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School Segregation: The Evil of a Racist Nation

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This is a great interview between Jeffrey Goldberg and the civil rights writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. Two critical points here. First, it’s that our school segregation is the sign of an inherently racist society, something that white liberals refuse to confront in a serious way, as we see in the comments to my post on this topic yesterday.

Goldberg: Two issues preoccupy you: housing segregation and education segregation. They’re linked, obviously. To get to a place where there’s actual equality in housing and actual equality in educational opportunities for African-Americans, what has to happen? It’s not just a legislative process.

Hannah-Jones: It is not. Though, equal rights for black Americans has always had to be legislated. It’s never been willingly given. What it would take, if we’re honest, is a fundamental restructuring of society. Our public schools are not broken, but are operating as designed. Our public schools were set up to provide unequal, inadequate education for black children. So that’s what they do.

Goldberg: But aren’t the public schools just a downstream problem of housing segregation policies?

Hannah-Jones: No. They are clearly linked, but whether you have integrated communities or segregated communities, we have school segregation. In communities that are gentrifying, the gentrification stops at the schoolhouse door. White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is white. If their neighborhood school is black, they want choice. Housing segregation just becomes a convenient excuse. The problem—and I never use the phrase “white supremacy” because it’s a word that people automatically discount as soon as you use it, but that is the problem.

We have a system where white people control the outcomes. And the outcome that most white Americans want is segregation. And I don’t mean the type of segregation that we saw in 1955. I don’t mean complete segregation. I don’t think there are very many white Americans who want entirely white schools. What they do want is a limited number of black kids in their schools.

Goldberg: What do you call “curated diversity.”

Hannah-Jones: I never talk about school inequality in terms of “diversity” because I think it’s a useless word. I think it’s a word that white people love. When I say “curated diversity,” it means white parents like a type of diversity so they’ll still be the majority and there won’t be too many black kids.

White Americans, in general, are willing to accept about the ratio of black Americans at large: 10 to 15 percent.

Goldberg: But you get into the 20s…

Hannah-Jones: When you get into the 20s, white folks start to exaggerate how large the percentage is. So in New York City, one of the most segregated school systems in the country, if you’re a white parent in the public schools, you don’t want all-white schools.

Goldberg: Because you’re a liberal?

Hannah-Jones: Yeah. But what you want is a majority-white school with a small number of black kids and a good number of Latino, a good number of Asian. That makes you feel very good about yourself because you feel like your child is getting this beautiful integrated experience. The problem is that the public schools in New York City are 70 percent black and Latino. So, for you to have your beautiful diversity, that means that most black and Latino kids get absolutely none.

The tolerance for increasing particularly the percentage of black kids is very low, and even lower if those black kids are poor. No white parents in New York City mind having my kid in their school because they feel like I’m on their level. But if you get too many of kids like mine who are black but poor, there’s very little tolerance.

And despite what white liberals want to say about their own actions to give their children “the best education,” there is overwhelming evidence that these choices lead to racist outcomes. We will certainly not become serious about dealing with racism until white liberals, not to mention other whites, are willing to even admit this is the reality of their choices. It doesn’t really matter whether you are making these choices to benefit your own children. You are making the world a more unequal place. And note the fundamental question of whether private schools are immoral, to which the answer is yes, they are immoral.

Goldberg: If you were the dictator of America, would you outlaw private schools? Would you force all the white kids, and all the upper-middle class and upper-class African-American kids, into the public-school system? You’d have a deep level of parental involvement, right? Are private schools immoral in this context?

Hannah-Jones: Interestingly, right after Brown there was consideration of whether or not Brown had to apply to private schools, or whether we should get rid of private schools in the United States altogether, understanding that the way to subvert Brown is to simply withdraw from public schools. Which is what happened all across the South—rather than share a public good with black folks, state legislatures decided to shut down public schools altogether and pay vouchers for white students to go to private segregation academies. We think it sounds absolutely crazy to consider ending private schools, but that was a consideration.

The answer to your question is yes, you would have to. If you truly wanted to equalize and integrate schools, you would have to. But you can go a step shorter than that.

