podcast review

You Can’t Get Rid of Nice White Parents

Photo: The New York Times

I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the first episode of Nice White Parents anytime soon.

Late in the episode, we’re brought to a swanky gala in upper Manhattan, ostensibly organized to raise funds for a new dual-language French program at a public school all the way out in Brooklyn. Few people at the gala are actually attached to the school. Most were convened for the sake of their wealth.

But it’s what got us to this party that’s damning. The dual-language program is controversial, pushed into the school PTA’s priorities out of the blue by some enterprising white parents. It was pitched as being valuable to the whole student body — white kids, Black kids, brown kids, poor kids, rich kids — but of course, that’s not really how these things have ever gone. One thing leads to another, and suddenly, you’re whisked out of a Brooklyn public school and into this extravagant building, where a bunch of wealthy people are socializing to support a program that will likely be unequally distributed, and will almost certainly be useless to those in the school who actually need the most support.

It’s a bone-wearying predicament, steeped in the disorienting class surrealism that should be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a dense, rich, and unequal city, where the very wealthy and the very-not are layered in the same spaces.

Host Chana Joffe-Walt, a veteran of This American Life and, as she points out, a white parent within the New York City public school system herself, places this story at the top of the series to set the tone for what’s to come. In Nice White Parents, Serial Productions’ first new podcast since being acquired by the New York Times, Joffe-Walt lays out an examination of how white parents — even the well-meaning ones — stand as the primary force holding back progress toward school integration and a more equitable distribution of resources. This is true even when they’re not around — their physical absence from a district can impede improvements to a school. She presents all this as something of a minor revelation, positioning white, liberal-leaning parents as a bloc whose influence has been largely overlooked or underemphasized; the popular imagination tends to picture the stereotypical, overtly racist segregationist as the problem, not white-collar professionals who shop at Whole Foods.

The Brooklyn school at the center of Nice White Parents. Photo: Google Maps

To some extent, this assessment doesn’t seem all that novel; for anyone who has lived in or near a predominately white, liberal enclave, the notion feels obvious. But through her reporting, Joffe-Walt substantiates your gut feeling with vivid documentation, giving flesh to what was previously skeletal suspicion. Nice White Parents operates most effectively as an illustrative project, drawing attention to how exactly an unequal system is preserved by groups who benefit most from the status quo, even when they mean well and think they’re acting in the name of progress.

Joffe-Walt does this by focusing the scope on the historical experiences of a single building: the aforementioned Brooklyn public school, I.S. 293. The school has gone by many other names throughout its existence, and has even housed multiple institutions within its walls — and yet the same story has played out over and over again. Through the decades, various groups of white parents, allegedly trying to do good, would band together in an effort to usher in better integration, equality, diversity, or equity (take your pick) — only to end up replicating or preserving preexisting inequalities. In some cases, they even worsen the disparities, creating new miniaturized forms of segregation within the school itself.

The reason for such failures is relatively straightforward: Almost always, those white parents will internally come to an understanding that meaningful change is simply too hard. They ultimately discover that to truly achieve their societal ambitions would rub against their individual self-interests. So they abandon the desegregation project, often midway through the effort, leaving behind a half-formed world. Or, just as often, they refashion the effort to meet their needs more specifically.

For most of the series, you’re left with the sense that the problem of American public education is an intractable one, forged by decades of right-wing funding and abetted by white parents, nice and otherwise. As long as public-education resources are scarce, the structurally advantaged will always win out in getting the lion’s share. In the third episode, Joffe-Walt tries to point toward a possible path forward. School systems are maniacally loyal to white parents, so white parents should reckon with the reality that they need to voluntarily relinquish some of that power for the greater good. It’s an appeal to personal sacrifice by the powerful, and that’s … well, that’s really hard to believe in. It almost never happens.

Chana Joffe-Walt. Photo: Getty Images

But then: It happens. Or at least, it seems to. In the fifth and final episode, which Joffe-Walt herself mentions is an entry she didn’t expect to make, we learn that the school district we’ve been following throughout the series put forward an actual, substantive plan to genuinely integrate schools throughout the district. The entire episode is dedicated to laying out just what happened, and according to Joffe-Walt, it came out of a campaign led, in large part, by a group of well-meaning white parents who did, indeed, identify the fact that they possessed disproportionate power — and took steps to execute an advocacy campaign that leveraged, and then ultimately conceded, that very power.

Nice White Parents, then, wraps up as a story about activism and effective political mobilization. It’s a somewhat hopeful ending, but its optimism remains smartly measured, threaded with healthy skepticism. Despite the fact that we’re presented with what seems to be a genuine breakthrough, there are still numerous caveats to be offered. Just how replicable is this? Will it last? There is, also, a broader grappling with the truths of the politics of it all. As Joffe-Walt maintains in the episode, a key way to read what happened here isn’t to see it as the sum of all white parents giving up their power and working against their specific self-interests for the greater good. Part of what made the activism work is a rigorous reshaping of the narrative … by white people themselves.

Your mileage with this ending may vary depending on where you sit in the food chain, which more often than not means the color of your skin. As a nonwhite person, I can see how this conclusion can be read as hopeful. Still, I remain uneasy about the implication that it’s up to the better angels of white people to fix a system that screws over just about everyone else. There’s a secondary and long-standing truth tucked in the layers of this story: that activism led by nonwhite people will never be as effective as activism led by white people.

All of which is to say that Nice White Parents is two kinds of shows: one for the very nice white parents it covers, and one for everyone else. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. If it’s able to actively change some nice white minds for the good fight, great. And don’t get me wrong: Nice White Parents is, without a doubt, one of the most excellently made and endlessly interesting podcasts you’ll hear this year. On a meta level, the show does exactly what you’d want it to do: It drives conversation, it sparks emotion, it makes you want to scream.

There are questions that can be asked of the show, though. The biggest hang-up, for me anyway, is the manner in which it mostly tells the story along racial lines, with relatively little grappling of how class complicates and deepens the narrative. Also, speaking as an Asian person, I did find the near-complete absence of Asian Americans in this story about New York City’s public education system somewhat conspicuous. Asians, after all, make up one of the biggest anomalies in the discourse around New York’s public education system, and I can’t help but feel that their invisibility in these discussions — either grouped in with whites (unfairly), or ignored altogether — is itself an expression of how class, as a rubric to process inequality, gets underemphasized in these kinds of stories. Not a deal-breaker, but still, I felt it.

In any case, that’s not the biggest question mark I have about the podcast. What I really want to know — and this really isn’t a negative critique of the show or anything — is how the post-pandemic world will reframe the findings, hopes, and ideas contained in the podcast. Between the formation of private education pods and budget shortfalls, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we’ll see a fundamentally reshaped public education system at the other end of this pandemic. Joffe-Walt draws some attention to this, believing that the world of public education will resume someday, and that’s when the fight can continue. But perhaps this moment of chaos is the most ripe for efforts to reframe narratives and realign incentives. Perhaps this is the moment where nice white parents can really prove their worth.

You Can’t Get Rid of Nice White Parents