Which school a child attends and with who has an enormous effect on their life trajectory. For decades, the question of which kids get access to which schools has been a central point of conflict in American democratic politics. The de-segregation efforts after Brown have, in the last few decades largely reversed and schools are growing more and more racially segregated. Making the intentional choice to swim against this tide is the subject of “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter's School.” Author Courtney Martin joins WITHpod to discuss writing the memoir and her journey moving from Brooklyn to enrolling her daughter in a local school down the street from her home in an Oakland co-housing community. She also talks about navigating school choice, why public schools are the “foundation of our fragile democracy,” and why these decisions provide a powerful starting point for creating social change and the kind of multi-racial democracy we deserve to have.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Courtney Martin: For me, this is like just really believing in the potential of this moment. And what I do see is a very genuine desire on the part of people who have historically had a lot of privilege to do things differently. Like, let's do it differently. Let's not just read differently, or watch differently, or listen differently. Like, let's physically, and with our resources and our very own children, do things differently.
Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me your host, Chris Hayes.
It's back to school season. I love back to school season, always have. I was one of those kids who like to go back to school. I think there's like two kinds of kids. There's kids that like to go back to school and kids who don't like to go back to school. If you listen to podcast, you probably had me pegged as a former to be totally honest. I don't think that's a big reveal. Partly because my summers, I was not doing like big bike trips through the mountains or fun sleepaway camps. It was a lot of like 100-degree weather on basketball courts by myself for my one friend who was around or going to day camps in the Bronx.
That said, back to school season is exciting. I've got three kids, of course. The oldest is in middle school. The middle kid is in elementary school. The youngest is in preschool. School ends up being the repository of so much of our political battles. I mean, you're seeing this play out right now as the right has focused on schools as a place to attack, to run people for school boards, to police curricula, to name and shame and in some cases, harass teachers, to try to get them fired for the things they teach.
And at one level, there's kind of like a moral panic aspect to that, A. B, there's a long tradition of this. It's not new at all. You go back through decades of American history really from even the time around World War II when really you have full universal schooling everywhere, which it took a while actually. It starts in Massachusetts in the late 19th century. But as long as there's been universal schooling, there has been fights over what those schools look like. And those fights go along all kinds of lines around the role of religion in those schools, about what curriculum gets taught.
And then, of course, the biggest fight, the central fight in public education, arguably, I would say has been a fight over race. And probably the single most famous case in the Supreme Court's history Brown v. Board, which strikes down segregated schooling in Arkansas then for the whole country. A set of cases after that, that we've covered on the podcast quite a bit, starts a long, brutal process of desegregation of American schools.
And then a whole bunch of factors through backlash politics, through white flight, through geographic movement, through a bunch of Supreme Court cases, all the way up to including parents involved which is one the most recent, basically starts to undo the legal policy structure that was producing desegregation.
And in the last 20 years, by most metrics, we have seen schools start to resegregate. The resegregation of schools is a fact of life in any major metro area. Like, it doesn't matter where you are. Particularly if you are within city limits of a big, large city, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Houston, Boston, on and on and on, there will be segregated schools. You will also find that in large metropolises in America, the vast majority of public school students in the city limits, in almost all cases are non-white, huge levels of students of color, particularly black students who are also qualified for free or reduced lunch, which means they're from relatively low income households.
And this is just like a fact of the landscape, right? This is just like the way it is, like the mountains, right? It doesn't have to be this way. A whole bunch of policy choices have been made to produce this. But the policy choices that were made to produce this are much larger than any individual parent. So there's a huge structural thing that's happened at a bunch of different levels to produce this.
And then there's the question of what you do with your kid, and this is a really fraught question. I talk about my life a lot on the podcast. I want to preserve some privacy for our family. But as I've said many times in the show, we send our kids to public school. That's really important to us to send our kids to public school. That’s just expression of our values and the value of public school. The fact that we were educated in public school when we were elementary school students. But it's also not always that clear and easy, and the choices that parents make I don't really judge or begrudge, and that's across lines of race and class.
But this question of where the rubber meets the road for your child's schooling ends up I think being a really profound one, and it's one axis on which a lot of politics turn. Because if you look back to what we've seen about sort of this right-wing backlash movement, when we've seen these sort of big really, really brutal and nasty fights at schools, and it can be on anything. Often they're around things like busing, or a desegregation plan, or like getting rid of the gifted track that like all the white kids are in so that the school is actually integrated. Parents lose their minds.
That's like where Mama Bear politics is like. And different forces have weaponized that in all kinds of complicated and often reactionary ways. But it's also just a human thing. We want our kids to go to a good school where they feel safe and nourished, and we feel like they're learning. And there's this really fascinating book that came out last year, it's out I think now in paperback, that is a book length examination, a memoir, but a struggle with this. It's called “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter's School.” It's by Courtney Martin. She's a writer, author. She's written four books.
She's got a newsletter on Substack, called “The Examined Family.” And she writes about her daughter and her daughter's experience in her local Oakland public school, and tells the story of that school, the background that produced the schooling there. She and her daughter journey through public education in America that is really segregated and really divided. There's a lot to learn from it. And so, it's great pleasure to have Courtney on the program. Welcome, Courtney.
Courtney Martin: Thank you so much for having me, Chris.
Chris Hayes: I guess first, will you tell me about your own schooling? You grew up in Colorado Springs, is that right?
