A couple of weeks ago, I listened to MSNBC host Chris Hayes’ podcast interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, MacArthur Genius, New York Times reporter, author, expert on school integration and a Great Schools speaker last October.
You can find the podcast and transcript here.
It’s a long interview (roughly an hour), but NHJ makes some well known points very clear and accessible. I think in this conversation she explains the importances of integration in very simple and powerful terms.
Here are some key excerpts:
NHJ grew up in Iowa and her parents took advantage of a desegregation plan to send her to one of the whitest and richest schools in the community.
NHJ: If you want to make sure that your kid is going to have the best public school resources that can be offered, then you best go to school with a lot of white kids and a wealthy school. So that’s what parents did. All the black kids would get dropped off at the various open enrollment schools, and at the end of the day when all of the white kids who lived in the neighborhood would be playing outside and walking home, we’d be shuttled onto a bus and sent back to our side of town.
…when I talk to a lot of black folks who have gotten into whatever mainstream careers…it’s often people who went through desegregated schools. They learned to adapt to white norms, they learned to speak the “professional white language,” they learned to be comfortable in those situations, so I think for us, clearly, it was a means of being able to study what you were going to need to succeed in a white-dominated country. But it wouldn’t be easy. I think we shouldn’t expect that taking people who have been forcibly and legally separated and putting them in schools together is going to (be) magic, it’s gonna be difficult. But I think it’s worth the difficulty. We’re a multiracial democracy.
So why was this an important experience in your life?
NHJ: It allows you to relate to the experiences of others in a way that clearly you would never be able to relate. I’ve heard, since I’ve been focusing so much on school segregation, from so many white adults who …went through schools where they were not the majority and that it was transformative for them. That it just helped them to see things that they couldn’t have seen before. It made them better people they think. They also say it wasn’t easy…I think we should stop pretending that it would be, but again, we don’t say that for anything else in life. When you want to be successful, you know it’s gonna be hard. But for this, we want it to be easy because we really don’t want to do it.
Because we don’t want to actually integrate, she says, we look for other solutions to legitimize “separate but equal.”
NHJ: And this is one of the arguments that I make…(to the) common and perennial answer to segregation… “Well, we just need to fund high-poverty schools.” Well, we do, but there are intangible things that you lose when you’re in a segregated entirely poor school. And one of those things is that by being isolated from the language and the culture of those who run your country, who will run the businesses that you may want to work for, you can’t make up for that isolation by throwing more dollars and getting better textbooks.
Hayes says how important social capital is and asks NHJ if she thinks white affluent schools are better than segregated schools.
NHJ: Yes but what we fail to acknowledge (is that) what makes that school good is not the kids but the resources those kids are ensured. This was the whole reason behind school desegregation beginning when the NAACP starts to challenge school segregation in the ’40s. It was not saying there’s something remarkable about white kids that makes black kids smart. It was saying that we have been promising since Plessy v. Ferguson to make separate equal and there’s never been a single moment in time where black kids, isolated from white kids, got even close to the same resources. It literally is about needing to have proximity to get the same things. There’s just been no other way to do that.
On the issue of whether the cause of segregation is structural or the result of individual parental choice.
NHJ: I think either way. When we say, “Oh, it’s just the structure,” then we also justify individual choices, because you’re like, “I can’t solve all of school inequality in the city, so it’s okay if I put my kid in this all white, rich school, ’cause I can’t fix it all.” But at the same time, every time a white parent makes that choice collectively …you have reinforced that.
…Don’t brag to me about how proud you are to be a public school parent when your public school is 10 percent poverty and 80 percent white… We now feel like we should be able to shop for schools. Schools should have to vie for us. Our kids are no longer people who (we) are teaching to be citizens, but people who (we) are teaching to make a lot of money one day.
Hayes then says that many people agree that morally we should integrate, but since it’s not possible, we should focus on making black schools excellent.
NHJ: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t argue with that. Except that, they have no bit of history on their side either, right? We also have never done that ever, on scale anywhere. There’s a reason why every time you bring these issues up, people point to the same five schools, right? Or the same five charter school chains. There’s a reason for that, because it’s not scalable.
You can look at something like, Success Academy… But you look at the purge rates at that school, you look at the amount of additional fundraising they have to do, the philanthropy dollars that are coming in.
We are in a context built on white supremacy. We are in a context where having all black environments means those schools and environments will be starved of resources, as they have been in every community in our country…I still don’t think you can ever make the schools equal for the reasons that I already pointed out, but…show me the example of where we scaled it and I’ll shut up.