Tina He / Sun Staff Photographer

October 21, 2016

Professor Details Racial Disparities in Suburban Schools

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Suburban schools are becoming less white, but students of color are still subjected to unequal treatment, said Prof. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, sociology and black studies, City University of New York, in a lecture Thursday.

“When we think about the suburbs, what usually comes to mind is white folks, grass and white picket fences,” Lewis-McCoy said. “Maybe you have a family of four, and like one-point-five kids. But the reality is that suburbs are really different from that today.”

Suburbs have become much less white and much less affluent in recent years, Lewis-McCoy said, and over half of the nation’s students of color live in the suburbs today.

Lewis-McCoy’s research focuses on the Rolling Acres Public Schools in Connecticut, where he said many of the black students hail from middle class backgrounds. However, he pointed out the black middle class “is not synonymous with the white middle class.”

The average household income is less in middle class black families than in middle class white families, and the disparity in wealth — “what’s left after you pay the bills” — between white and black families is considerable, according to Lewis-McCoy.

In lower class black families, Lewis-McCoy said he has seen a parenting style he calls “natural growth.”

“[Natural growth] means they’re not hyper-scheduled with extracurricular activities,” he said. “That means when it’s time for break they’re not going away on vacation to Paris — they’re probably going to hang out with cousins.”

While this parenting style encourages independence and individualism, it can create problems when the child brushes up against authority figures — such as teachesr, doctors or police officers, Lewis-McCoy said.

At Rolling Acres, Lewis-McCoy said he met two mothers of vastly different backgrounds who both experienced discrimination at the hands of teachers and district administrators. Both were black single mothers, but one was an attorney with multiple graduate degrees, while the other worked in a fast food drive-through.

Lewis-McCoy said the attorney was a room parent, tasked with organizing events and activities for the class. She was the only black room parent in the entire school. She told Lewis-McCoy she’d been repeatedly disrespected by other room parents and the principal, but she said nothing out of fear of being accused of “playing the race card.” The other mother was labeled a “problem parent.”

Neither parent considered pulling their child out of the district, which Lewis-McCoy attributed to a phenomenon he called “relative deprivation.”

“For black parents, they often had a reference to their own schooling, they often had a reference to central city schooling, and what they said was, ‘What my kid is getting in Rolling Acres is far better than what they’d get in the Bronx,” he said.

Lewis-McCoy said teachers and administrators would point to Black History Month and Latino History Month when asked how they talked about race in their classrooms and at their schools.

“That’s good — to a degree,” he said. “That’s good when you’re talking about history and heritage. But race mandates a discussion of power. It mandates a discussion of history, and how unequal access in the past leads to unequal access in the present.”