New York City is one of the most racially diverse cities in the United States. It is also one of the most racially segregated. One explanation for this dissonance is what the popular New York Times podcast called “nice white parents” — white parents who pride themselves on living in a diverse city but don’t send their kids to Black neighborhood schools, even when they otherwise proudly live in those neighborhoods.
There is truth to that narrative, but a purely White-Black framework misses the choices and preferences of Asian, Latino and Black families, who account for two-thirds of the New York City student population and almost half of all school-age children. Racial demographics not only directly influence white parents’ preferences, they also influence the choices of Asian and Latino parents.
My research team and I recently conducted an experiment with a racially diverse group of 500 parents attending New York City high school fairs. We asked them to rank their preferences, for their kids, for a variety of hypothetical high schools. We included information on such things as graduation rates, safety ratings, metal detector presence and extra-curricular activities.
What we found was that race was central to how many parents choose schools. Consistent with the “nice white parents” narrative, white parents expressed a racial hierarchy of preferences. They rated the majority white school highest, followed by the racially diverse school, then the majority Latino school, and then the majority Black school. Asian parents, like their white peers, were also less willing to attend the Latino and Black schools. Latino parents wanted to avoid the Black schools. Black parents, in this study, did not express racial preferences. They similarly rated all the schools.
The results were mirrored by the actual data on family preference in the New York City high schools. White and Asian families were between 45% and 97% less likely to rank majority Black and Latino schools first on their applications compared with majority white schools. And Latino families were 67% less likely to rank majority Black schools first on their applications compared with majority Latino schools.
About half of public high schools are majority Latino, and a quarter are majority Black. So this research suggests that white and Asian parents would prefer to avoid 75% of the city’s schools, and Latino parents would prefer to avoid 25% of the city’s schools solely based on their racial demographics.
Why do white and Asian parents desire to avoid Black and Latino schools and Latino parents desire to avoid Black schools? One reason is white, Asian and Latino parents may be motivated by feelings of closeness to their racial in-group or of hate toward Black and/or Latino people. They want their kids to go to school with people who look like them, and to avoid schools with too many people who don’t.
Parents are also being led by racial stereotypes. Black and Latino students are often perceived as less intelligent and more dangerous, even when parents are given data demonstrating that this is not the case. This expanded explanation becomes profoundly important when we consider that schools’ racially biased academic tracking and disciplinary practices often reflect and perpetuate these negative stereotypes.
As Mayor Eric Adams and schools Chancellor David Banks specify the next administration’s educational platform, they must consider how to promote racial equity in a school choice system deeply embedded with racial avoidance and stereotypes. There is no simple solution, but it cannot rely on the faulty assumption that nice white, Asian and Latino parents will opt in to sharing school spaces with Black and Latino students.
Instead, the New York Department of Education must dismantle racially discriminatory practices and policies that reinforce negative stereotypes. They must also eliminate high school admission policies based on screens, scores on one standardized test, and geographic-based priorities that further keep Black and Latino students out of their desired schools.
New York City is one of the most racially diverse places in the world. School leaders can do more to stomp out the perils of racial avoidance.
Chantal A. Hailey is an assistant professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the New York Daily News.