Things aren’t looking good in Massachusetts’ suburban schools these days. Last month, the Boston Globe released a series of articles on a culture of racism and homophobia on the Danvers High School hockey team. On “hard R Fridays,” students on the all-white team shouted the n-word in team huddles. When one player refused, others welted his face with a sex toy. At the same school, the wrestling team suspended its season after the school discovered a Snapchat “with hateful and biased language.” In Quincy, a Black student confronted a white student about a racist video laced with, again, the n-word, and it led to protests there and in neighboring Braintree. Opposing football teams in Duxbury reported anti-Semitic play calls and Black football players visiting Georgetown left the field after a barrage of racial slurs. There’s been similar incidents on football fields in Hyannis and South Easton.
Then, there’s been racist backlash when school leaders take sensible steps to discuss local and national racial incidents. Two Black principals in Newton received threatening voicemails that one described as “hate-filled,” after creating affinity spaces for students of color to discuss the Rittenhouse and McMichael/Bryan verdicts. For crying out loud, Breitbart has a series of articles on affinity spaces in Wellesley public schools, with polemical headlines like “Massachusetts Middle School Offers Racially Segregated ‘Safe Spaces’ for Students to ‘Process’ Rittenhouse, Arbery Verdicts.” As Maurice Cunningham has revealed, Brietbart was likely tipped off by a Koch-connected group called the Council for National Policy, which “coordinates strategy and tactics for an array of radical billionaire funders and Christian nationalist activists.” Another Koch-connected group even filed a federal lawsuit against Wellesley Public Schools specifically challenging the affinity spaces. In the suit, they’re claiming to be defenders of racial integration.
Yes- hate incidents have been accelerating in k-12 schools in recent years, due to what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the “Trump Effect,” where “children were emulating the racist, xenophobic and coarse language Donald Trump was using on the campaign trail.” The isolation and loss of the very ongoing pandemic has not helped.
The media coverage I’ve seen rightly focused on these issues, but coverage has also been leaving out the role of school demographics in these stories. Basically: hate can thrive in segregated white schools. All of the schools in the stories linked above are majority white schools, and many are overwhelmingly white, including Danvers High School (84%), Duxbury High School (92%), Georgetown High School (91%), the two schools facing backlash in Newton (61% each), and the entire Wellesley district (67%). (Below, I list the same schools next to their GreatSchools.org ratings, but you already know how that lines up.)
These spaces can serve as an incubator for hateful and intolerant behavior. If you went to segregated white schools, this all likely sounds familiar. And, the research backs it up. Rucker Johnson used data spanning schooling and adulthood. As he says in a recent interview:
- “the resegregation of public schools has contributed to the increases in racial bias, racial intolerance, and rising polarization of political views that we observe expressed in adulthood.”
- “children in these schools struggle to develop the ability to empathize with others and to appreciate the validity of other cultures.”
And, he’s clear that these findings “are most pronounced among White Americans.”
Research is also clear that the inverse is true: racially integrated schools are associated with racial tolerance and empathy. Here are just a few examples, much of it based on research from Linda Tropp and colleagues:
- Many studies, including research with youth and adults, demonstrate that friendships across social groups can create strong bonds and can change how people think about social difference and how they treat people from different backgrounds.
- When students see peers forming friendships across social groups, that makes them more interested in forming similar cross-group friendships.
- Beliefs about social difference are much more flexible when people are young– once these beliefs are formed (for the better or worse), they become much harder to change.
- Students from racially diverse schools are more likely to live and work in racially integrated spaces as they get older.
Related to the research above – and especially relevant for the news stories in this post – we analyzed surveys of more than 25,000 Massachusetts k-12 students, and found that white students in “diverse” schools reported a higher sense of belonging and higher levels of physical safety compared to white students in less diverse schools.
It all makes sense. As you know if you attended a majority white school, there’s often one normed way to be, and maybe a few variations on that. Anything that doesn’t conform to the standard can be the object of ridicule or worse.
In education policy debates, we somehow forget that students are learning from those experiences. Their minds are always on, whether it’s an academic class for a tested subject or a hockey team huddle. In fact, it’s probably safe to assume that their minds are much more engaged in the latter. We miss out on *all of this* when we measure and rate schools primarily according to test scores. Here, again, are the schools in the headlines, now with both their white student enrollment and their ratings on GreatSchools.org:
- Danvers High School- 84% white, 6/10
- Duxbury High School- 92%, 10/10
- Georgetown High School- 91%, 9/10
- The two schools facing backlash in Newton- 61% each and both rated at 7/10
- The entire Wellesley district- 67% and, of the 10 schools in the district, the lowest rating is 7/10, all the others are 8’s or higher.
Test-based accountability wasn’t the norm in 1963, but it might as well have been one of the fantasies that James Baldwin refers to in his ever-relevant “Talk to Teachers.” A myth created by a backward society to justify the superiority of whiteness. These stories are powerful for me both because they puncture the “good” schools myth and because they illustrate how it can be so totalizing. If you, in any way, don’t conform to the standard social norm, are these really “good” schools for you? And, if you do “fit in,” it affects you. These myths are all-encompassing in the way that a student’s uniqueness/individuality can be sacrificed for a seat at the top of the social hierarchy.
As a parent of two white children, both options – fitting in majority white spaces or not – are scary, though for very different reasons. Like Baldwin says in the same talk and elsewhere, “if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.” It’s all myth, it’s all backwards, and it’s all so harmful to individuals and society.
Amazingly, the dissenting student in the Danvers hockey team story saw it this way as well. When asked if he wanted to press charges on his teammates, he declined saying that they were “portraying their racism, but I felt like they needed to do it to survive. I don’t hate any of those kids. They are a product of their environment.”