Last year, reporting from The New York Times Magazine's Nikole Hannah-Jones showcased a disturbing trend in American K-12 education: the resegregation of schools across the country and its negative impact on all students and communities. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it's worth revisiting Hannah-Jones' work for WBEZ's This American Life program, and her previous reporting on modern-day school resegregation for ProPublica and The Atlantic.
In April 2014, investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones published a comprehensive exploration of racial resegregation in an Alabama city school district previously under a federal desegregation order. The report, released as part of an ongoing ProPublica series in collaboration with The Atlantic, focused on the state of segregation in American society and coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education civil rights decision outlawing racial segregation in schools.
The three-part series featured images from historic segregation efforts, submissions from students detailing their own experiences with racial segregation in schools, an interactive timeline on the trajectory of integration efforts nationwide, a short companion film, and in-depth reporting focused on the first-hand experiences of a black family in a highly segregated district in the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The project's editors at ProPublica described its scope:
The presentation includes: Hannah-Jones's extraordinary 9,000-word article; a beautiful and arresting collection of photographs taken by students in Tuscaloosa high schools; a partnership with Michele Norris's “Race Card Project” and NPR's Morning Edition; an interactive timeline tracing the arc of segregation, integration and resegregation; a feature that will provide the first-ever opportunity for readers to look up whether their districts remain under federal desegregation orders and just how integrated their school districts are today; and a moving, short documentary film by the award-winning Maisie Crow.
Hannah-Jones' reporting -- featured as the May 2014 cover story for The Atlantic -- connected the stories of three generations of the Dents, a black Tuscaloosa family, to the complicated realities of racial dynamics in schools across the country (emphasis added):
Tuscaloosa's school resegregation--among the most extensive in the country--is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes. It is a story shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city's black elites. And it was blessed by a U.S. Department of Justice no longer committed to fighting for the civil-rights aims it had once championed.
In the hours after the parade, James Dent sat back in a worn wingback chair in the cramped but tidy house he and his wife rent in the West End. As dusk brought out the whirring of cicadas, he quietly flipped through a photo album devoted to D'Leisha's many accomplishments. She's the class president, a member of the mayor's youth council, a state champion in track and field. Later that night, she would be named homecoming queen as well.
Dent never went to college. One of 13 children born into the waning days of Jim Crow, he took his place in the earliest of integrated American institutions: the military. He served four years in the Air Force, including a year in Vietnam, before returning to the West End to spend the next 40 mixing cement for a living. The work was steady, but the pay meager.
Thin, with chestnut skin, and seldom seen without a Vietnam-vet cap, Dent is a reserved man, not prone to soapboxes. But after a long silence, he gently suggested that maybe his granddaughter deserved a little more than a 12-car salute at a brief and sparsely attended parade. When D'Leisha graduates this spring, she will have spent her entire public education in segregated schools. Just like he had.
“I think about it all the time, and ain't nothing I can do about it,” he said. “It ain't going to get no better.” He said he just hoped she was learning as much as the city's white students were, then grew quiet again. If integration was going to prove so brief, what, he wondered, had all the fighting been for?
Hannah-Jones' storytelling around the Dent family -- grandfather James, who attended segregated schools in Tuscaloosa; mother Melissa, who attended the high-achieving, integrated Central High School there; and daughter D'Leisha, a current student at the overwhelmingly black, failing Central High of the present-day -- wove through historical context about federal desegregation orders, local politics, and extensive research on the benefits of integrated education for black and white students alike. She concluded:
For black students like D'Leisha--the grandchildren of the historic Brown decision--having to play catch-up with their white counterparts is supposed to be a thing of the past. The promise was that students of all colors would be educated side by side, and would advance together into a more integrated, equitable American society. Polls show Americans embracing this promise in the abstract, but that rarely translates into on-the-ground support for integration efforts.
A few months earlier, D'Leisha had talked about how much she looked forward to meeting people from different cultures at college and sitting in a racially mixed classroom for the first time. But her college hopes are thinner now than she'd expected then. As of this writing, they largely hinge on the tenuous promise of a coach at a small, historically black college outside of Birmingham, who has told her that the school will have a place for her despite her score. No official offer of admission has yet arrived.
At the end of 2014, Hannah-Jones' work on school resegregation appeared again at ProPublica, this time focused on the segregation of the Normandy school district in Missouri, where Michael Brown had graduated days before his fatal shooting by a white police officer. This work informed more in-depth, first-hand reporting on segregated schools for a piece in New York Times Magazine and a two-part investigative series for WBEZ's This American Life program last summer. The series was entitled “The Problem We All Live With” in reference to a famous Norman Rockwell painting depicting Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white school in the South.