Courtney Martin: Yes. I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I went to a largely white elementary school, although at that time, I didn't even have that lens. I talked a lot in the book about sort of my own racial development as a white person, and that this journey around making my kids school choice forced me to look back and think more deeply about that. And I was really raised by two ex-hippies who deeply believed in sort of colorblind ideology. So I thought racism is bad. And essentially, it's over as long as I interpersonally treat people well. That was kind of my founding racial education, or lack thereof, as it were.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. And you talk about in the book this forcing you examined, I mean, it sounds like you have a fairly typical middle class white upbringing that is in the universe, that is kind of fully detached from exactly all the structures I talked about when you get into like big urban school districts.
Courtney Martin: Yes. And I do think it was important I wasn't raised around like a striving culture. I've never heard of school choice. My parents never considered other schools and like a lot of the context we're talking about today, where there's a lot of maneuvering and strategizing. I went to public school my whole life. I went to the public schools near my house. And because my parents weren't thinking structurally about race, and weren't helping me understand things structurally, I didn't think much of that in terms of redlining and who lives in Colorado Springs, and what parts of the city, and why that leads to segregated schools.
My middle school and high school are actually fairly integrated, interestingly. And as you mentioned in the intro, it's like the peak of integration was 1988. So I was 8 years old. So theoretically, especially in my middle and high school, I experienced the peak of that and was deeply enriched by it.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. So I was 9 in 1998. I had a particularly strange thing because I went to a sort of gifted program in a Bronx school. That was a boroughwide Bronx program in the 1980s, but it's really integrated, really diverse. And I've watched over time the high school that I went to, which was considerably less racially integrated, grow less and less and less over time. So even just in the micro view, I've watched how these factors have eroded at producing those spaces. You're in Brooklyn, you moved to Oakland, and you make that change intentionally. What were you seeking out in Oakland?
Courtney Martin: Well, actually, we moved because my husband got a job. And he had lived in San Francisco when we met, I lived in New York, and he had always been interested in in pulling me back west. When I was ready for a change, I was pregnant when we moved, and I was kind of preoccupied with all of the questions around just getting the baby out safely. So I was like trying to figure out who was my midwife going to be and what hospital would I give birth at, and that kind of thing. But we never once thought to ourselves, where are landing in terms of schools, which I know a lot of more kind of organized folks might have thought through, but we didn't.
We also had this unique thing happened, which we got an opportunity to buy a home in a co-housing community, which was something I'd always been interested in. So that was also sort of distracting and preoccupying.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Tell me about that, the details of the co-housing.
Courtney Martin: Yeah. So it's nine units, all of them kind of face a central courtyard and everyone has everything that a typical home would have. Although we share a laundry room, which to people in New York is nothing, but to other folks, that seems like a big share. And then we also share an industrial-sized eating area and kitchen, tool shed, bike shed, garden, like just a lot of collective amenities. And we eat together once a week, and then once a month do work on this piece of land together. So we garden together. We figure out if someone needs their roof fixed or their dishwasher fixed, and we do that together.
Chris Hayes: That sounds cool.
Courtney Martin: Yeah, it is. It's been an incredible experience. And actually, it really deeply informed how I thought about schools as communities, and my ability to think just more deeply, and it more asks some of the deeper questions around the school choice moment.
Chris Hayes: So you're in Oakland, the neighborhood in Oakland, describe a little bit, maybe set the scene a little bit of Oakland, because Oakland has gone through this remarkable set of transformations over the last, well, kind of 60 years, right? So in sort of two different ways, like a massive wave of white flight, followed by a massive wave of gentrification basically. Set the scene a little bit because you tell some of this in the book of where Oakland is at when you end up moving there.
Courtney Martin: Yeah. It's not easy to condense, but I did try to give a sense of the historical context. And Oakland, like most of the cities we can think about, had real federal intervention that created deep housing segregation. And now that it's like this trendy place to live, it is a historically black city. It's got it predominantly black and brown folks in Oakland, but you do have this growing number of white folks moving in, many of whom are actually avoiding public schools and/or strategizing to get themselves into a couple of them.
My neighborhood is called Temescal, and it was a historically black neighborhood before that, and Italian neighborhood. And this co-housing community I'm in has been there for 25 years. So certainly, my immediate neighbors are not part of this new wave of gentrification. But essentially, I see myself as kind of in relationship with that wave and trying to think through as a white family that just moved here, this is our neighborhood public school, Emerson Elementary.
And all of a sudden, I realized that my peers, people of color, but largely white folks who work kind of in knowledge professions, et cetera, who all consider themselves deeply progressive, and are involved in all kinds of movement work to make this country more progressive are mostly avoiding the school at all costs. And so that was sort of this like rubber meets the road moment of going, wait, wait, wait a minute, wait, we're all going to avoid this public school in our neighborhood? Why is that? What's the criteria by which we're deciding to do that?
Chris Hayes: And what is the answer?
Courtney Martin: Well, I mean, there's a few. One is greatschools.org, which at that time said that the school is 1 out of 10, which for many people would just be a non-starter. Also in the book, part of why it's memoir is I really wanted to get underneath some of the kind of psychosocial pieces at play in this regard. And I have a vignette about my husband, who is certainly someone who would see 1 out of 10 and immediately run the other direction. So he and I had to do some like working together to think through what does that 1 out of 10 actually mean, and how can we sort of interrogate it.
