Pinsker: What would it look like for a white affluent parent to make a choice not to give their children “the best”? Is it a matter of not calling the school to get the best math teacher? Or is there a more proactive thing a parent might be able to do?
Hagerman: I think part of it is how we choose to define “the best.” Some of the parents in my book, they rejected the idea that their child needed to be in all the AP classes. They valued other elements of their children’s personalities, such as their concerns about ethics or fairness or social justice. There were a handful of parents in my study who resisted having a separate track for AP students, for example, which can sometimes be a segregating force within schools.
There were also affluent parents who were very much opposed to having police officers in schools, and they were using their position of influence in the community to try to get the police officers out of there. Maybe others would be aware of their own presence at PTA meetings, making sure they’re not dominating them and making sure they’re not putting their own agenda ahead of their peers’ agendas. I’m not sure that I saw tons of behavior like that, but I certainly saw moments where some of the families were concerned more about the collective than their own kid.
White privilege, quantified
Pinsker: Some parents in the book seemed to think of diversity as something that could be let in selectively, to teach certain lessons to their kids. This came up with a lot of parents’ decisions to send their kids to public schools, which were more diverse than the private ones. Can you talk about how, for a lot of affluent white parents, diversity is something that can be toggled on and off as they please?
Hagerman: I think the best example is when these two parents decided to pull one of their children out of a public school after a racist incident there. There was a lot of turmoil, and when things basically got too challenging, they just picked their kid up and took him to a different school, a private school. And the ability to do that was not only a reflection of their economic privilege—they had the resources to suddenly, mid–school year, send their kid to an expensive private school—but also a reflection of racial privilege in that you can somehow escape racism when you want to as a white person. Certainly that’s not the case for people of color.
Pinsker: So far we’ve talked about how white parents shape their children’s views on race. But a big theme of the book is that kids themselves actively contribute to the formation of racist beliefs. How does that work?
Hagerman: One of the things I was really struck by was how frequently some of these children used the phrase That’s racist or You’re racist. They were using this word in contexts that had nothing to do with race: They were playing chess, and they would talk about what color chess pieces they wanted to have, and then one of them would say, “Oh, that’s racist”—so things that had to do with colors, but also sometimes just out of the blue, instead of saying, “That’s stupid.” These kids have taken this phrase, That’s racist, and inverted it in a way such that it’s become meaningless.