Class interests and aspirations
Try to answer this question honestly. If your child is at a former white South African school and over time the majority of incoming students are black, would you move that child to another school?
When I pose this question to white parents, they all say “no”. But most of them are not being truthful. The clever ones will say “no” but with conditions – provided the quality of education stays the same.
It turns out that in most schools affected by white flight, the teachers, the principal, the governing body and the facilities stay more or less exactly the same. The only thing that has changed is that more than 50% of the children are now black.
When that happens, white parents flee and put their children in whitedominant schools.
Do not for one moment think this is only the racism of white parents. Coloured and Indian parents do exactly the same thing when too many African children come to dominate the school numbers.
In fact, when I once raised my voice at my children’s primary school in Durban calling for more black teachers, it was Indian and coloured parents who shut me up – “we want white teachers for our children”, they said.
The observation that these reactions to more black children in schools and classrooms constitute racism is correct but also too simple. What is really going on here in the reasoning of parents?
The main problem is association – white parents associate quality with white teachers but also with a majority of white learners in a classroom.
The more white children, the more assured the parents are that the quality of the educational experience for their loved ones will be good. The more black children and they assume the standards will drop regardless of the academic talent of the darker enrolments.
So why do parents rush to say “no” when the uncomfortable question is posed, would you move your child when blacks are in the majority?
Simple. It is embarrassing to say “yes” in public or to a black person like myself. So you lie – “my child will stay put”. The truth is that very, very few white parents keep their children in black-dominant schools.
Who are these parents and which schools are those in which the whites actually stay?
These are normally parents who are genuinely progressive and open-minded in their racial attitudes, such as those who place their children in schools like Sacred Heart College in Yeoville, Johannesburg.
Or they are poor white parents who cannot afford the fees in the white-dominant school on the other side of town, as happens in a top coloured school in Hermanus, outside Cape Town.
The majority of white parents, however, ensure that white children (and, of course, teachers) dominate in their schools and that the principal is, as far as possible, white as well.
That is why it is so difficult to appoint black teachers in these schools, and when the odd one or two make it onto the staff, they tell stories of how they have to prove themselves to children and colleagues alike.
Take a drive along the main road linking Wynberg, Claremont, Rondebosch and Newlands in Cape Town’s southern suburbs and you will see exactly what I mean.
With one exception, the schools are dominated by white children and white teachers. It is what you could call a settled arrangement; it’s how things will remain as long as the government does not shake up these schools.
Relax, the government will do nothing about these schools. The black elite, whether from parliament or the private sector, want their children in these white-dominant schools. They too associate quality with whiteness.
The political elite will make loud noises in public about “the black child” and posture about the racism of the Sparrows and the Mombergs, but don’t expect them to move their children to black public schools.
What you now have in South Africa is a class compact between privileged whites and the black elite to keep the schools which their children attend as essentially white institutions; in other words, white-dominant schools serve the class interests of whites and the class aspirations of blacks.
Of course parents choose schools based on the perceived quality of one school over the next, but as Temple University researchers recently showed, it is equally true that parents choose schools “as a way of physically distancing themselves from people whom they perceive to be of lower social status”.
Poor and black children, in other words. Now, try and answer that question again.