This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Nikole Hannah-Jones warned her audience from the outset: “I don’t give inspirational speeches. The talk I give tonight, I hope it will make you feel uncomfortable.”
In that, she succeeded.
Hannah-Jones, an award-winning writer and 2017 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner, covers race, civil rights and segregation for the New York Times Magazine. She spoke Saturday night at a fundraiser for the Mighty Writers, a nonprofit organization that helps students unlock their talents and ambitions through writing. Her appearance was one of the highlights of the organization’s first-ever MightyFest.
She guessed that “everyone here is a self-selected progressive,” surveying the 100 or so people in the audience at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia. And yet, she noted, most of them probably “do things daily that uphold conditions I write about.”
Her forthcoming book is called The Problem We All Live With for a reason. Anyone who attends school, or has attended school, or has children who attend school, or pay taxes that fund schools, or chooses where to live based on schools – and that covers about all of us – is caught up in what Hannah-Jones called the American DNA: a racial caste system.
Grown out of slavery, it was put in place long before the United States had even become a country. We are reaping that legacy today in schools that remain segregated 64 years after the Supreme Court said that “separate but equal” is unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
And this reality has been accepted as normal. In her writing, Hannah-Jones highlights the stories of students and families who live with the results, like the young woman in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who graduated at the top of her class, took the hardest courses available, participated in many extracurriculars – but didn’t have high enough ACT scores to get into the University of Alabama. Tuscaloosa split its integrated high school after the courts lifted a desegregation order. As a result, the segregated black school lacked myriad resources available to students in the white school across town, not the least of which were Advanced Placement courses.
Personal choices vs. political beliefs
“The beauty of segregation,” Hannah-Jones said, “is that those who don’t benefit from it never get to see the results.”
She acknowledged the efforts of individuals and groups that work hard to mitigate the effects of inadequate schools – like Mighty Writers – by creating supplemental programs for “disadvantaged” students. These programs are valuable and beneficial, she said.
But these same people rarely think about the impact of their personal decision-making on upholding a system starkly divided by race and income.
Ordinary Americans struggle between being good parents – wanting the best for their own children – and good citizens – wanting the best for all children. Most with what she called the “luxury” of choice will come down on the “good parent” side, regardless of their political beliefs. If they can, parents in cities like Philadelphia will opt for private school or they will move to a place where the schools are “better.”
Which for most Americans, means more white and less poor.
“You can’t have it both ways,” she said. “You can’t say you believe in equality and hoard opportunity for your own child.”
Hannah-Jones, 42, who is biracial, went to desegregated schools herself. She advocates for integration, she said, because “in America, separate is never equal, and never can or will be. Show me the one place where the black school in town has the same as the white school. I’ve looked at the data. It doesn’t exist. The black school will always have less. That is racial caste, It is not incidental; it is not accidental. We have a system set up to privilege white children at the expense of black children.”
This history goes all the way back to Horace Mann, author of the oft-quoted line that “education is the great equalizer.” In the 19th century, Mann helped develop the “common school” to make education available to all children.
But from the start, Hannah-Jones said, the needs of black children have been sacrificed in order to benefit whites. To get sufficient support for his grand idea, Mann agreed to an understanding that black children would not attend these schools at first, though he believed they should.
Many of the favored reforms of the last two decades, including charter schools, are predicated on the assumption that the schools will remain segregated and that policies like punishing teachers for low student test scores will somehow make up for the vast inequities in our political and social structures.
Reforms don’t work – except integration
These reforms – charter schools, small schools, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, and more – have not worked, she said. Only one thing has made progress in closing the “achievement gap,” or test score differences among racial groups, and that is integration.
When the courts were enforcing integration orders, mostly in Southern states, the achievement gap as measured by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) narrowed. It started widening again in 1988, when the Supreme Court began vacating these orders, declaring the problem solved.
After that, schools in the affected districts resegregated, and the achievement gap widened. Hannah-Jones said her research shows that the longer a black child stays in a segregated school, the further she falls behind white peers.
