Patrolling the Boundaries Inside America

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Patrolling the Boundaries Inside America

When fences divide, people on both sides suffer. (Photo: Nick Kenrick/flickr/cc)

America is embroiled in an immigration debate that goes far beyond President Obama’s executive order on undocumented immigrants.

It goes to the heart of who “we” are. And it’s roiling communities across the nation.

In early November, school officials in Orinda, California, hired a private detective to determine whether a seven-year-old Latina named Vivian – whose single mother works as a live-in nanny for a family in Orinda — “resides” in the district and should therefore be allowed to attend the elementary school she’s already been attending there.

On the basis of that investigation they determined that Vivian’s legal residence is her grandmother’s home in Bay Point, California. They’ve given the seven-year-old until December 5th to leave the Orinda elementary school.

Never mind that Vivian and her mother live during the workweek at the Orinda home where Vivian’s mother is a nanny, that Vivian has her own bedroom in that home with her clothing and toys and even her own bathroom, that she and her mother stock their own shelves in the refrigerator and kitchen cupboard of that Orinda home, or that Vivian attends church with her mother in Orinda and takes gym and youth theater classes at the Orinda community center.

The point is Vivian is Latina and poor, and Orinda is white, Anglo, and wealthy.

And Orinda vigilantly protects itself from encroachments from the large and growing poor Latino and Hispanic populations living beyond its borders.

Orinda’s schools are among the best in California – public schools that glean extra revenues from a local parcel tax (that required a two-thirds vote to pass) and parental contributions to the Educational Foundation of Orinda which “suggests” donations of $600 per child.

Orinda doesn’t want to pay for any kids who don’t belong there. Harold Frieman, Orinda’s district attorney, says the district has to be “preserving the resources of the district for all the students.”

Which is why it spends some of its scare dollars on private detectives to root out children like Vivian.

The bigger story is this. Education is no longer just a gateway into the American middle class. Getting a better education than almost everyone else is the gateway into the American elite.

That elite is now receiving almost all the economy’s gains. So the stakes continue to rise for upscale parents who want to give their kids that better education.

The competition starts before Kindergarten and is becoming more intense each year. After all, the Ivy League has only a limited number of places.     

Parents who can afford it are frantically seeking to get their children into highly regarded private schools.

Or they’re moving into towns like Orinda, with excellent public schools.

Such schools are “public” in name only. Tuition payments are buried inside high home prices, extra taxes, parental donations, and small armies of parental volunteers.  

These parents are intent on policing the boundaries, lest a child whose parents haven’t paid the “tuition” reap the same advantages as their own child. Hell hath no fury like an upscale parent who thinks another kid is getting an unfair advantage by sneaking in under the fence.

The other part of this larger story is that a growing number of kids on the other side of the fence are Hispanic, Latino, and African American. Most babies born in California are now minorities. The rest of the nation isn’t far behind. 

According to the 2010 census, Orinda is 82.4 percent white and 11.4 percent Asian. Only 4.6 percent of its inhabitants are Hispanic or Latino, of any race. All of its elementary schools get 10 points on the GreatSchools 10-point rating system.

Bay Point, where Vivian’s grandmother lives, is 41.4 percent white, 54.9 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race, and 11.6 percent African America. Bay Point’s elementary schools are rated 2 to 4 on GreatShools’ 10-point scale.

Many of the people who live in places like Bay Point tend the gardens and care for the children of the people who live in places like Orinda. 

But Orinda is intent on patrolling its border.

The nation’s attention is focused on the border separating the United States from Mexico, and on people who have crossed that border and taken up residence here illegally.

But the boundary separating white Anglo upscale school districts from the burgeoning non-white and non-Anglo populations in downscale communities is fast becoming a flashpoint inside America.

In both cases, the central question is who are “we.” 

Robert Reich

Robert Reich

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations; Locked in the Cabinet; Supercapitalism; and his newest, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at

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