But certainly, the 1 out of 10 doesn't look good for most white parents. But also, there's a lot of research on just even a look at the school yard, even if folks don't know about those numbers, where the vast majority of kids on that playground are black or brown. For many white parents, subconsciously, it becomes a non-starter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, obviously, has written about this and done incredible radio journalism around this, that there really is a spot for white people for which they would like a certain amount of diversity, particularly progressive white people. So they feel like they're in alignment with their own progressive identity, but too many young people of color, and it tips over into something that they're going to try to avoid, even if subconsciously.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. And just to press on that a little bit, right, so at one level, you have to keep in mind that we're not dealing with like symmetrical situations, right? Like, when you're talking about like an all-white school and all black-school, because the nature of racial hierarchy in America is not symmetrical. In fact, that's precisely the finding of Brown v. Board, right? Like, literally, the finding is that like it's never really equal cannot be equal, right?
But from the first person psychological standpoint, one of the things that Nikole writes about and I've read others talk about is she talks about she went to this kind of gifted program in Waterloo, that there was a lot of alienation. She was bused across from where she was, and she was in a majority white space, that was hard and alienating and required a whole lot of social work on her part. And so there's the pernicious aspect of looking at an all-black and brown playground and being like, “No,” right, which is you cannot strip away the sort of racism and racial hierarchy that comes from that.
And then there's like a less pernicious version of like, “I don't want my kid to stick out. Like, I don't want my kid to feel alienated, and distant and alone, and then have everyone look at them.” And I think that's less pernicious. It's probably part of the psychological mix. But I'm curious to hear you talk about that, working through that, right. Because that's --
Courtney Martin: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: That's, I think, like a real thing. It can be an excuse for really pernicious stuff, but it can also be an actual concern that parents have.
Courtney Martin: Yeah. Well, I think the honest concern, if we really dig down is I will feel alienated as a white parent. Because if you've ever watched a group of 4-year-olds, which what my daughter was when we were making this decision, because she went into transition to kindergarten that year. Before kindergarten, they figure it out on the playground, they don't particularly track that in the way that adults do.
And so, for me, and this is again why the book is so personal despite the risks of being that vulnerable. I really think this is about adult culture and about our adult experience of being what is it going to be like if I'm the one white mom in this kindergarten classroom? Am I going to be able to, like, handle myself in a way that I feel comfortable? Am I going to be able to socialize? Like, am I going to stick out like a sore thumb? Are my norms going to seem weird and bougie? Like, all of these things that we could sort of put off to the side as like these are ancillary concerns, but I think they actually are central to why white parents don't make more courageous decisions about schools quite often.
Chris Hayes: How did you end up getting there in this discussion?
Courtney Martin: Well, I had a lot of conversations with people I really respected, some of whom warned me against going to Emerson, honestly, some of whom said like, “Don't turn your kid into an experiment.” We all want what's best for our kids, all these conversations. And I think what I really came down to was thinking both about the research because I'm a journalist by training, so I looked at Rucker C. Johnson’s work. He has this book called “Children of the Dream,” where he tracks that integration. He says the medicine is integration, it really does work.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Courtney Martin: Like, it's clear that it's good for kids of color, and white kids do fine and even have like this whole set of social skills they wouldn't have otherwise. So it's like, okay, cognitively, like that put it to bed for me that the research is there. This is fine. I think more on the emotional and kind of psychological, sociological level, that living in co-housing really did help me feel my way into this because I thought about all the things that this community of people did 20 years ago who found the community. They got solar panels, and they thought through like how can we work together and be interdependent? And like what do all these things look like?
They've never met me. 20 years later, I'm like, literally, eating the fruit off of the trees that they planted. And so I think, for me, there was this piece of like what is both the world I want to live in, and how do I plant that reality? 20 years from now, that could be harvested by people I don't even know. But also how could that be harvested by my kids? Like, I want this for my kids. I want them to feel like they've lived the questions with me in a country, in a really real way.
And again, with that cognitive understanding that they will do fine, and they will learn how to read, and they will get all the academic stuff they need, why would I deprive them of such a beautiful social experience? And I also just feel like all of parenting is an experiment, and to act as if our school choice is the only experiment that has real profound effects seems disingenuous to me. Like, oh, what we feed our kids is an experiment. Who we socialize with is an experiment. Where we vacation to your point of summers is an experiment. Like, why wouldn't we run a really interesting experiment?
Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, also, I want to talk about the greatschools.org, that part, and then this sort of anxiety that I think hangs over this before we get a little bit into your actual experience. So greatschool.org, for folks that don't know, I think there's two different sites that will have these sort of scoring of schools. You can just basically put in any school in the country, and it's got some rating, right? And I think they've actually gotten a little better over time, in how they are doing that rating.
One of the real problems and I forget which of the sites, I'm not recalling right now. But there's a question of like what are the inputs of the school? And then what is the school doing? So one of the things that you'll see happen, and this is true in New York City, right, a school that was a, quote-unquote, “bad school,” both like in reputation and in scores, right, on the websites. As it gets more affluent parents, it begins to become a good school.
Now, has the pedagogy improved? No. Has it gotten some amazing dynamic new innovative principal? In some cases, No. What happened? Kids with higher degrees of social capital like home resources and affluence, who for a bunch of different reasons, test better started moving into the school. That has nothing to do with how good the school is taking a kid from where they are to where they need to be. It has nothing to do with it. That's just on the input side.
