Woke America's stealthier racism

Talking with author Courtney Martin about nice white parents and the more insidious segregation of our most progressive places

A few years ago, like millions of parents, Courtney Martin had to decide where to send her child to school. Because she is an acute and thoughtful journalist and social chronicler, she understood what a complicated and fraught and historically loaded decision that was. And so, in addition to making the decision, she set out on a journey to understand the dilemma she was facing — being torn between sending her daughter to the same places all the other white kids were going and sending her daughter to the local, majority-Black-and-brown public school.

It was around this time that, in one of the signal essays of the era, Nikole Hannah-Jones grappled with her own version of this dilemma as a Black woman highly accomplished in journalism, with the options and resources to choose among many places.

Courtney approaches the dilemma from the very different standpoint of a white woman in Oakland, California, trying to understand the deep and enduring segregation in places that, on the surface, seem progressive and woke.

I caught up with Courtney for her first interview anywhere about the much-anticipated new book that grew out of this searching: “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter's School.” You’ll find that below.

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“The racism on the left is obscured and full of guilt and shame”: a conversation with Courtney Martin

THE INK: Tell us the story of how you decided what school to send your daughter to.

COURTNEY: When I would take walks around our gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland with my first daughter strapped in snug in the carrier on my chest, I would always walk by our local elementary school. The kids seemed joyful and the grounds seemed beautiful, but I noticed that there were almost no white kids in the playground (which seemed strange given all the white families I’d seen living here). When my baby grew up, and was old enough to go to transitionary kindergarten, I sort of put my journalist hat on and started researching where all the white kids are. That led me on a journey of thousand moral miles. 

Ultimately, I learned that despite all the hype about Brown v. Board and Ruby Bridges, our schools hit the peak of integration in the 1980s, and it’s only been downhill from there, largely because of white parents like me who either disinvest from public schools entirely by sending our kids to private schools, or navigate to make sure our kids go to the whitest, most highly resourced public schools in our district. I also learned that integration is the only thing we know that actually works to break the cycle of poverty for Black and brown kids, and that white kids who go to integrated schools do fine. It felt hard, in some ways, to choose a school that most of our friends weren’t choosing, and one with a 1-out-of-10 rating on GreatSchools.org to boot, but the research I did (thank you, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Rucker C. Johnson!) helped us get over that initial fear. And thank goodness it did, because we all love our kid’s school so much.

THE INK: In your introduction, you say that “this book is very much about racializing white people” and that you “attempt to write with a ‘white double-consciousness.’” What does that mean?

COURTNEY: There are so many incredible books about educational inequity and the failed promise of integration, but they tend to be academic. I wanted to write a book that would serve as a gateway drug of sorts to all those great books — a fast-moving, personal story that would draw people in and then hit them with a bunch of new knowledge about race and education, and leave them with some good self-searching to do. My audience is white and/or privileged parents, though I did a lot of work to make sure the book felt useful and true to BIPOC folks in my own community, but also in the educational space writ large. 

In any case, I wrote about myself and my family in a deeply vulnerable way, trying to force myself to see the water I swam in and describe it for other white people. Part of what keeps white supremacy in place is that whiteness is treated as a default, as neutral, instead of a distinct culture with its own language, norms, and problems. In a sense, I was trying to center whiteness, so we can get better at decentering white people. 

THE INK: You write about Dr. Janet Helms’ “framework for white racial development” that she developed in the 1990s. You quote her as saying: “In the first stage, you are basically oblivious, interacting with very few people of color, and when you do, you do your best to pretend as if nothing is different about them.” A lot of white Americans are still very much in this stage, at best — the colorblind stage. But I would imagine that a lot of your fellow white parents in places like Oakland think they’re different from that, further along the journey. Are they, in fact?

COURTNEY: Exactly. I think Americans who live in largely white neighborhoods and mostly interact with white people — of which there are A LOT — are probably still hanging out in this stage. But most of the white people I know who have chosen to live in hip cities like Oakland, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, etc., pride themselves on wanting to live in multi-racial community. And yet I think many of us, in fact, only have this as an aspiration, not a lived experience. When we actually look around the table at our dinner parties, or check out our kids’ soccer teams, we are confronted with the reality that we live in multi-racial cities, but many of us also lead very segregated lives, particularly socioeconomically. 

THE INK: How do you think white people who want to be on the right side of history should think about the question of where to place their children in school?

COURTNEY: I think they should seriously consider sending their kid to a “global majority” public school — a school where their kid’s presence could have a real impact on the resources that all the kids at that school enjoy. (As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, it’s not that white kids are magical; it’s just that resources follow whiteness.) 

