Like most New Yorkers, my husband and I knew that finding an appropriate school for our son was not going to be a cakewalk. Negotiating the New York City school system is practically a rite of passage for parents who live here.
But while most parents seek a school that satisfies traditional criteria such as high test scores and general academic achievement, I had an additional standard in mind as we explored nearly two dozen schools: I wanted to find a school for my son where he would would have peers and mentors who are black.
I was not at all prepared for the feelings of futility this pursuit entailed. Not one stinking bit. My search, which began in the fall of 2008 when we were looking for a kindergarten, wound up being an up-close tour of inequality and racial polarity. I could choose from schools where my son would be among large numbers of other black children -- nearly all black children, in fact -- in conditions that felt almost perverse. Or I could put him in schools in groovy, hip neighborhoods where he would be among a tiny minority of non-white children, with all the benefits and limitations of privilege.
For our family, the stakes were high. I grew up in rural New Hampshire, as an adopted child in a white family. I was one of a handful of black people within a 15-mile radius. I was the only black student in my class from first through twelfth grades. I waited my whole life to move to New York so that I could raise my child in the most diverse city in the country -- or so it had appeared to me in magazines and The New York Times, and during the few brief visits I'd made as a teenager.
But the New York I encountered as a mother visiting public and independent schools was a far different place than the city I had imagined from afar. Though students in the city's public schools overall are 30 percent African American and 40 percent Hispanic, many of the schools I visited seemed at first glance to be identical to what I encountered in rural New England. They were largely full of white kids.
Although my son is mixed and light-skinned, I subscribe to the Halle Berry, "one drop" rule: I'm black, so he's black. My white husband doesn't give me a hard time about this. I should also note here that my husband, a sociology professor who specializes in race and social policy, is a man drawn naturally to culture, and is the person who introduced me to Fela, Kanye West (before he was the ubiquitous entity that he is today) and Abbey Lincoln, and also someone who has way more black friends than I do.
My son is curious and mindful about race, and it would be hard not to be, given that it is often a point of discussion for his parents; but the way he racially identifies is unself-conscious and modern. When President Barack Obama was sworn into office, we watched it on TV together and my son, then 4 years old, said: "Look Mama, the president has brown skin like us!"
Of course, mine was not the sole criteria under consideration in finding the right school for my son. My husband as a teacher believes that social development is important, but shouldn't come at the expense of basic skills development. In an effort to meet both our criteria, we enrolled in the Early Steps program, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that helps to place children of color in independent private schools. We selected five schools to which to apply -- all of them in lower Manhattan, as we live in a part of Brooklyn closer to the city than other boroughs.
There are three primary components to the private school application process: the tour, the child interview and the parent interview. And with every visit, I was more shocked than the last by how spectacularly white the student bodies have been. How could this be?
My husband put things into perspective: black people have been leaving the city for years, he said, citing 2010 census data that confirms that for the first time since the Civil War draft riots, the number of blacks in New York has gone down by 5 percent.
Where did they go? If they stayed in the New York area (and many did not), they headed west to New Jersey towns like Montclair, Maplewood and South Orange, or to similar, multicultural towns north or east of the city.
Despite my husband's vow never to move back to New Jersey (having left there at 18), we briefly considered a move to the suburbs. When we toured the elementary school in Maplewood, we found what we'd been looking for: all kinds of black kids, native- and foreign-born, working- and middle-class. Alas, we just couldn't do it -- we are not suburban people.
Still, I thought, the New York City public schools could not be this white. I started researching schools in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx -- and what I discovered was even more depressing. Schools in attractive, gentrified neighborhoods were predominantly white with a smattering of black, Asian and Hispanic students, and schools in less desirable neighborhoods were essentially all black or all Hispanic.
At one school I visited on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a group of black teenage boys stood outside, shouting back and forth at each other, "What up, nigga?!" My son would likely feel more isolated at that school than he would at an all-white school.
I was looking for racial diversity and what I was finding was racial segregation.
Meanwhile, in the parent interviews at the private schools to which we'd applied, generally the first question my husband and I asked was how the administration and curriculum dealt with issues of race. We were consistently met with answers ranging from "We're working on it," to "We're not where we should be."
"Working on it"? "Not where we should be"? In 2010? I felt like saying, "Work harder, y'all!"
The first year yielded unpromising results. We were placed "high" on the wait list of one private school with a curriculum and philosophy that we liked, but were rejected from the other four and ultimately enrolled my son at our neighborhood public school for pre-K. This particular school had until the previous year served a predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican community that now suddenly felt steamrolled by white hipsters in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. When my son started there, the tension remained palpable in the K-6 school, which was mostly Latino with a few black students sprinkled throughout the upper grades. His class was half Latino and half white, and him.
I started to feel like a racial zealot on the playground. During the typical ongoing conversations among parents about the school and whether or not we would keep them there for the next year and beyond, I was always the lone parent to bring up that there were no middle-class black kids in the school.
One time, a white father responded, clearly tired of my agenda, "You know, it's a lot different being the only black kid at a school in New York than it is being the only black kid at a school in New Hampshire." Another time, a white mother responded, with an honesty I found heartening, "Yeah, I guess the racial makeup doesn't really occur to me, because it doesn't really have to."
I was unable to muster the same level of energy and enthusiasm for the private school search-and-application process that I'd had the year before, but I knew I wanted to put my son in a different school for first grade. I decided to take a deeper dive into area public schools and finally found one in another part of Brooklyn that appeared to be more diverse than any other public school I'd come across, boasting a student body that is 32 percent white, 34 percent black, 23 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian. And even if low in Asian representation, I was encouraged by the prospect of my son being part of 34 percent, as opposed to 10 percent (and dwindling).
If getting into private school is an exhausting process, getting into a public school is a baffling one. You can try to get your child into a public school through zoning, lottery, the No Child Left Behind program, or good old-fashioned lobbying. And if it's lottery or No Child Left Behind, then nothing matters but luck.
The first time I visited P.S. 261, it was late fall 2010 and school was in session. The kids were loud and attentive and easy with themselves and each other. One teacher wore a burkha, another wore dreadlocks. Students ranged in hue, and the halls smelled of construction paper. It felt alive and real, and -- however delusional -- like the New York City I had imagined for my own child to grow up in.
And here's why that matters: Not simply because I don't want my son to suffer the same experience of isolation that I often felt growing up -- indeed, I have come to realize that he could not possibly. It matters because I want my son to feel comfortable around black people. Even more so because at first glance, he appears racially ambiguous and could easily be lumped into that non-race-specific group called "people of color." While we may refer to him as black now, we cannot dictate to him how he will choose to identify as an adult -- black, biracial or some term we haven't heard of yet. And because however he chooses to identify, there is a vigorous beauty in being at ease with one's blackness.