And what ends up happening I think a lot in the good school/bad school discussion is in terms of what we're measuring, and I've seen this up close actually in schools that are supposed to be good schools are not actually good schools. They just have a student body that's sort of equipped anyway, right? And schools that are, quote-unquote, “bad schools” that are incredible schools, that are taking kids who are way below grade level and getting them close to it. The way we both conceptualize and measure doesn't do a great job often between distinguishing those things. And so what you end up doing is just a rough proxy for race in class essentially.
Courtney Martin: Exactly. Right. And that's one reason, on a very practical level, why looking at growth scores means so much more than looking at baseline, how are kids doing, because as you said, you can map it on to socioeconomics and race. The interesting thing and this is what I try to grapple with in the book is the rubber meets the road where we have to ask as a parent community, and here's where I'm lucky enough to be part of our like deeply diverse parent community both racially and culturally, because we have a quarter newcomer. So we have folks from all over the world showing up with their own educational expectations and ideas about what matters.
We have to sit together as a parent group and as a staff, and say, “How do we want to measure how our kids are doing? What does matter to us?” And so, this interesting moment of saying like, well, if test scores do matter for getting kids through all of the gates of opportunity, then for some parents, and including some black parents that are in black majority school, they really want those test scores up.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Totally.
Courtney Martin: They really want to focus on those test scores. For other parents, including other black parents because that there is no monolith, they'll say, “I don't care about the test scores. I want my kids to feel like they belong, and that they're learning. And I think those tests are racist, and I don't want to focus on those.” So as a parent community, we're then forced to work together on figuring out how much emphasis do we put on these scores, what do we care about.
And for me, that gets back to this like most foundational point, which is like that's democracy. Like, I'm lucky enough to get to sit in those rooms, whether Zoom rooms or real rooms, and try to wrestle with these questions, as opposed to being with sort of a monolithic group of people who, “The kids test scores are fine anyway. So we're like not having these deeper conversations about how do we think about all of our kids and what matters to all of us, even though we're coming from so many different points of experience.”
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Although the point about “That’s democracy,” which is a great point, also, it makes me think of that great Oscar Wilde quote, which I've used before in the podcast, “The problem with socialism is it takes up too many evenings.” It's just like it's a lot of time.
Courtney Martin: Yeah. Well, you're talking to someone who lives in an intentional community, and is part of like a school site council. I mean, it's like death by meetings.
Chris Hayes: I think we're a little different person. It's like you're sketching what to me is like a real kind of hell, actually. And I say this is someone who's like substantive philosophical commitments. It's like deliberative democracy and all this stuff, but who has like personal feeling about being in a meeting that lasts more than three minutes, it's like, “What are we doing? Why is it going so long?”
But yeah, like that I think gets to this question about this book ends up being an exploration of just like, right, public schools are the sites of community. And they're the sites of democratic community, right. And that's part of what's so pernicious about the current racial makeup, right, of the world that we've constructed, policywise. Tell me a little bit about just the first person experience of the school, what you were surprised, not surprised by, what your daughter's experience was like, what it was like as a parent in the school when you first started.
Courtney Martin: Well, the daughter answer is easy. I now actually have two kids there, and we've been at the school for five years. And they love it.
Chris Hayes: They love it.
Courtney Martin: It's normal to them. There's nothing really to say about their experience of it, other than they have this rich social life and get exposed to all these cool kids from all these different kinds of families. And so, from their perspective, this is just what school is, and they're thriving. I'm grateful for their incredible teachers, particularly for the cool things they learn through their socialization.
Parentwise, I've learned all kinds of stuff. I mean, one of the biggest surprises, which I traced in the book is that my kids’ transition kindergarten teacher, black woman who was born and raised in Oakland, not exactly in the neighborhood, but sort of the adjacent neighborhood. And I ended up striking up this really interesting, what I think of as kind of a democratic friendship where we would be able to kind of tussle over things.
And her first question when I said like, “What do you think about integration and white parents?” Like, I'm kind of trying to think this through was, “Do you mean gentrification?” and then really called out that she had, in many ways, taken the job at that school, wanting it to be a black school and feeling like the white families that showed up were often a distraction. And not actually the theory of like, “My social capital is this white mom showing up, offering either real resources or like social capital sources.” It was not something that she was interested in. She wanted to be able to focus on black kids and not be distracted. So that became like a really interesting and edifying relationship throughout the book. So that's one point that was a real surprise.
The other that I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by was, in our second year there, a white mom came in who was really trying to sort of like take over the school and shake everyone up and run things differently. And watching the ways in which people responded to her was a really instructive moment, I think, on a lot of levels, and so various fascinating relationships. There was also a school merger proposed that to your point in the intro brought out kind of the worst of latent racism among white progressives or like multiracial, but like upwardly mobile progressive parents, who said, like, “We're not going to go to this flatland school, and you can't make us.” So just everybody doing their best job to be human and kind of failing miserably. And sort of what that tells us is about how hard democracy really is.
Chris Hayes: Well, I want to sort of unpack each of those. One of the things when you start with the kid being happy, what's the distance between your house and the school?
Courtney Martin: Three blocks.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. So one of the things that I think is underappreciated, having a school that’s three blocks away is amazing.
