R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is a professor of sociology at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. This month, his book Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling is being released through Stanford University Press. In this interview with Neighborhoods and Nations, he gives an overview of the research underlying the book’s insights on the everyday, and often insidious, forms of discrimination black students and their families face in schools across America. In doing so, Professor Lewis-McCoy paints a portrait of a new suburban landscape, one that fails to be “the promised land” of broader opportunities and resources that struggling families, particularly people of color, can rely on in equal shares.
How would you contextualize this work in relation to your past and ongoing research? Would you say that ‘race and education’ is a primary focus for you as a sociologist?
My research for Inequality in the Promised Land continues my ongoing interest in how race and class shape educational opportunity. This year marks 60 years since the US Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate facilities are inherently unequal facilities.” When most people think of schools they think of them as the engine of social change or potentially the “great equalizer.” Unfortunately, when we look deeper, we see that schools are a mixed bag—some schools are flying high, while others are failing.
Focusing on a suburban school district when assessing educational inequality may seem, on face, surprising to some. Can you give an overview of how your research within this context enhances our understanding of inequality between races in educational settings? How broadly might we apply your analysis outside of this study?
When people hear I study suburban schools they immediately think of Leave it to Beaver or other popular ideas of a predominantly middle-class and white setting, devoid of people of color and poverty. We assume urban schools are segregated and failing and suburban schools are thriving, but few people have actually looked at what happens inside of suburban schools. My book does just that: it takes you into the hallways of suburban schools and into the homes of suburban families, across race and class lines to find out why all students aren’t doing well in well-resourced schools.
In the past 30 years the suburbs have experienced a lot of changes. The most recent U.S. Census estimates that more than half of the black population in urban areas live in suburbs and fifty percent of black children are raised in neighborhoods with low rates of poverty. There are now more poor people living in the suburbs than in central cities. When taken together, these statistics help show that the suburbs are a new frontier for considering racial and socioeconomic diversity, and public schools are the front line in this research.
There is very little research on suburban schools, but from what research there is we know that black and white and affluent and poor children perform very differently in them. My research starts by looking at the history of the suburban schools have dealt with diversity. I then ask what are the experiences of the black families in these schools? How do the experiences and opportunities that white families receive impact other families in suburban schools? And lastly I ask, what can be done to close the gaps in experience between white and black, affluent and poor so that schools are creating greater opportunities for all?
What were the most surprising and/or notable findings in your research at “Rolling Acres”?
The most surprising finding I came across was that despite being well resourced and embracing diversity, suburban schools are deeply divided, and the families and school staff within them are often unaware of their daily activities make their children’s experiences in the same school separate and unequal. Despite the desire to have all students do well, affluent white parents often acted on ways to give their children educational advantages, but at the same time these actions disadvantaged less well-off and black families. I use the concept of “opportunity hoarding” to explain that well-intentioned affluent and white families can leverage schools in their favor while limiting opportunities for black and lower-income families.
A second, important finding is that concentrating on the achievement gap is the wrong focus. Since the arrival of the No Child Left Behind act in 2001, schools have become obsessed with the achievement gap—the average test score gap between black and white and rich and poor. With so much emphasis on outcomes like standardized tests and grades we miss the everyday experiences that contribute to this achievement gap. For example, in one fourth grade classroom, I observed that half of the black students were identified as in need of special education. This happened because the school often pressured lower-income families into accepting an Individualized Education Program suggesting it was in their children’s best interest. This creates a quagmire for black families: fight the school or defer to the advice of so-called experts. By fighting, black families are labeled problem parents or accused of not meeting their children’s needs. If they comply, their children are tracked away from a rigorous curriculum and are potentially underserved.
Together this means if we want to make schools accessible and equitable to all, then we need to look at the experiences of white and black students as well as the relationships between families. Anything less will produce an incomplete portrait and lead to bad recommendations.
Based on your research, do you advocate for specific policy changes or offer recommendations for educators?
My first recommendation is that rather than having conversations about diversity, we need to have conversations about race and its meaning in society. Conversations about diversity often center on how everyone in the room is different and how that is a good thing, but they don’t talk about how one’s race matters in how they’ll be treated. Alternatively, more productive conversations will discuss the heritages of all people, but also acknowledge the power in being from a historically dominant group, like European-Americans, which provides advantages that are often overlooked. Only after schools and students’ families acknowledge this in a real way can we figure out what’s wrong and causing our schools to remain separate and unequal despite children being under the same roof.
Second, we have to rethink the role of parental advocacy and participation in education and revise school policies. Because families who had the most advantages often get their requests granted, they rarely think about the collateral consequences on less well-resourced families. Schools need to find ways to make sure all families have a way to participate in school activities, and that the decisions around educational customization are equitable. We can help underrepresented voices get heard by PTA boards and through newspaper Op-Eds by establishing educational advocates within schools and districts.
Can you talk about some of your current work? What excites and motivates your scholarship at the moment?
Currently I’m conducting a study on college student activism. I wanted to see what young people of today were doing to change the world around them. The study compares a large public college and large private college to understand how millennial student-activists think about social change. I am particularly interested in the projects that young people choose to work on, how they become connected to campaigns, and the tensions or overlap between grassroots activism and non-profit work.
Additionally, I am co-authoring a book with Marc Lamont Hill on educational myths. This moment is particularly exciting in the world of education because there are more people interested in educational reform than ever before. This means there are new initiatives and experimental schools and inspired entrepreneurs, but between all these moving parts, good information often gets lost. Our books seeks to translate some of the more complex research and agendas into accessible ways, so that a caring parent who wants the best for their child can better navigate the system and make the best decisions for them. The book tackles topics like charter schools, hip-hop-based education, and zero-tolerances policies, to name a few.
R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Black Studies program in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York – CUNY. As a scholar, his research concentrates on educational inequality in American schools. His book Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources and Suburban Schooling looks at the experiences of low income and racial minorities’ attempts at accessing school-related resources.His wider research agenda addresses the areas of race, youth culture, and gender equity. In race, his work explores the meaning and negotiation of race in the post-Civil-Rights era. His work on youth culture concentrates on the expansion of Hip-Hop culture and its relation to the lives of African-Americans. His research and activism in the area of gender equity concentrates on gender in communities of color. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Sociology from the University of Michigan. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter.