Excerpted From: Raquel Muñiz and Sergio Barragán, Disrupting the Racialized Status Quo in Exam Schools?: Racial Equity and White Backlash in Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence V. the School Committee of the City of Boston, 49 Fordham Urban Law Journal 1043 (October, 2022) (366 Footnotes) (Full Document)


MuñizBarragánEducational equity for racially minoritized students has been a topic of debate since the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. Civil rights advocates have sought to advance educational rights for racially minoritized students since Brown, but white backlash has stalled and regressed progress where possible. White backlash in education is part of a larger phenomenon with a long-standing history in the United States. Each legal and other social gain for racially minoritized people was met with resistance and further retrenchment, seeking to reverse or stall racial progress. As a result, the struggle to advance racial equity amidst persistent resistance continues, even decades after the civil rights era.

In particular, resistance to racial equity in education through covert state and private actions has contributed to continuance of high levels of racial segregation since the civil rights era. In some regions, racial segregation is as high as it was before Brown v. Board. Amidst this context, exam schools are a particular phenomenon contributing to racial segregation rates across the United States. Researchers have critiqued these schools for their role in maintaining racial segregation and have called for action and change. While exam schools are present across the United States, exam schools in Boston offer a unique locus of study to examine how a confluence of issues (e.g., a city and school district seeking to advance racial equity, white backlash tactics, and a history of racism) led to the perpetuation of racial inequity two decades into the twenty-first century.

Racial segregation in the Boston area has been a function of public and private actions. Public schools historically excluded students of color from attending, and once the courts mandated school integration, local communities resisted. Boston became the epicenter of school integration debates after Brown, as predominantly white parents resisted racial integration. White flight followed as public schools integrated, and white parents moved their children to private schools where the student body was predominantly white. A decade after Brown, the courts found that the citywide policies and practices in the school system had been adopted to maintain racial segregation in schools. In sum, white backlash and outrage from local parents have repeatedly counteracted integration efforts in Boston.

By 2020, Boston neighborhoods and schools remain highly racially segregated. Boston has taken steps to integrate. For instance, students residing within inner Boston adopted and opted into the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program, a policy to advance racial integration. METCO, a volunteer-based program that does not mandate integration, allows some students from inner Boston schools, where the student body is predominantly of color, to attend suburban schools where the student population is predominantly white. At the same time, BPS operates exam schools, reserved for students who score high on an admissions test and boast high grades. While the BPS student population is predominantly of color, students of color are disproportionately left out of the exam schools, and a disproportionate number of white students attend the exam schools.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated social inequities in the Boston area and disproportionately left students of color with fewer opportunities to take the admissions test. In response to the exacerbated inequities, the BPS School Committee (the “Committee”) proposed the removal of the admissions test for the 2021-2022 academic year to increase the opportunities for all students in the city to be admitted to the exam schools. After holding public hearings about the proposed change to the admissions policy, the Committee adopted the one-year change. White backlash followed and culminated in a lawsuit challenging the policy change.

In this Article, we employ a critical lens to examine this dynamic--the Committee's efforts to advance racial equity and the social and legal resistance that followed in the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence v. the School Committee of the City of Boston (BPCAE v. Boston) controversy. We employ critical discourse analysis to answer one guiding question: How does white backlash manifest itself in the BPCAE v. Boston controversy to stall racial equity? Our analysis revealed the ways in which both parties used or responded to the rhetoric of white backlash and the ensuing social and legal contexts surrounding the case. We argue that given the state of the law two decades into the twenty-first century, racial equity as a goal for public schools has become hampered, if not (seemingly) impossible. That is, the courts' legal approach to racial discrimination claims--examining race-conscious policies under strict scrutiny coupled with a color-evasive, ahistorical lens--has forced school districts to refrain from adopting policies that further racial equity in unequal schools. Schools fear being struck down when explicitly pursuing racial equity within the courts' paradigm and legal precedent. Additionally, white backlash often follows such intentional school efforts to advance racial equity.

We begin our argument in Part I, where we provide a brief history of white backlash movements across decades, discuss the issues that arise with color-evasive frames, and offer a brief history of the roots of standardized testing as a tool of racialization and exclusion and its current use. This review of the extant literature provides the context that informs our analysis. In Part II, we turn to the BPCAE v. Boston controversy as a case study. We begin with a discussion of the relevant legal principles governing racial discrimination in K-12 school assignment and admissions policies. We situate BPCAE v. Boston within the doctrinal developments. We also provide an overview of the historical context of segregation and racialization in the Boston area and the role of testing to maintain racial segregation in the city's public schools. Then, we discuss the conceptual lens and analytic approach we employed in the case study. Using a racial-justice lens, we then present our findings, where we detail the white backlash tactics in the controversy and the response to the backlash. We conclude our argument in Part III with a discussion and the implications that follow from the case study. We discuss the ease with which white backlash obstructs racial equity through a narrative of victimhood to secure white interests and the ways in which a color-evasive frame of diversity and merit deny the realities of racial exclusion and marginalization experienced by students of color. Moreover, we discuss how legal doctrinal developments have restricted racial equity efforts in schools. The case study findings call attention to the need for systemic change in legal doctrine and society to advance racial equity in schools in our democracy.

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Our case study illustrates how white backlash operates to center white privileges and interests in the social and legal discourse over equitable exam school admissions. The case study underscored that tactics of white victimhood and color-evasion serve to obscure the role of racial segregation and marginalization in shaping the current racial and socioeconomic underrepresentation in exam schools. Diversity, as a social and legal concept, can serve as a nexus of contention between opposing parties that wish to either maintain a status quo of racial exclusion and marginalization or to advance an equitable future for all students. Merit, specifically as measured through standardized tests, has also become a point of friction where white backlash has attempted to ignore the racial realities that lead to test score disparities. In sum, white backlash uses a color-evasive frame of diversity and merit to pursue an exclusionary status quo that favors whiteness.

The results of this case are yet to be finalized by the courts, but the outcomes may have a resounding impact on future decisions taken by schools and educational leaders in similar positions. Future research can advance our understanding of the dilemma educational leaders face in seeking racial equity by centering educational leaders' experiences in responding to white backlash in similar contexts. In doing so, scholars and educational leaders can consolidate methods of countering white backlash to enact equitable change towards admissions processes in a K-12 context.

Raquel Muñiz, Assistant Professor, Lynch School of Education & Human Development, Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education, and Assistant Professor (by courtesy), Law School, Boston College.

Sergio Barragán, M.Ed. Educational Leadership & Policy student, Boston College. I am deeply grateful to Marissa Vera for her love and support.