Courtney Martin: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: And like, obviously, which gets back to the point that it's very hard to untangle housing segregation and schooling segregation, which they feed on each other, right? People move to neighborhoods for the, quote, “good schools.” Those, quote, “good schools” are coded as white, and so this sort of reinforces these boundaries, like it erected.
But it's also the case that like when people lost their minds about busing, again, to go back to like the two levels that they're losing their minds, like one is just like racism, and the other is like, yes, sucks to send your kids on a bus 40 minutes away. And that having your kids be in the neighborhood school, where they're of the neighborhood in this like deep way, also just seems, to me, it's like a better parent experience, right?
Courtney Martin: It is. Although one complication here is my older kid doesn't have a single friend from her school that lives in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is filthy with families, and filthy with kids her age, but they are all being essentially best, I mean, in you know, Teslas or Priuses, or whatever, but to schools that are further away, but are whiter and have higher socioeconomic populations. So that part is sad. Like, I have thought about that. It's like, theoretically, we have this neighborhood school experience, but my kid doesn't actually have any friends in the neighborhood who go to our school.
Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.
Chris Hayes: Talk about the merger, because that was where both the personal and the political life came together and exactly one of these kinds of moments, what the proposal was and how it played out.
Courtney Martin: Yeah. This was right pre-COVID, just for context, because obviously things have gotten even more complicated. But there was basically a school in the Oakland Hills, which like we were talking about that these things can be found in all cities, the area of the city that is whiter, wealthier, tends to sometimes viewed physically higher up, which is the case in Oakland.
Chris Hayes: Often.
Courtney Martin: The flatland is where black majority, historically black neighborhoods. So there's a school in the hills, a school in the flatlands, and the district proposed to merge these two schools. The families at the school in the flatlands said, “Our school has been underproviding for us for a decade-plus. We want this merger. We think it might help,” which in my opinion, was pretty welcoming.
And on their part, the school in the hills, which was theoretically sort of multiracial, but very economically mobile, and lots of white progressive families there who were commuting, by the way. They didn't necessarily live around that school, but it was kind of known as like a decent school, with enough racial integration to get back to our point about sort of that sweet spot for white progressives, that it felt okay to send your kid there. And that population of families, for the most part, with some critical exceptions of people who really embraced the merger and said, like, “No, this is a chance to live our values. Let's do this.”
The vast majority went nuts. And it was incredible vitriol at school board meetings, profound pleas of how this school in the hills was a perfect place and it was a perfect community, and they couldn't possibly be asked to make this move. The irony of which also was that a lot of the families that went to this hills school actually lived three blocks away from the flatland school. They were also part of a gentrification wave in that neighborhood.
And just as one illustrative example, there was a parent who told me that she knew of a kid who'd gone to a counselor at the hills school, and his kid was so traumatized by the school board meetings and by what was happening, and was so scared about where they might go to school next year. And then the counselor finally figured out that the kid didn't fully understand what schools were being talked about and said, “So this flatland school, it's the place you go play basketball on the weekends.” And the kid was like, “That's what we're talking about? I love that place.”
And here this kid had been like wrapped up in all this adult drama and racism and resistance, not realizing that this place was physically closer to the kid’s school and the kid like felt very comfortable and love playing there already. So just to give an example of just how absurd adult culture is in relationship to the way that children understand a lot of these things.
Chris Hayes: I mean, you talk to a lot of parents, right? This is part memoir, part sort of journalism. You're talking to people. Unpack for me the psychosocial part of the terrified feral feeling of the parent in the school board meeting, the white parent, but not exclusively white parent, but often white parent, about like what's going to happen to your kid, what is that?
Courtney Martin: Well, I think partly, it's primordial, right? It's like our connection to our kids is very deep, and depending on our own childhood, our own baggage that we're bringing to that question of how to keep our kids safe, it can feel totally terrifying for people. The irony, of course, being that the people who are expressing the most terror are the most historically privileged, who have theoretically had far more advantages than the families in this flatland school who are saying, “We welcome you. Even though you're screaming at the school board meeting about how much you can imagine being with us, we welcome you. And we think it could rising tide lifts all boats.
This is also why I delved into some of the psychological pieces, because I think that this also has to do with our own baggage that we bring about education, about parenting, about safety. And like you said in the intro, you loved school. Some people hated school and my husband was one of those people. So that was also a thing I kind of wrestled with is like if you hated school and you've never fully healed that in your own mind, and then you're parenting, and you think you have this school where your kid is safe and loved, and it's perfect and it reflects your progressive identity.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Courtney Martin: And then people say, “We're going to make you be part of this big experiment that you already avoided, by the way. You did a lot to avoid this experiment already. We're going to force you to do this experiment.” It brings up all kinds of things for people.
Chris Hayes: The thing that I have a hard time disaggregating, I think you're right, I think that I have a certain amount of privilege is the right word. But I do think that the fact that I enjoyed school colors a lot of this for me.
Courtney Martin: Yeah, me too.
Chris Hayes: But I think that the thing I can't disaggregate, again, because I think all this stuff is like functioning on a bunch of different levels. A thing that I observed among fairly affluent, educated, people who are in the broad scheme of American life like doing really well, okay. Like, when you zoom out and you think like the strata of American life, like whether it's income or whatever, like they're doing really well. Everyone got their own baggage. No amount of wealth or education is going to heal like certain wounds, traumas and lifestyle for everyone. Everyone is just like a little hurt soul, right, inside this robot.
