Book Notes & Thoughts: Despite the Best of Intentions, by Lewis & Diamond

best of intentions

The fall semester kicks off tomorrow so I’ve been trying to get a jump on reading. One of my classes is called Race, Class, and Educational Inequality, with Professor John Diamond. He and Amanda Lewis recently (2015) published this book, Despite the Best of Intentions.

Goal of the book: Examine the school based factors of the “racial achievement gap” as it is enacted in practice at a well-resourced, affluent high school that explicitly states diversity as one of their values but still feels like two different schools.

Thesis: “Through a combination of the structural, institutional, and ideological forces and despite the best of intentions of most of those who work in, attend, and participate in the school, racial stratification gets reproduced in places like Riverview” (p.15).

Summary:  The book describes a qualitative case study of Riverview High School. The large, comprehensive high school is a well funded, highly ranked, and diverse. Overall, all students do better here and families chose to attend Riverview over other neighboring public schools. Though a “least likely case” (p.xv), Diamond and Lewis argue that this is an interesting place to look at how race affects student experience because it’s a place where all students should have opportunity to succeed, but don’t.

Chapter 1 is an introduction and argument for why race specifically matters – that it’s not just about socio-economic status (SES) or background. They draw out an argument that this case allows us to ask questions about our larger context, such as “How do you make sense of a society founded on principles of justice and liberty for all, which has since its founding formally and informally disenfranchised large swaths of the population?” (p.7). Setting up the analysis in the next chapters, they define structural inequalities, race-based status beliefs, racial ideologies. They also define routines as “collective daily practices that people engage in to get things done” (p.13) and distinguish between ostensive aspects (what is intended) and performative aspects (what actually happens).

Chapter 2 debunks the idea that the racial achievement gap is due to “oppositional culture” (black people don’t believe in education) and the “burden of acting white”hypothesis (black kids with books get negative peer pressure for doing well in school) . These have been popularized explanations for why students of color show lower achievement scores. The argument goes like this: African American students and their families are opposed to the educational system for various reasons and that even those who do try at school are seen negatively. The authors demonstrate that this is not the case for the students they surveyed and interviewed. In fact, the African American students actually showed higher commitment to education when SES is taken into account. Students also reported very little negative peer pressure for students who tried hard to succeed academically.

Chapter 3 examines disciplinary routines – who is selected (i.e. who gets in trouble) and how punishment is processed. This included everything from black students being stopped in the hallway more often to show their hall pass to being sent home for dress code violations while white students were given an extra shirt to wear over the offending clothing. The students were well aware of these differences and noticed that it was race-based.

Chapter 4 looks at “racialized academic hierarchies” as they are embodied in tracking. In AP classes at Riverview, 90% of students are white, whereas in the “basic” level classes, only 30% are white. Though educational trajectories begin before 9th grade, there is a systematic promotion of white students as having “potential” versus black students as having knowledge and skill deficits. Critical here is that the policies of how students are placed (combination of grades and teacher recommendations) are seen as being race-neutral and therefore legitimated, but the outcomes are clearly disparate according to race. This is what is meant by the gap between ostensive and performative aspects.

Chapter 5 turns to the role of white parents in what is labeled “opportunity hoarding.” Many parents at Riverview state that they enrolled there because of the diversity and that they value the opportunity for their children to learn in a “diverse” environment, but at they same time, they engage in practices that segregate their children from students of color. For example, they push for honors and AP classes, even when the student hasn’t been placed there and even when their child didn’t really want to be there, but these classes are better/safer/whiter. Even when the 10th grade history department attempted to untrack by creating theme-based courses with mixed honors and regular students, parents and students selected into topics based on the other students in the classes. Interestingly, when confronted with the disparate enrollment of white vs. blacks in AP vs. regular classes, white parents and students attributed it to a cultural difference, a difference in work ethic, an ideological difference about the value of education. The authors make the point that overt racism based on beliefs that blacks are biologically inferior has been replaced by a cultural racism that explains the disparate results not due to race but to “culture, or family background, or social class” (p.145). In other words, they just don’t try as hard and they don’t really care. “Any guilt, therefore, that privileged people might feel for other’s disadvantaged position is alleviated if they believe that those others have been justly excluded because of their own moral or cultural or biological defects” (p.163). The illusion that our system is meritocratic blinds us to the racist, structural inequalities, but it does not relieve us of the responsibility for perpetuating and reproducing it.

Reflection: This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about tracking and it was not my first exposure to how affluent people talk about race. (See my review of Swalwell’s Educating Activist Allies.) I liked that this was an institution-level approach, which is what I am interested in, but mostly I like that it challenged me to question some of my own beliefs, particularly chapters 2 & 5. I will admit that I would have probably sounded a lot like the white students or parents, feeling like it was okay or even politically correct to attribute differences in outcomes to “family background” or “cultural differences” even if I knew what I meant. I think it is hard for me to dissociate race and poverty, and I need to work to challenge myself when I conflate the two. I also believe in hard work, clearly ascribing to the idea of a meritocracy, but probably because I can’t see my own position with my advantages as a white, middle class kid with educated parents.

My biggest criticism of the book would be the lack of suggestions paths of action. As a white parent literally in the midst of hoarding opportunities for my children, what do I do? How do I do what I think is best for my children without decreasing the opportunities for others?

What I’m still pondering: I heard on the radio the idea of “hydraulic displacement of discretion.” It comes from law and it is the idea that if you mandate something, like minimum sentences, which removes discretion from the judge, the discretion will just show up elsewhere in the system, like who goes to trial, etc. I think there is an interesting parallel here, where if you remove discretion from, say, course selection, like requiring all freshman to take a general English course that is mixed enrollment (no honors), the discretion will go elsewhere – students will start to test out, parents will request certain teachers, or parents will take their students elsewhere.

Highly recommend this book – the writing was exceptionally clear and arguments well laid out. I appreciated their attention to definitions.

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