: in terms of sacrifice. Yes, equity is important, but the costs are too great. The risk to my child’s future is too much.
Ruby Bridges was only a kindergartner when she integrated her Louisiana elementary school in 1960. White mothers protested her attendance every single day during her first year of school. They spit at her, one held up a black baby doll in a coffin, another threatened to poison her. Only one of the school’s white teachers would agree to teach her, and every single white child was pulled from her class by their parents. For an entire year it was just Ruby and one teacher, alone in the classroom.
I cannot imagine the terror her parents must have felt to send their kindergartner into such an arena day after day. I doubt I would be strong enough to make such a decision. But they did it — not just for Ruby, but for all African American children.
When mandatory integration came to Seattle in 1977, many white families fled for the suburbs or enrolled their kids in private school. Black and brown children were bused at disproportional rates. Today, whiter, wealthier schools enjoy six-figure PTA budgets and five times as many volunteers as Title I schools. It seems that whenever there are sacrifices to be made, they have been borne by Seattle’s students of color.
Isn’t it time for white and privileged families to be brave? Isn’t it time that we used our power to finally make good on the promise of Brown v. Board? We can choose neighborhood schools, we can vote for affordable housing in every neighborhood, we can spend our volunteer hours and our donations advancing equity rather than hoarding privilege for children who already have so much.
It has been two years since my son began attending our neighborhood school. It isn’t perfect — there are more work sheets and less recess than I would like. But we have benefited from this school in ways I could not have imagined. Our school is rich in culture and language. Our school values social justice. Our students take the school motto (“responsible, safe, and caring”) seriously to an adorable extent. Most of all, we have teachers and school staff who fiercely love our kids and who seem to produce a feast out of thin air every day.
I am grateful to be part of this community. If this is a sacrifice, it’s the kind I’d wish on everyone.
Seattle’s school segregation story: Join Integrated Schools for a panel discussion on school segregation in Seattle that will look at what worked and what didn’t, and how to disrupt segregation now. There will be breakout sessions on steps to take for equity-driven integration. 6-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Garfield High School, 400 23rd Ave., Seattle; free, RSVP (integratedschools.org).