The New York Times has often (and accurately) been accused of flattering the liberal conceits of its wealthy, highly educated readers. But sometimes the paper of record also likes to make those same readers feel bad about their behavior. Consider this recent story about parents in New York City lining up to attend a tour of Beacon, a competitive public high school in Manhattan. Whereas an objective observer might see a lot of anxious parents eager to learn more about one of the better high school options for their kids, the Times saw an egregious demonstration of structural racism.
Consider the headline: “Why White Parents Were at the Front of the Line for the School Tour,” as well as the caption that accompanied the photo for the piece, which reads, “On a recent Tuesday, a hundred mostly white parents queued up in the rain to tour Beacon High School, though the doors would not open for another two hours.”
As the Times no doubt intended, a casual reader glancing at this story would expect to find examples of racist behavior in the reporting described. Perhaps non-white parents were deliberately excluded from the tours? Or non-white students not given ample notification of the tour’s existence?
The paper tries to strike an ominous tone. “The lines that surround Beacon and other elite high schools are a living symbol of the anxiety, competition and inequality that define New York’s segregated public school system,” Eliza Shapiro writes. “High school admissions are seen as perhaps the most egregious example of how city politics end up dividing privileged parents from vulnerable families.”
Shapiro juxtaposes “privilege” against vulnerability, which is why the story glosses over the fact that many of the most successful students in New York City’s most competitive schools are not rich white children but the children of Asian immigrants, many of whom cannot be considered “privileged” but whose families highly value education.
In fact, far from the racist conspiracy implied by the headline, the reason some parents were happy to wait in line for hours and others were not is straightforward: Some parents showed up early because they had made their children’s education a priority, researched the options available, educated themselves about the requirements and application process, and were willing to spend the time to stand in line to ensure they get to tour a good school. Other parents did not. This isn’t about race; it’s about parental priorities and parental apathy.
Ask a teacher what is important for student success in the classroom, and a vast number of them will tell you it is having engaged and supportive parents at home. Those parents waiting in line to tour a good high school are likely the same ones who have been making sure since kindergarten that their kids get a good night’s sleep, do their homework, show up for school on time, and behave while they are there. Some of them are rich, and some are not; some are white, and some are not. This isn’t an issue of structural racism; it’s about the values inculcated in the home.
People are willing to spend their time in a queue for something they value, be it a tour of a good high school for their kids or a new iPhone or pair of sneakers. People also spend money on what they value—even on overpriced “insider” newsletters about how to navigate the high school admissions process.
If you spend your time and money on trying to help your kids get the best education possible and you’re white, the Times thinks you’re contributing to structural racism. If you’re not white, the Times assumes that you are the victim of structural racism and can’t be expected to muster the energy to sacrifice for your kids (those that do, like a family of Ghanian immigrants who were interviewed while standing in line, are treated as exceptions to this rule).
Either way, the Times’ race-focused approach is a condescending and misguided analysis of a real and complicated challenge: encouraging families to cultivate good habits and a readiness to learn in their children so that when they get to school, they can thrive. Not every family has the willingness or capability to do this, but rather than acknowledge that habits and values have consequences, the Times effectively strips all parents of agency and instead claims racism is to blame. Buried in the story is the crucial fact that “there is no penalty for students who do not attend a tour” at Beacon with regard to their likelihood of admission.
That the Times is in the business of second-guessing the motives of parents who are trying to pursue the best educational options for their children isn’t just poor journalism. It’s yet another disturbing example of how deeply ingrained and pernicious the demands of identity politics have become for the supposed paper of record.