But the thing that I observe is an anxiety about I don't know what it is, their kids getting ahead, their kids getting into the right place, the kids sliding down the rung of American class striation. And it always just seems neurotic, and I just see people where like all the time, I have this thought of like your kid is going to be fine. You're going to be fine. Like, they've got everything. Like, what college do they have to go, that you want? Like, they'll be fine. They're going to be fine. Like, are they happy? And there's just this like weird thing. Like, I've witnessed that firsthand, growing up in the Bronx, among first generation families, right?
Courtney Martin: Right.
Chris Hayes: And there, it's like, okay, well, yeah, you just move away.
Courtney Martin: Yeah, I got it.
Chris Hayes: You're away from everyone. You're in a place where you're just learning the language. You don't have like advantages. Like you're hustling, and like that I totally understand. But I see that same mindset, time and time, among people that have like a lot of privilege, a lot of affluence, a lot of capital and just want to be like, for everyone's sake, just come, just chill, you're good, man. I don't know how to say that.
Courtney Martin: Right. Well, agreed. I mean, I'm with you. I think there's like the status anxiety analysis, right, that it's all relative, and particularly in the Bay Area where we're approximate to Silicon Valley money. And there's just sort of like always someone who has more money, a bigger house, the more childcare than you do, like, I do think that plays a role.
But I also kind of think of it, it's funny because my first book was on body image. And as you're talking, I was thinking it's kind of like the gap between knowing you don't want to be like a dieting, insecure, like hating your body kind of person and actually living that. I think there's some level on which white affluent parents like know, they really, really do know that joy and fulfillment, and delight and all these things are what's going to matter for their kids. And yet, like can't quite integrate it, can't quite live it.
And I think that is where this experience I had communally living and co-housing supported me because I was like already living it. I already had all these people around me who were sort of like pushing me not to fall for the bullshit. And so it was like I already had a culture that supported me to do that. And that is part of why I think the movement piece of this is so important. There's this organization Integrated Schools. It's a national movement of all these parents, some white, but also people of color who are very intentionally committing to being a force for integration.
And that provides the social proof that really helps you get over the cognitive dissonance of like, I know this is true, but I can't quite figure out how to live it. And then you like, realize, “Oh, they're all these parents doing this, where they're like getting off the treadmill and saying, like, no, no, we know it's not true and we're not going to live like it is.” We're not going to like make our kids and ourselves crazy during the summer, getting them every enrichment opportunity ever existed. We're not going to like strategize our way into the fanciest schools we can. We're going to like focus on joy and wholeness and relationships, and being a part of sometimes optimally discomforting like cultural clashes, where we can be like, Oh, okay.”
A tiny example is like one of my kids’ best friends is a recent immigrant and can't communicate with her parents because they don't speak English. I figured out the oldest sister of 11 kids does. So now I text with the oldest sister and figure out playdates, and I'm learning about this whole other culture. Like, that's harder, right, than like just knowing a white parent who we watch the same TV shows, we eat the same food, we like speak the same language. Organizing playdate with that person would have way less friction. But it's way less interesting and fun, and like stretching me as a person to think through, like, what does it actually look like to connect across some of these boundaries.
That's all stuff I want my kid to know how to do, and to think is worth doing. And I think those are like muscles for democracy. Like, those are muscles for what she will have to do in the future if she wants to, like, live among a diverse group of people.
Chris Hayes: Right. Although you also don't want your kid to be too intentional about it, which is part of the gift that you're giving them, right? I mean, in the sense that what's great about kids, and this is not to say like kids don't see color, like that's not true. But kids get messages from all kinds of places, in all kinds of ways. But they're just less in their head about this stuff, right, than we are?
Courtney Martin: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: They're just less neurotic about it. They're less second guessing. They're less like “I'm reaching across difference.” Like, they like to play. They meet kids, yeah.
Courtney Martin: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: They will play with them. And you're very honest in your writing about one of the things we don't have, right, is because life in America is actually quite segregated in many ways, is that these like reaching across differences, whatever, end up being more effortful than they would in a universe that reduced the gap of that distance, right?
Courtney Martin: Right.
Chris Hayes: So we have not socially engineered enough integration in our society, such that when we are doing it, it is in these contexts like you're describing in the book. And I talk more about the parents for integration because I do think this is a thing I've come to feel super passionate about as a parent and have worked on a little bit very locally. And Berlin and Brooklyn did like a school desegregation plan, basically, that there's a lot of parent involvement and I think has been very successful.
Courtney Martin: You suffered some meetings for that one, I bet.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Here's one proposal I have, I think in the case of this school plan in Brooklyn, the status anxiety had gotten so insane about the good schools and the bad schools, that the desegregation plan was like a relief because everyone got to get off the hamster wheel. So in this plan, they went from application process that was crazy high stress, crazy high stakes, all this madness about absentees. Like, if you had been too absent, it was going to screw up your application. Well, what if my kid has a disease and they're sick? Like, it was driving everyone nuts.
In that context, we moved to basically like a match lottery system, that was like a net benefit in people's mental health --
Courtney Martin: Yes.
Chris Hayes: -- because the status stuff had gotten so nuts. So like, where there would have been more resistance, the status quo got so crazy along these lines of good school, bad school, “got to get my kid in this place.” The alternative plan work because it was like how about we just get rid of the application process and we don't do this anymore?