For some, that just isn’t going to happen. For those white parents, I would urge them to tour at least two “global majority” schools in their district and then make an effort to talk about the great things they saw going on there with other parents. Integrated Schools, the national organization nurturing this movement, has a pledge to that effect. And, more generally, I would encourage white and/or privileged parents to think about how they talk about schools — don’t be a “constant gardener” of division by categorizing schools as good and bad on the playgrounds and at birthday parties. Support policy that moves towards equity, not away from it, even if it inconveniences you or seems to limit your own choices. 

THE INK: What do you think about the notion that individuals opting to send their kids to this school or that school is not a systemic response — and that this problem needs to be solved higher up, at the level of the educational structure?

COURTNEY: I don’t think it’s an either/or. Of course so many districts need to redesign their enrollment policy, making it less vulnerable to white and/or privileged parents’ manipulation. Of course so many states need to redesign their funding streams, ensuring that schools that are basically providing comprehensive social services, on top of educating kids, get the money they need to do that well. There are so many systemic levers we can pull. But all of that can be true, and it is also true that we have to take responsibility for our own individual choice as either increasing or decreasing segregation in our cities, either increasing or decreasing equity in our cities. I’m tired of hearing people with so little to lose act like they don’t need to consider their personal choice in the face of systemic complexity. 

THE INK: There has been so much talk of racial reckoning in the past year-plus. There have been real, observable shifts in public opinion, white people making books about race bestsellers, etc. But there are also those who argue that this is a hollow reckoning, with some exciting new leadership hires across industries, some great social media posts, some new language people have learned to use, and little fundamental change. What do you think?

COURTNEY: Absolutely! And I think some people, especially white folks, are getting sort of exhausted by it all because it’s still playing out at such a surface level. It’s not that social media posts don’t matter; it’s just that it is only one kind of engagement. I believe that a lot of white and/or privileged people are craving something deeper, something more transformative and organic to their daily lives, and so they’re getting burned out on all the surface-level stuff. Choosing to be a part of multi-racial, multi-class community — whether it’s your kid’s school or your place of worship or joining some movement that isn’t majority-white — can be exhausting, in the sense that it’s socially uncomfortable at times, but it’s an edifying exhaustion. If we make good trouble together, to paraphrase the late John Lewis, we can be a good kind of tired. 

THE INK: Your book, and others like it, seems to rest on a hope, or even a belief, that white people can change, can un-couple themselves from a history of white supremacy in this country. What evidence do you have from history or experience that tells you this is true?

COURTNEY: Great question. I think it’s fair to be deeply cynical about white people’s capacity to change, to relinquish all the benefits of white supremacy. On the other hand, there are amazing people throughout history who have done so, and lived exhilarating lives. Like Anne Braden, a white woman who bought a home for a Black family in the South in defiance of the law and went to jail for it — or my own mentor, Courtney Everts Mykytyn, who founded Integrated Schools and managed to take righteous action but never seem righteous about it.  We don’t know a lot about these people, but we should know more, so we can spark our own imaginations about what white people are capable of and what that means for our own lives.   

As my friend Garrett Bucks, founder of the Barnraiser Project, often says, white people have to learn how to be in community again. We have to learn how to think and act collectively against racism, how to believe ourselves worthy of change rather than constantly trying to out-woke the progressive next door or abandon the conservative in another state. 

THE INK: What is the difference between the kind of racism you observe on the far right in this country right now and the more insidious, stealthy racism you observe in the supposed citadels of woke, progressive America?

COURTNEY: The racism on the right is transparent and unapologetic. The racism on the left is obscured and full of guilt and shame. I am trying to argue against both, but it is really the latter that I’m most interested in interrogating because it is the water I’m swimming in. White progressives must build our muscles for taking real, personal, and political action together in the face of complexity. Instead, we’ve perfected our lawn signs, social media posts, and Thanksgiving dinner interventions — all of which can only take us so far.    

THE INK: What will America look like if your project, and others’ projects, to make white America anti-racist actually succeeds? Paint me the picture.

Well, I can paint a picture of my kid’s school, which to me is a small example of an imperfect, integrating community. It’s full of beautiful children who don’t even know that they’re doing anything counter-cultural by being friends; they pronounce one another’s names without any of the trouble the adults have. It’s full of dedicated educators who wake up every day determined to make every single kid know they are loved, spark their curiosity for learning, and fill in any gaps that this broken society has created (food, housing, mental health support). It’s full of basketball rivalries, and fragrant mint in the garden, and sometimes the heartbreak of being unhoused. It’s full of parents who are all trying to do right by their kids, who don’t always know how to communicate with one another, but hold the collective thriving of the kids in mind and heart. 

Which is all to say, I don’t really think much about making white America anti-racist so much as I think about creating small communities that reflect a larger national ecosystem that we so desperately need — one where we actually behave as if we care about every single human’s inherent worthiness. 

Courtney Martin is a writer who lives with her family in a co-housing community in Oakland. She is the publisher of the newsletter Examined Family, and the author of several books, including “Learning in Public,” which will be out next week and is available to pre-order now.

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Photo: Ryan Lash