New York City public schools are majority black and Latino. But you can go to any of the suburbs around, and they’re very heavily white. So in New York and all across the North, you could simply move into an all-white community and go to all-white public schools. And that’s how you avoided desegregation. In the South, most school districts were countywide. So you either paid for private school or you dealt with desegregation. In the North, you didn’t have to do that.

The key difference between the North and the South is for the vast majority of the history of this country, 90 percent of all black people lived in the South. The South responds with Jim Crow, by passing laws that restrict the movement of black people. The North doesn’t have to do that. It has a very tiny black population. It’s only once black people start migrating out of the South in the 1900s that the North shows its true ugly racist head.

She later goes on:

Hannah-Jones: Right. My daughter is in a high-poverty school. We’re clearly not poor. I think it makes her a better human being. I think she gets to see that these kids aren’t any less than her. They just have less than her. But those are all hard soft-arguments to make to people who fundamentally view education as, how my kid will rise to the top above every other kid and get into Harvard. They don’t actually give a damn about their kid being a better person.

Yes. And this is the fundamental problem with whites, education, and race.

Now, there is one other, unrelated issue, we need to discuss in this interview. And that’s the idea about history getting better. There is a popular cliche that history is a slow arc that points toward justice. This is patently absurd. It does not. History is about power. No struggle is ever over. That includes, say, slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment does not guarantee that future generations will not want to put black people back into enslavement. Hell, we just saw the Republican candidate for the Senate in Alabama attack the Reconstruction Amendments. Saying that history gets better is something liberals tell themselves to feel better. It does not help. Watch Hannah-Jones eviscerate Goldberg on this point.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You and I have both had these conversations with my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates about the arc of history and which way it bends. I’ve adopted the viewpoint of Barack Obama, that history is an arrow and the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. And Ta-Nehisi says that there really is no moral arc, but if there were it would just bend toward chaos. Are you in the camp of people who say that long-term optimism is premature?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I think it has not a lot of basis in historical fact. I would say the arc is actually a circle. It just perpetually turns back on itself.

Goldberg: But let’s use African-Americans as an example. Life has gotten better, no? Before there was before there was Brown v. Board of Education, there was no Brown v. Board of Education. Before there was a Civil Rights Act, there was no Civil Rights Act. We don’t live in a period of history free of lynchings, but the number of lynchings has gone down. There are more African-Americans in the middle class since Reconstruction. Life in America for African-Americans has gotten better. It’s been stutter stepped, but we ain’t in 1866 or 1873.

Hannah-Jones: I am not a slave. That’s true.

Goldberg: Well … All right.

Hannah-Jones: If that’s the bar.

Goldberg: No, no, no.

Hannah-Jones: None of us would argue that there hasn’t been progress in a range of things. I guess I get almost offended by people who want us to pause and be congratulatory about forward progress.

Goldberg: I just want it known for the record that I’m offending you already. And we haven’t even started.

Hannah-Jones: I mean, in a country that has set itself apart as a beacon of democracy, the fact that we’re applauding that black folks now have had, for 40 years, full citizenship rights in the country of their birth, in the country of their grandparents’ birth, in the country their great grandparents’ birth—it’s just hard to feel a lot of optimism.

Goldberg: I’m not arguing for applauding. Obviously there is a long road to go. I’m just saying that there is a direction to things.

Hannah-Jones: Well, there’s forward progress and then we move back. We’re clearly right now moving back. So yes, we get the Voting Rights Act and now we get the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. We see a wave of voter suppression. We get Brown v. Board of Education and now black children are more segregated than they’ve been since the 1970s. We never made any real progress on housing segregation outside of the South and the West even though we outlawed housing discrimination in 1968. The wealth gap for black and white Americans is the largest that it’s been since we started really recording this in the 1970s. There are more black men incarcerated than were black men enslaved during slavery. There are more black men killed by police than there were black men lynched in a year.

Goldberg: Okay fine. You win.

Goldberg wisely moves on because he has no leg to stand on. History does not get better. Not unless you fight for justice. And that includes not contributing to racial segregation in education.

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