Nikole Hannah-Jones has no interest in frittering anyone’s time.
“You would never hear me use the word ‘diversity’ except to criticize it,” she declared to a large Cleveland audience at Case Western Reserve University’s Martin Luther King Jr. convocation. “Diversity is a word that makes white liberals feel good.”
The 41-year-old MacArthur “genius” recipient and New York Times journalist is “a fundamental voice reshaping the national education agenda,” as CWRU President Barbara Snyder puts it. Hannah-Jones specializes in investigative reporting on school re-segregation and its consequences.
“Nothing says more about us than our choice about where we send our children to school,” she said. “I’m not talking about Trump voters. I’m talking about progressives who don’t live their professed values.”
Perhaps her most-discussed reporting last year published as a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story entitled “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.” In it, the author explores how she and her husband decided to enroll their child in their Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood elementary school, where most of the children are poor, black and Latino.
“I decided we would not use our privilege to escape the children in our neighborhood,” Hannah-Jones told her audience, which included students from five Cleveland-area schools, three of which fit the same demographic profile. “As an upper-middle class, highly-educated person, I can make up for whatever that school isn’t giving her.”
Some of the response to the story was withering. Reader upon reader asked, “How dare you sacrifice your child?” The author’s retort: “Whose children should we sacrifice?”
She spent the bulk of her Cleveland presentation making vivid what becomes of children mired in re-segregated U.S. schools. Those citizens grow up to experience more poverty, more illness, more segregation and shorter lives. And Hannah-Jones came packing information specific to her audience: the history of busing in Cleveland and the rapid re-segregation once the court order came off. Ohio public schools rank fourth in extreme racial segregation– only New York, New Jersey and California are worse.
This matters, Hannah-Jones said, because the only instrument proven to shrink the racial achievement gap is integration. In the 17 short years during which the country moved toward integration, which peaked in 1988, the racial achievement gap was slashed by more than half. As a schoolgirl in Waterloo, Iowa, young Nikole herself was bussed, more than two hours each day.
She stressed that white children didn’t make her, or any other students, better but the resources that accrue to whites do: more experienced teachers, more classroom resources, more advanced-placement curriculum and more rigorous instruction. Hannah-Jones calls this “the milk and honey” that too rarely touches the black and brown children, now composing half of the American public school enrollment.
“And then we blame those children for not achieving what white children do who receive all the milk and honey,” she observed.
“If we truly care about our children, why wouldn’t we do the one thing we know helps every child? This is the denial of full citizenship and equality in the place we expect the most equality: school.”
The writer has little truck with magnet and charter solutions. “One thing about the choice movement is it market-izes what should be public. If you play the Hunger Games with public schools, those on the bottom will continue to die.”
Hannah-Jones won a Peabody award for an absorbing 2015 piece called The Problem We All Live With, which will also be the title of her forthcoming book.
That radio journalism is a portrait of the Normandy Public Schools, the worst performing district in Missouri. Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, led Hannah-Jones to this topic, because McSpadden – in the hour of her grief – spoke out about her teenage son managing to graduate just months before Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot him dead. This caught Hannah-Jones’ attention. McSpadden declined to be interviewed, but other African-American mothers stepped forward to delineate their struggles against the abysmal Normandy schools ensnaring their children.
Hannah-Jones described her pessimism that African-American children will achieve full equality, even as she spoke of her own family’s generational gain, naming the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son” as her favorite. A student bluntly asked why — given her assertion that the future is bleak — she had brought her own daughter into the world.
The journalist laughed, allowing that her pregnancy was unplanned, but then turned serious. “One of the biggest acts of resistance is to say, ‘I will exist.’ Our existence is our resistance.”