Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling / Edition 1

Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling / Edition 1

by R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy
Pub. Date:
Stanford University Press
Pub. Date:
Stanford University Press
Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling / Edition 1

Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling / Edition 1

by R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy
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Nestled in neighborhoods of varying degrees of affluence, suburban public schools are typically better resourced than their inner-city peers and known for their extracurricular offerings and college preparatory programs. Despite the glowing opportunities that many families associate with suburban schooling, accessing a district's resources is not always straightforward, particularly for black and poorer families. Moving beyond class- and race-based explanations, Inequality in the Promised Land focuses on the everyday interactions between parents, students, teachers, and school administrators in order to understand why resources seldom trickle down to a district's racial and economic minorities.

Rolling Acres Public Schools (RAPS) is one of the many well-appointed suburban school districts across the United States that has become increasingly racially and economically diverse over the last forty years. Expanding on Charles Tilly's model of relational analysis and drawing on 100 in-depth interviews as well participant observation and archival research, R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy examines the pathways of resources in RAPS. He discovers that—due to structural factors, social and class positions, and past experiences—resources are not valued equally among families and, even when deemed valuable, financial factors and issues of opportunity hoarding often prevent certain RAPS families from accessing that resource. In addition to its fresh and incisive insights into educational inequality, this groundbreaking book also presents valuable policy-orientated solutions for administrators, teachers, activists, and politicians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804792134
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 06/25/2014
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at The City College of New York.

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Inequality in the Promised Land

Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling

By R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy


Copyright © 2014 R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9213-4


Welcome to Rolling Acres

Rolling Acres is a promised land. It is a manicured suburb nestled in the midwestern United States that features a well-run and -resourced school district. Rolling Acres is the type of school district that families move to because of its strong reputation for nurturing student learners. In any given year the district receives national academic accolades by graduating National Merit Scholars and extracurricular praise when its bands are invited to perform on the national stage; its schools showcase their ethnic diversity by hosting "International Nights" to which families bring foods from their ancestral homelands. To most eyes, Rolling Acres and its public schools are what many U.S. schools—both urban and suburban—desire to be. However, this is not the full reality of Rolling Acres and its schools.

In the early 2000s, I attended the commencement ceremony at one of the high schools in the Rolling Acres Public Schools (RAPS) district. During the ceremony I heard white families cheering loudly as the college destinations of the graduates were announced from the dais: they ranged from Harvard to Bates to the University of Michigan. These cheers for white graduating seniors at times drowned out the announcements of their black classmates' next steps. Those included local community colleges, work plans, military service, and less-selective colleges. Just as the cheers served to cover up the divergent lives of black and white youth, many of the mechanisms that breed inequality in Rolling Acres remain concealed. Although considerable attention has been paid to gross inequalities between inner-city and suburban schools, too little research has interrogated inequality in suburban areas. As suburban school districts become more racially and economically diverse, understanding how they respond to diverse families is essential to understanding future paths to equality.

Districts like Rolling Acres are consistently confronted with questions such as: How can we provide a quality education to racially and economically diverse families? If we have ample financial resources, why do we still see educational disparities? What programmatic or policy changes will reduce observable disparities in our students' educational experiences? How do differences in family background relate to observed disparities? And how can we respond to demographic changes in ways that accommodate long-time residents and new arrivals? These questions remain inadequately addressed both by current discussions in education policy and by sociological theorizing about educational inequality. With this book I offer some answers based on a careful ethnography of education in a desegregated suburban setting.

Although Rolling Acres contains many of the resources that are typically associated with positive student achievement, these resources seldom trickle down to the district's economic and racial minorities. Through multiple mechanisms (e.g., social networks, school-to-home communication, teacher beliefs, and others) the resources of Rolling Acres are not only funneled away from minorities; they are leveraged by affluent white families to gain greater educational advantages for their children. By building on and challenging past work on educational inequality, I hope to clarify why the presence or availability of resources does not necessarily mean that those resources are accessible to everyone, and why we must look beyond individual or group orientations and instead look at the relations between groups and within schools. I explore the micro-level interactions between school staff, teachers, parents, and students and link them to broader macro issues such as racial ideologies and the formation of contemporary equal opportunity policies. The result is an intricate web of relations and dynamics that weaves together race and social class and reproduces disparities in student educational experiences in both subtle and overt ways.