Courtney Martin: Yes. And I love that you said that because I do experience this choice that I've made, and I hear this echoed throughout the Integrated Schools movement as a relief. It's like, okay, now, I get to show up at this place where I may be socially awkward at times, or like trying to figure out a language barrier. But there's not the spirit of competitiveness. There's not this sense of like my daughter is in third grade now and like we're creeping towards the tween age and I'm not really that worried about her thinking there's like one way to look, or one kind of body to have because there's no norm here. It's just kind of joyful and haphazard.
And like, we're trying to make things better together. But we're not talking about going to Tahoe on the weekends, and like our kids having really particular clothes, and like all of that status stuff just can't take root, really, in a school with that much racial and cultural diversity. And that I experienced just like you said, like a real relief of like getting off the hamster wheel and just being like, all right, let's all try to figure this thing out together. And I think I'm confused why that isn't more compelling and more attractive to more white progressive parents. But maybe it's just like a hard thing to feel your way into if you've never experienced it.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. And I think the other thing, and I'd love to hear you talk about the teachers in the school, you mentioned one. But my experience as a kid who went to public schools in New York City, and is now a homeschool parent is like there's a wide variety of teacher quality. Like, some teachers are not great, some are amazing. I am consistently blown away by the level of serious dedication of just like a random public school teacher, like just drop a pin in a public school teacher and show up for their meeting. And it's like this is your life's work.
Courtney Martin: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: Like, this is your life's work. My kid and the kids you teach is your life's work. And I just feel in awe and really grateful for, and I think those kinds of teachers can be found all over any system. Obviously, there are huge inequities of where the, quote-unquote, “best teachers” go, and where resources go and things like that. But it is also the case I've found that you can find truly amazing teachers in all kinds of places throughout any major school system. But I'm curious to hear your experience of teachers in your daughter's school.
Courtney Martin: Yeah. I mean, hell yeah. I so resonate with what you're saying. And I think COVID, which the end of the book coincides with the beginning of COVID, just like laid that so bare for us, because it was like the teachers at our school, again Title 1 school, profoundly underpaid, these teachers were delivering food. They were figuring out who needed Internet and piecing that together. They were getting laptops for kids. They were moving hell and high water to find kids whose parents weren't directly in contact to make sure those kids were okay.
They were absolutely first responders. They were absolutely essential workers in every way, shape, or form. And it just laid it so bare the ways in which public schools truly are the center of communities, and the safety net that we have otherwise established in this country. Like, schools have to fill it all in and figure it all out. And that was interestingly also in contrast to higher income schools nearby me, where I had parents saying like, “The whole school has been caught flat-footed, teaching staff included.”
And the only thing I can figure out about that is that because Emerson is a school where we're constantly figuring out how to meet people's needs, how to get someone a Wi-Fi connection, how to make sure people have food. It's like COVID was worse by, of course, every standard, but we already had those muscles. Whereas some of these wealthier schools, where people privatize most of their needs, so they're not like interacting with each other about that, they're not triaging about those things, didn't have those muscles yet. So they had to be like, “Oh, okay, how do we think collectively about online school?” Whereas at Emerson, it's like, we think collectively all the time. So let's just figure out how to do that in this crazy pandemic situation.
Chris Hayes: On the flip side of that, don't you feel though, I mean, one thing that I started to feel around the GreatSchools reopening debate, which was fraught and incredibly nasty online, and understandably because it was one of those like legitimate conflicts between competing goods. Like, they genuinely were intention, and there was not a great and perfect win-win solution in the offing, right? So people thought about it, understandably.
But it did seem to me like sometimes I felt like people ended up arguing that like it didn't really matter that much if kids aren't in school physically. And I was just like, “It just very clearly does, above and beyond educationally, for all the reasons you're saying.” Like, these are just vital, vital, vital community spaces, vital pillars of a neighborhood. It's really important. And it might be the case that because of the pandemic and safety concerns, it's not possible, or it's only possible in limited ways. But like, I just think, if anything, the pandemic just illustrated that more so, like how important schools are as institutions.
Courtney Martin: Yes. And I'm actually hearing a lot of that even just this year from teachers who are saying this new class of students who've had a full year in school last year with, of course, lots of interruptions because of COVID, but like generally a full year in school, are profoundly more able to learn to sit in school, to just do the really fundamental things that last year were just an absolute nightmare for a lot of teachers at our school and at so many schools across the country. So I think that illustrates that the complexity comes in, that there are lots of families whose kids would deeply benefit being in-person, who also just felt really vulnerable and didn't want to send their kids. And so, it was just trying to figure all of that out, as you point out, was really challenging.
Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.
Chris Hayes: I guess the sort of place that you’re going to end up in is like what do you do above and beyond this individual choice? And I think when I talked to Nikole Hannah-Jones about this, she was interesting because she did focus on the individual parts. She's like, “I don't want to let people off the hook about their individual choices because like, yes, it's structural, but also you make individual choices as a parent.”
Obviously, you've made this choice and written this book about it. What do you tell parents? What's your spiel to parents about how they should think through these choices, and then what that means that a level more than just the individual choice of where your kid goes to school?
