More important, privileged parents contribute to these racial disparities in advanced education, intentionally or not, when they hoard educational opportunities for their already privileged children.
Read: The scandal that reveals the fiction of America’s educational meritocracy
Privileged parents have the power, autonomy, time, and resources to, for instance, attend school-district meetings to make sure their neighborhood schools aren’t closed or rezoned. They also know how to appeal to principals, making a case for why their child must be placed in their preferred teacher’s classroom. They have the money to hire tutors so their children can stay on top of their classwork and score well on standardized tests. Some even do school-related work on their children’s behalf. These parents do these things for the good of their children, even though they are not good for other people’s children.
Yet privileged parents often feel guilty when they are unable to reconcile being a good parent with being a good socially conscious citizen. The sociologist Margaret Hagerman calls this the “conundrum of privilege.” Despite knowing that doing the best for their children often means leaving other children, often low-income students or students of color, with fewer opportunities, the knowledge doesn’t change their behavior. As Tressie McMillan Cottom writes in her powerful new book, Thick, “They are good people. They want all children in their child’s school to thrive, but they want their child to thrive just a bit more than most.” When it comes to GATE programs and advanced classes where space is limited, privileged parents hoard the opportunity for their own children, especially in racially integrated schools.
Putting the numbers in context with the sociological explanations reveals that black children aren’t included in schools’ conception of gifted and advanced precisely because they are not conceived of as “our” children who deserve the best resources and attention.
As a black parent who now carries socioeconomic privilege, given my husband’s and my own educational status, I, like other black middle-class mothers, find myself in a unique position: a conundrum of constrained privilege. I want to advocate for my black sons, because I only want the best for them. I also know that advocating for my sons to get into GATE or elite academies could move the needle just a bit to increase black representation. But doing this would mean accepting that my already privileged children would receive additional benefits that other black children might need even more.
Instead of having my son take the GATE entrance exam, I decided to use my social capital to advocate for more holistic changes in our district. I spend about six hours a month either volunteering in a second-grade classroom, or discussing school-assessment measures and budgets with teachers and school administration as a member of the School Site Council, or convening with district personnel about citywide initiatives in my position on the District Accountability Committee. My job status allows me the privilege and flexibility to spend my time doing this extra work. But my racial status means this is a necessity. In every single one of these spaces, I am the only black adult. If I am not there advocating for my son and other black students, the data suggest, no one else will.
The education gap cannot be achieved without closing the racial empathy gap. While my individual actions and choices are important, their impact is limited. Until we can develop better admissions tests, or pass legislation banning these tests altogether, or invest more resources in public schools to incorporate GATE-like curricula in all classes, those of us who are willing and able to do “whatever we can” for our children need to expand our idea of who “our” children really are.