Hannah-Jones: Beliefs are not enough

Nikole Hannah-Jones had a blunt message for the largely well-educated and politically liberal audience that she addressed Thursday night in Bloomington, Indiana. Go home, she said. Look in the mirror. Reflect on the decisions you make about your child’s schooling.

Ask if they serve the common good or if they benefit your child at the expense of other children.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones

“To believe in equality is not enough,” she said. “Your beliefs don’t help a single child.”

Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer and 2017 MacArthur genius award recipient, spoke to several hundred people in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in a lecture sponsored by several Indiana University organizations and the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

She promised at the start that her talk would not be “uplifting.” It wasn’t. It was about tearing down the illusions of people who think they can in good conscience enroll their children in mostly white, low-poverty schools and avert their eyes from segregation that harms poor children and children of color.

“It’s not good enough to have a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard if you make decisions about your child that harm other children,” she said.

Hannah-Jones, known for her stories on school and housing segregation, drew on 400 years of history to examine racial disparities in schools. She noted that the first African slaves were brought to America 12 years after Europeans arrived on the continent. It wasn’t until 1968 – eight years before she was born – that African-Americans won basic rights to education, voting and housing.

“Racism is not merely a facet of our country,” she said. “It is embedded in the foundational DNA of the United States of America.”

A consistent theme in Hannah-Jones reporting, including a 2015 “This American Life” series on segregation in Ferguson, Missouri and other towns, is that the United States turned away from racial integration even though it’s the one education reform that has proven effective.

“We know what’s the best thing for our children,” she said. “We choose not to do it.”

The Supreme Court, in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, declared segregated schools unconstitutional. The decision provoked massive white resistance, but it eventually was implemented, providing students with a better education.

Citing scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Hannah-Jones showed that test scores for black students improved as schools grew more integrated. But the gap has widened since the late 1980s as schools re-segregated following court decisions that were hostile to integration.

Hannah-Jones’ most personal work was a 2016 story about her decision to enroll her daughter in a high-poverty, mostly black elementary school in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Critics attacked her, she said, accusing her of sacrificing her own child for principle.

Her daughter, she said, is doing fine, learning not only from her teachers but from her diverse and resilient classmates. But the critics’ accusation prompted Hannah-Jones to ask a question: Whose children are we willing to sacrifice to a segregated and unequal system of education?

“The answer is, we already know,” she said. “The same children we have always sacrificed in this country.”

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