Writer Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses black education, desegregation, and privilege

The New York Times reporter discussed racism, segregation, and the need for white liberals to act on their values in a talk at Yale Law School.
Event poster for Nikole Hannah-Jones’ talk ‘The Problem We All Live With’ at Yale on March 28, 2018

When Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, took the stage in the auditorium of the Yale Law School, she thanked the over 100 attendees for coming “to what I promise will not be an uplifting talk whatsoever.”  

For nearly two hours, Hannah-Jones, who is writing a book about school segregation in the 21st century, posed difficult questions about race, equality, and privilege that visibly made many in the audience uncomfortable. Her message was unequivocal: We in America have made a decision to sacrifice the education of black children.  

Hannah-Jones’ March 28 talk, sponsored by the Education Studies program and the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, began with a reference to Linda Brown, who was at the center of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared segregation in schools “inherently unequal.” But, Hannah-Jones asked, would we support Brown today? “We like to put our civil rights heroes in amber,” she said. “We are a country in general that doesn’t like to talk about history,” Hannah-Jones said. “When it comes to race, we have amnesia.”

She briefly traced the history of American racism, beginning with the first slaves brought to the country in 1619, just 12 years after the first British settlers arrived. After the Civil War, she said, there were 100 years of legal apartheid in the Jim Crow South. She showed a picture of herself as a baby, born in 1976. “This is not ancient history,” Hannah-Jones said. “I am not as young as some of you, but I am not an old woman.”

The point of this exercise, she explained, was to show that her generation of black Americans was the first to have full legal rights. But the white people who opposed that goal for so many years are, like her, still alive, she said — and they have figured out how to maintain segregation in America. “The Court ruled; all the white people repented and realized the error of their ways.,” she said, but the South resisted desegregation, and it was 10 years before any real change happened in Southern schools. One point that Hannah-Jones repeated often was that segregation is prevalent in northern school districts, too — it is not just a Southern problem. (“The Problem We All Live With” was the title of her talk and her forthcoming book.)

Desegregation peaked in 1988, she noted, and since then, school districts across the country have found ways to keep schools segregated. The emphasis today on test scores provides white parents with an excuse to keep their kids out of “bad” schools without actually talking about race, Hannah-Jones said. In the North, city-wide (rather than county-wide) school districts allow parents to move just a couple of miles away — from, say, downtown New Haven to Branford, she said — if they want to keep their kids out of predominantly black and Latino schools.

Today, Hannah-Jones said, we talk about giving more resources to predominantly black schools, as if that will solve the problem. But, she argued, “separate but equal,” is inherently unequal. “Segregated schooling = segregated life,” read a slide from her presentation. Why, she asked, do we ignore integration — the one reform we know works best?

If I can get liberals to claim the values they say they have, I’ll have done a lot of my work,” Hannah-Jones said — but “I’m not an optimist,” she conceded. “I’m not interested in small fixes. I’m interested in revolutionary fixes.”

She spoke directly to the members of the Yale community in the room. “Who do we sacrifice to uphold our privilege?” If white parents continue to choose to take their kids out of public school districts, either to private schools or to white districts, they should “just admit it,” she said. “You don’t believe in equality.”

Additional sponsors for the event were the Department of Political Science; Timothy Dwight College; the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration; the Ludwig Center for Community and Economic Development at Yale Law School; and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale.

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