“Schools are hurting children, not helping children,” she said. “The one thing that works is integration, and that’s the one thing that’s always off the table. We choose not to do it.”
Hannah-Jones made clear that she doesn’t argue for integration because she thinks “there is something magical about white kids making black kids smart. I advocate for integration because that’s the only way black kids get the same resources white kids get,” she said.
Integration has never come easy, certainly not after the Brown v. Board decision in 1954.
First, it really only affected the South, which was forced to abandon its Jim Crow laws. The ruling was met with massive resistance, including by Prince Edward County, Va., where the entire school system was shut down rather than integrate. White parents got vouchers to send their kids to private schools, including white academies that sprung up. This went on for five years. Black parents and students had no options if they couldn’t afford to move or pay for private school. Many private schools wouldn’t take them even if they had the money.
It was 10 years later before desegregation efforts took hold – with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But, Hannah-Jones cautioned, those of us in the North should not think we are any better.
“Housing is how the North enforced segregation,” she said.
Federal policy, through redlining and other means, made it legal to deny black people the right to buy or rent in any neighborhood. In cities like Philadelphia, whites were able to move to the suburbs, often with the help of federal subsidies denied to blacks.
But with white families’ exodus to the suburbs and the large Catholic school system, there were fewer and fewer white students to integrate with. A succession of superintendents resisted mandatory desegregation policies such as busing. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) pursued a 40-year legal case against the city School District, starting in 1968.
In the PHRC case, Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith ultimately ordered the District to send more resources to the most racially isolated, poor schools.
Court’s decision on busing
Hannah-Jones explained that the pivotal decision regarding school segregation in the North happened 20 years after Brown, and that was Milliken v. Bradley. The Supreme Court (with four justices nominated by Richard Nixon) ruled 5-4 that Detroit and its suburbs could not be required to bus students across district lines.
Hannah-Jones said she points out the moral solution, not the politically feasible ones. What does she think should happen? A metropolitan school district that combines city and suburbs.
The metro school district she called for was proposed 60 years ago by former mayor and school board president Richardson Dilworth. He warned, the story goes, of a “white noose” around a black city if something wasn’t done to alter the narrative.
“People never like my answer,” she said. “They want a fix that is the least challenging. They never want anyone to give anything up. If we want to fix this, people who are used to getting what you want have to get used to giving it up.”
If “powerful white people” wanted a metropolitan school district, “it will happen,” she said. “So, how do you get powerful white people to want that?”
In the meantime, white parents in the city who shun their local schools should reexamine their thinking, she said, asking themselves what exactly they are trying to protect their child from.
“Children learn from each other,” she said, “They’re just children. If you believe in the common good, you don’t need to protect your children from other children.”
Hannah-Jones and her husband chose to enroll their child in a mostly black, mostly poor neighborhood school in Brooklyn, and she wrote a Times Magazine cover story about it.
“As special as my kid is, I don’t think she deserves more than other kids,” she said. “Big structural inequalities are upheld every day by our own individual choices.”
At the same time, “I am no hero for putting my child in a school we live near. If you believe it’s a sacrifice, why is that school serving kids at all? It is a choice. We have enough resources to serve all our kids, and we don’t.”
There were several parents at the event – white parents – who are active in “friends of” school groups around the city seeking to support local public schools, including by sending their own children to them. But there are issues with that too, such as the fear that once white families become a critical mass in a school, they “take it over” and many poor parents are driven out.
“How do we walk the fine line between integration and gentrification?” asked one parent. Hannah-Jones concedes that this is hard.
“Every action has an equal reaction,” she said. “We face this in our daughter’s school. We want school integration. We want them to come to our school, but as soon as they come in, they start to take over, then those schools always flip. White parents follow other white parents. Even my editor asks me, ‘What do you want? You don’t want segregation, but you don’t want white parents to take over.’”
She said she wants “true balance.” But given the nation’s racial history, given that “racial inequality is the defining DNA of our country … that’s hard to accomplish.”
But the bottom line is this: “Our schools are not broken,” she said, “but operating exactly as they were designed.”