While researchers debate whether resources matter and to what extent they influence school achievement, laypeople are at near consensus that resources matter. Over the past forty years, many African-Americans have migrated to suburban locations with the hope of sending their children to higher-quality schools. Historically, suburban schools have been better resourced than their inner-city peers and have become known for their diverse offerings and college preparatory curriculums. All of these features have made districts like Rolling Acres highly desirable among families who want to give their children an early life advantage. Despite these opportunities, gaining access to the educational resources of a district is not always straightforward, particularly for black families.

In Rolling Acres, different social worlds collide, and the puzzle of educational equality remains unsolved. For decades, Rolling Acres has spent increasing amounts of money in the hope of reducing educational inequality and improving the educational experiences of all families; but there remain seemingly intransigent race and social-class gaps. Although RAPS is a land of plenty, Rolling Acres residents engage in stiff competition to get their children the best teachers, sign them up for extracurricular activities, and glean insider information with the goal of creating an idyllic educational experience for them. On its face, the same resources are readily available to all students, but upon closer examination one sees that access to these resources is not equal, particularly for racial and economic minorities. These differences in resource access are not based simply on disparities in provision; access is influenced by differences in family backgrounds, institutional reception (how schools receive families and their requests), and interactions between families.

To illustrate, imagine that a school's science scores on the state standardized test arrive and the scores of black students are lower than those of white students. While the gap in average scores might not be not surprising, the district notes that the gap between black and white students had declined for nearly ten years, but for the past three years that progress has stalled. There are mounting pressures from local, state, and federal authorities to "close the gap." In response, some proactive school district members propose creating a "Saturday Science Academy" that will target both black and white students, with the goal of raising science scores. It will be an extracurricular program designed to increase access to science and technology and provide hands-on instruction in a small-classroom environment. An announcement about the creation of the Saturday Science Academy is then sent to all families in the target school. Parents are invited to sign up online or to mail program attendance requests back to the school. After the final enrollment is tallied, it is discovered that the enrollees come disproportionately from white families, particularly middle-class and affluent families. This is a common dilemma among schools and districts that have attempted to close achievement gaps, particularly in racially and economically diverse settings. District staffs are often left wondering why and how some families take advantage of the available resources and other families do not.


Researchers Annette Lareau and John Ogbu have offered two influential theories of processes that influence educational inequality in suburban districts like Rolling Acres; however, I do not believe that either approach adequately explains the processes that occur in such places. Social reproduction theorists such as Lareau may explain the observed disparities in program enrollees as directly tied to social class, particularly the role of cultural capital and the alignment of norms between families and schools. Lareau suggested in Home Advantage that differences in parental participation were driven by differences in families' social class. Based on an ethnographic analysis of white families in two predominantly white schools, Lareau applied Pierre Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital and argued that middle-class families possessed cultural repertoires that aligned with the norms of schools and thus contributed to favorable social relations and higher levels of school engagement. This middle-class cultural capital was the foil to low-income and working-class cultural capital, which did not align with school norms and led to tense social relations and low levels of parental engagement at their schools. Lareau's work importantly argues that differences in parental engagement are not based in differences in familial desire; instead they are rooted in mismatches between cultural toolkits and institutional arrangements.

Later, Lareau extended her social-class-based arguments in the now seminal book Unequal Childhoods. She continued to examine the role of cultural capital, not only in connection to schools but also in other formal institutions. Based on observations of twelve families—six white, five black, and one interracial—she argues that two coherent patterns of class-based child-rearing strategies were observable: "concerted cultivation" and "natural growth." These two patterns of child rearing, in her view, demonstrate the significance of social class, which she believes eclipses the power of race to explain current and future inequalities between groups. She observed these social-class-based differences at three junctures: the investment of parents in extracurricular activities for youth, parental engagement with school professionals, and communication between parents and children at home.

"Concerted cultivation" is practiced by middle-class families and is often characterized by the enrollment of children in structured extracurricular activities with adult supervision. These organized activities then assist in the development of positive experiences, dispositions, and networks with adult authority figures and formal institutions. In addition, Lareau argues that parents who practice concerted cultivation have generally positive and strong relationships with authority figures and formal institutions. As a result, those parents are able to engage institutions and often achieve their desired results. These socialization experiences serve as fields of learning where their children develop cultural capital that proves to be advantageous in school, at the doctor's office, and in any number of other formal spaces, allowing those with middle-class standing to ultimately replicate or even advance their position.

