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multiracial students
Mar Vista High School in California. Credit: Wire photo: U-T San Diego/

The National Interest: Once a month, this column is tackling broader questions about what the country should do about gaps in achievement and opportunity, especially for boys of color, in a partnership with The Root.

“I’m not white. I’m also not not-white. So it’s fuzzy figuring out exactly what privileges I benefit from,” explained Sierra Fang, a rising senior in an Oakland high school, to KQED Youth Radio on a segment about mixed-race privilege. Fang’s father is white and her mother is Chinese; she attends a white school and her family is middle class.

Fang must reconcile overcoming a world that will judge her and her father differently, using the privileges bestowed by her father’s whiteness. Complicated.

A new study from The Brookings Institution offers insight into the complicated lives of multiracial families, institutional racism and the unique burdens of multiracial privilege. According to the study, 12th-grade students who identify as being multiracial scored, on average, the same as white students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test, and they outperformed other racial categories in reading.

When I was parsing these findings, a saying my grandma was fond of came to mind: “Don’t be a waste of yella,” she often said to my “brighter” cousins. Communities of color have long debated the privileges of being lighter-skinned or mixed race. But who would have thought the fastest way to close the achievement gap is to have children with someone of a different race?

That’s clearly not the answer — so what’s really boosting mixed-raced students test scores?

Join the conversation later on Andre Perry’s radio show, “Free College,” hosted Tuesdays on WBOK1230 in New Orleans at 3pm Central/4pm Eastern 504.260.9265.

The study’s findings tell the story of how race, class and privilege influence educational success. Almost half of multiracial students aged 15 to 18 report having black ancestry, and black-white combinations are the most frequent interracial origin in the age group. Interracial couples seemingly split the difference between the partners’ historic racial relationships to income and socioeconomic class. Multiracial students typically come from families that earn about $45,000 less per year than their white counterparts, but they earn approximately $14,000 more than black parents. The income difference indicates that multiracial couples can leverage at least one partner’s access to better-paying jobs — higher incomes give test scores a boost.

You may marry into white privilege, but the findings around income also remind us of the informal tax levied against those who chose to love differently.

You may marry into white privilege, but the findings around income also remind us of the informal tax levied against those who chose to love differently. Despite the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional, many apparently still pay a social and financial price for whom they chose to love. Hence, “I’m not white. I’m also not not-white.”

The study’s most compelling results show that students who identify as multiracial tend to go to school more with whites and Asians than with blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Pacific Islanders, and these schools apparently improve students’ odds of academic achievement, as compared to other low-income students of color. Notwithstanding the lower incomes, the study finds, “multiracial students have the same average test scores as whites on math, science, and writing.”

The study’s author, Jonathan Rothwell, implies that when given access to schools that have a whiter or more Asian population, students of color performed better on a standardized test. But underlying that finding is the very strong likelihood that those schools are more resourced, which supports claims that the so-called achievement gap is really a resource gap. And this is a function of the institutional racism that students of color face at every turn.

Related: Asking too much of high school graduates but not enough of businesses that employ them

Let’s unpack that idea. More income generally yields higher test scores, but higher test scores don’t necessarily mean better teachers or curricula. Higher scores might just reflect wealthier parents and the school’s ability to shut out low-income, disadvantaged kids. Too often we wrongly assume the whiter school is better when it’s simply more exclusive.

After our country’s history of segregation, society has finally bought into the idea that diversity is better, but for the wrong reasons. When students say they feel safer in diverse schools, as a University of California, Los Angeles study found they did, they’re also saying, perhaps unconsciously, that they feel unsafe in black schools. That sentiment is steeped in prejudice, and ignores the root causes of this insecurity.

We need to understand why multiracial families, who should know better, choose to send their kids to schools with fewer black students and why these schools produce better educational outcomes. Multiracial families can often choose to live in districts with high concentrations of black and Latino youth or in whiter school districts. By picking the more resourced, more diverse schools they also contribute to the long-standing practice of neglecting black schools and denying blackness — both of which harm black communities from the inside out.

Rothwell seems to agree. “The race gaps in academic achievement in the United States are the result of inequality, especially in terms of access to educational opportunities, and therefore could be closed under fairer political, social, and economic arrangements,” he writes.

Related: Learning is social and emotional; our classrooms should be too

The study (re)affirms that kids of color, like everyone else, learn best in supportive environments. All children can achieve. But the methods we use to close achievement gaps are still questionable.

Ironically, this new research from Brookings on multiracial families may just encourage the “diverse by design movement,” jargon for efforts to engineer diverse schools. Though the research is uneven, there is strong evidence that diversity is better both for reducing stereotyping and discrimination and for improving academic achievement. But just as it’s preposterous to copulate our way to academic success, it’s absurd to make black schools feel safer or better by making them whiter. This new openness to diversity has an undercurrent of racism to it that I don’t like. Integration shouldn’t equal abandoning black schools (and black schools are unavoidable in black neighborhoods) or hurt children of color, regardless of who their parents are, how much money they make, or more specifically, what race their parents belong to.

Who you love is a personal choice, but black love can’t be devalued by public policy.

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