Courtney Martin: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's funny because you said you hate meetings. I think I equally hate the coffee with the person in the neighborhood who I kind of know, but not really, who says that they want to consider going to Emerson or making some integrating choice. And then I can tell from like the first five minutes that they definitely don't really. And by the end, it's like, okay, I just spent another coffee, like, explaining this school, which I deeply love and respect, and feeling this pity come from them of like, “Oh, that's so wonderful that you're making this big sacrifice like this.” “You're not getting it. That's not at all my experience.” Anyway, so now I wrote a book, so I can just hand them the book.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Courtney Martin: And like, here's the deal from my perspective. But honestly, the things I've been saying are really important to me as, A, whatever choice you make, don't talk about schools you don't actually know about. So don't be the person who's on the playground saying, “I've heard, we should really avoid that school.”
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Courtney Martin: If you haven't toured it, if you don't know anyone who in very recent years has been at that school, just say, “I don't know much about it. I'm interested to learn.” So that's like the most basic thing.
Chris Hayes: That is a great, totally operationalizable piece of advice that every parent can do.
Courtney Martin: I think so. I hope so.
Chris Hayes: Don't talk smack about something you don't know anything about.
Courtney Martin: Okay. So that's basic. The other one in Integrated Schools, the organization I mentioned, puts this forward, which is like a tour pledge, like, go on a couple of school tours at places in your neighborhood, regardless of what you have heard about them, because everyone is not going to take a great first step. So just go see what you can do. I mean, I ultimately would love to, like, eliminate all tours on some level, because I think that also is so manipulatable by race and class, standards, and whatever. But like, go on a couple of tours in your neighborhood school, regardless of where you plan on going.
And then the other thing I’d say is, like, whatever choice you make, own that choice. Like, what's so powerful is that even writing this book has made me quite alienated from a lot of white neighborhood peers who have gotten into these other higher income whiter schools, because it pisses them off that I even wrote the book. It's just like, for me, it's like, be honest. If you're sending your kid to a private school, admit, “We are not investing in this public institution.” And think of another way that you might invest in that public institution, or get involved in policy, or something.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Courtney Martin: But don't sort of walk around with this delusion that you can make these choices, and there's no impact on the public institutions that matter so much, or on the kids who are, quote-unquote, “left behind” in those public schools, that white progressive people are avoiding. Like, these are all of our kids.
And so it's like if you need to make a choice for many complicated reasons, I don't know all your reasons, only you know your reasons. But don't act like the choice isn't impacting those kids and figure out a way to be a part of making sure that all schools have the resources they need. So those incredible teachers we talked about can give those kids all that they deserve, just like yours does.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, the point of the tours, just one more sort of personal anecdote, was me going through my daughter's process of which school basically a lot of it you're going to list your preferences and they match. So there's a bunch of tours which are basically online because we're still in the kind of COVID world. And I came away being impressed by like a lot of them.
I mean, again, just to get back to this point of like, no, some of it is dog and pony show. Like, you can do a good tour and not have a great school, the same way that like someone can be a good candidate and a bad senator, right?
Courtney Martin: Exactly.
Chris Hayes: But again, I mean, I guess my point is there's this thing that people say about how bad the public schools are. And like, it just becomes this sort of a little bit of like an interrogated piece of conventional wisdom. And it's not to say that, like, there are schools that are bad, and there are teachers that are bad, and there are places that are unsafe. Like, I don't want to diminish any of that. But I do think that sometimes amongst certain circles of people, it's a little like when I remember people used to talk about like, “Oh, that's a bad neighborhood. You can't go there.” And I'd be like, “No, it's not. It's fine. It's really fine. Like, I promise you.”
Courtney Martin: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: And there can be that general conventional wisdom about a school or a school system, that to go back to your first point, just doesn't actually reckon with what's actually going on inside that building and what those people are doing there.
Courtney Martin: Exactly. Exactly. And I think that that gets to this part of what angers me so much that I want to write the book is if we are progressive white folks, finding ourselves in the middle of like a racial reckoning moment. We are buying Nikole Hannah-Jones book. We are putting the signs in our yard. We're doing all the things. It's like, how can we not interrogate this part of our own parenting culture? How can we not interrogate the kind of status anxiety that you were talking about, that we just sort of, like, carry around with us unexamined, thinking like, yes, we will do all these things. But we still have to maneuver to get the best for our kids in in any and all situations.
And how do we like break that apart and say, like, what is actually best for our kids, and who are our kids? If we really take seriously the work of a lot of these people that we are all making bestsellers, then we would have to be doing things in our lives that feel a lot different than what may feel comfortable, or even what our parents might have done, or what our grandparents might have done.
So for me, this is like just really believing in the potential of this moment and what I do see as a very genuine desire on the part of people who have historically had a lot of privilege to do things differently. Like, let's do it differently. Let's not just read differently, or watch differently, or listen differently. Like, let's physically, and with our resources and our very own children, do things differently.
Chris Hayes: Courtney Martin is the author of four books, her latest, the subject today's conversation, “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School.” She writes a newsletter on Substack called “The Examined Family.” And she's co-founder of FRESH Speakers, which is a speaker’s bureau which focus on making thought leadership more inclusive and equitable. She's also co-founder of Solutions Journalism Network. Courtney, this is great. Thanks for coming on.
Courtney Martin: Thanks, Chris. This was fun.
Chris Hayes: Once again, great, thanks to Courtney Martin. You can give us your experience, what you've done with your kids and how you think about schooling. Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. And also make sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.
“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory, featuring music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.
Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.