The program drew from Hannah-Jones' scholarly expertise on and personal connections to racial resegregation in schools, then pivoted to report on starkly different desegregation efforts in Normandy (bordering the city of Ferguson, Missouri) and Hartford, Connecticut, where a school district was actively integrating and facing an uphill battle to gain support from local parents. The series also featured a smaller vignette told from the perspective of a black student taking integration into her own hands, and an interview with then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan conducted by Hannah-Jones and This American Life producer Chana Joffe-Walt. Hannah-Jones described the project as an effort to tell the story of Michael Brown's school district and “what happens to those children left behind” compared to students who are “given a chance to escape failing schools” (emphasis added):
I teamed up with Chana Joffe-Walt, a producer for the radio program “This American Life,” to tell the story of Michael Brown's school district through the students who remain there. It is a story of children locked away from opportunity, what happens when those children are given a chance to escape failing schools and what happens to those children left behind. It is a story of how powerful people decided to do something only when the problems of the worst district in the state were no longer contained. And above all, it is a story of the staggering educational inequality we are willing to accept.
The first part of the series, framed around the death of Michael Brown, detailed an unintentional integration program instituted in his school district in Normandy, one year before Brown's death, when the district lost its state accreditation and students were allowed to transfer to neighboring, overwhelmingly white schools (emphasis added):
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I stumbled on this place by accident. I was watching the coverage of Michael Brown, almost a year ago, like the rest of America. There was one moment that I could not get out of my head. It's news footage of his mother, Leslie McSpadden, right after he was killed.
LESLIE MCSPADDEN: This was wrong, and that was cold-hearted.
HANNAH-JONES: She's standing in a crowd of onlookers, a few feet from where her son was shot down, where he would lie face down on the concrete for four hours, dead. And this is what she says.
MCSPADDEN: You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many.
HANNAH-JONES: I watched this over and over. A police officer has just killed her oldest child. It has to be the worst moment of her life. But of all the ways she could've expressed her grief and outrage, this is what was on her mind: school. Getting her son through school. Michael Brown became a national symbol of the police violence against youth, but when I looked into his education I realized he's also a symbol of something else, something much more common. Most black kids will not be shot by the police, but many of them will go to a school like Michael Brown's. It took me all of five minutes on the Internet to find out that the school district he attended is almost completely black, almost completely poor, and failing badly.
Schools in Missouri get accredited by the state. Almost every district is accredited, but if you're doing really bad, you get put on notice. That's called provisional accreditation. That's supposed to be like a warning, but Normandy had provisional accreditation for 15 years. That means there are entire classes of students, nearly all of them black, who came in as kindergarteners and graduated twelve years later without ever having attended a school that met state standards. In the St. Louis area, nearly one in two black children attend schools in districts that perform so poorly, the state has stripped them of full accreditation. Only one in 25 white children are in a district like that.
The second part of the series, reported by Joffe-Walt, expanded on Hannah-Jones' segment by providing a contrasting story of the Hartford, Connecticut city school district which is using sophisticated marketing strategies to gain support from white parents in its efforts to prioritize racial integration in its schools (emphasis added):
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: When you drive around suburban Hartford now, occasionally you'll see a sign on someone's lawn that says 'I Heart Magnet Schools.' Neighbors will ask, 'Hey, where does your kid go on the bus every morning?' The few-minute conversation that follows is the most powerful marketing tool available. It's what Enid or any marketer dreams of: a conversation where one parent goes to another, 'Oh, I think I've heard of that place. Does she like it? Is it safe?' Neighbor to neighbor, white person to white person. It is the same potent tool that, three decades ago, helped create segregated neighborhoods, repurposed to do the exact opposite.
Hartford parents, right now, are frustrated for the exact same reason parents were frustrated with Hartford schools in the 1980s, when [civil rights lawyer] John Brittain sued: their schools are inferior. Magnet school kids do great. They go to integrated schools, and 80 percent of them pass state tests. Hartford public school kids go to segregated schools. Less than 40 percent of them pass state tests. Magnet school kids can explore space on the first floor of their school. Hartford public school buildings have gotten better, but they're not like that.
For the 50 percent of Hartford families who can't get their kids into the beautiful, integrated magnet schools, things are exactly the same as they've always been. Only worse, because now there's a school with a planetarium down the block that they can't get into. That school with the planetarium, by the way? The environmental sciences magnet? It used to just be Mary Hooker Elementary before integration. It was just a regular public school. And back when it was a regular public school, it was almost entirely Latino, there was no planetarium, no Lego lab or butterfly vivarium. Those came when it went magnet. Those came with the white students.
The argument against 'separate but equal' was never that separate schools couldn't be equal, theoretically. Just that it never, ever happens.
“The Problem We All Live With,” along with Hannah-Jones' previous work, brings the first-hand stories of students and parents to the forefront of America's ongoing racial conversation, and connects these experiences to data highlighting the failures of persistent segregation in schools and the complicated strategies used to address it. This powerful reporting, weaving personal experiences from different communities and generations with the facts of school segregation's lasting impact, warrants another look today.