In contrast, says Lareau, families that practice the "natural growth" method of child rearing are working class or poor and have children who are less engaged in formal extracurricular activities and have less favorable relationships with formal institutions and authority figures. Children reared in this way tend to engage in unstructured play after school and often do not participate in formal organized activities like sports; they thus have fewer opportunities than children reared by concerted cultivation to develop positive rapport with adult authority figures. Lareau also argues that, because parents who practice the natural growth method of child rearing also often do not have positive relations with authority figures, they are likely to socialize their children to replicate a contrarian or non-empowered engagement of authority. As a result, these children and families have fewer positive experiences engaging schools, medical facilities, and other institutions than their concerted cultivation counterparts. Lareau argues that natural growth families thus do not actualize their putative stocks of cultural capital in the form of favorable institutional returns, thus replicating their lower position in the social hierarchy.

If one applies Lareau's theory to the case of the Saturday Science Academy, one might assume those who signed up for the Academy were concerted cultivators, but this would likely not be fully accurate. First, while Lareau's concepts of concerted cultivation and natural growth are parsimonious illustrations of how cultural capital operates, they are dispositional—meaning that people's actions are based on their attitudes and orientations and not necessarily determined by the dynamics of social interaction—and thus overlook the importance of relations between groups. Charles Tilly argues, "Dispositional accounts similarly posit coherent entities—in this case more often individuals than any others—but explain the action of those entities by means of their orientations just before the point of action." While dispositions toward child rearing and institutions matter, interactions with institutions, and between families, are critical to understanding why some families are oversubscribed to the Saturday Academy and others are undersubscribed.

Second, for Lareau's model to account for the observed disparities, race and social class would need to be nearly perfectly correlated. However, this is not the case nationally or in Rolling Acres. The majority of white families are middle class or above, but there are also middle-class black families and working-class white families. It is important to note that Lareau does have black middle-class families in her sample, but these families are drawn from a private school using a snowball sample—a type of sample based on families referring other families—which tends to make responses non-random and representative. As I discuss in chapter 4, this likely misrepresents the role of race and eliminates relational analysis possibilities. The overlap between social-class and racial categories problematizes a parsimonious tale of engagement based simply on social class. The inclusion in her model of black and white middle-class families who send their children to the same schools would help elucidate the tensions in—or limits of—her model in a setting like Rolling Acres.

Third, Lareau underestimates the role of race in her explanations of differences in institutional engagement. She argues that race plays a small secondary role to social class. She writes, "While race did have situational consequences for some youths, the power of social class was striking for all." She categorizes race as situationally relevant and therefore meaningful only in moments of interracial conflict. In further examples in Unequal Childhoods and other work, she identifies these moments of situational relevance as occasions when black families perceive racial discrimination. Lareau's constellation does not consider how white families' whiteness serves as an advantage, which makes her identification of race selective and misspecified. Social constructionist perspectives on race have stressed its importance not only for racial minorities but also for racial majorities. Ultimately, Lareau's scholarship and model under-theorize the role of race and over-privilege the role of social class.


John Ogbu's Cultural Ecological Model (CEM) is a widely popular explanation for differences in educational engagement and could be applied to the case of the Saturday Science Academy. The CEM was developed from Ogbu's work with Signithia Fordham in a predominantly black high school in Washington, D.C. Ogbu argued that black youth took on an oppositional culture characterized by academic disengagement and heightened attempts to gain peer acceptance. Ogbu would likely explain the lack of black enrollment in the Saturday Science Academy through two mechanisms: perceived barriers to mobility and racial allegiance. Ogbu argues that black children see the race-related barriers that black adults have faced and that these barriers signal to the children that the traditional opportunity system is not open to blacks. In response, youth increase their sense of racial allegiance and solidarity and disengage from school because they identify domains like schooling as a pathway for white mobility, not black mobility. He argues that this cumulatively leads to disengagement from schooling.


Excerpted from Inequality in the Promised Land by R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy. Copyright © 2014 R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface iv

Acknowledgments xii

1 Welcome to Rolling Acres 1

2 From Concerted Cultivation to Opportunity Hoarding 19

3 Segmented Suburbia 45

4 Making Your Public School Private 66

5 A Few Bad Apples Are Racist 95

6 Culture as a Hidden Classroom Resource 117

7 Black Exodus 139

8 Hope in the Promised Land 158

Appendix A Methodological Reflections 175

Appendix B Making Resources Work for All 185

Notes 189

Index 207

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