Award-winning New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has reported on race throughout her journalistic career, but she called segregation in schools “the heart on inequality in this country,” during her presentation this past Monday at the University of Rhode Island.
The talk was also coupled by a singing of the National Black Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, led by local singer Cheryl Albright, who invited the rest of the audience to sing with her.
Hannah-Jones began her talk by sharing a story about a high school senior, someone many would see as “the all American girl” who was the popular homecoming queen dating the football star. She was smart and popular, and challenged herself by taking the hardest classes her school had to offer.
She asked the audience to then “Imagine this girl in your mind and imagine her future. Can’t you just see her leading the debate team on some Ivy league campus? Can’t you just imagine her landing some coveted internship in a big city firm?” Then, she showed a slide displaying the girl’s name: D’leisha.
“Did the record just scratch?” Hannah-Jones said. She asked the audience to pay attention to the apostrophe in her name. “That apostrophe foreshadows a counter narrative, one that may already be forming in your mind. It’s a giveaway, a shorthand. A justifiable subtraction…that serves as a bright, neon flashing light in the American mind.”
Hannah-Jones explained that people with names that sound black are less likely to get jobs and internships, or hear back from their elected officials. She added that because of their names, they are somehow deserving of bad schools, poor neighborhoods, and low paying jobs.
Across America, Hannah-Jones said, hundreds of thousands of black kids have spent 13 years in school systems that are almost entirely black and almost entirely poor, with the worst teachers and weakest instruction.
“[D’leisha] never had a single white classmate, but she still believed in the American dream; that if she worked hard, she had just as much opportunity to secure America’s bounty as anyone else,” Hannah-Jones said. In a conversation between the two, “she wondered if white people had movie theaters in their homes. I smiled at her, thinking she was just joking, but her face peered back was earnest. Because in the bounty of America, segregation had made her world so small.”
This message carried throughout the rest of Hannah-Jones’s presentation. She emphasized that the school reform movement has not reformed black schools, but only further segregated them. This segregation, she said, is “what’s going to kill their [black students’] opportunities” throughout the rest of their lives.
She recalled her coverage of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Hannah-Jones said that Brown’s mother was talking about her son’s education as he was lying dead, “on one of the worst days of her life.” Brown was considered a “success story” by the media, because he had plans to go to a “predatory for-profit trade school that was reprimanded by the Obama administration because their degrees were worthless,” she said. “This was his future.”
Hannah-Jones went on to talk about that today, even after segregation of schools was banned over 40 years ago, American schools are still heavily segregated. She pointed out that schools in the north east and north west had some of the most segregated housing and school districts in the country, with New York City being the worst.
“Segregated schools equal a segregated life,” she said. “Segregation reinforces racial caste, so that their lot in life is solidified.” Â
While segregation is still prevalent, Hannah-Jones said that we do know the answer, and that’s integrating our school systems.
Hannah-Jones explained how none of this segregation is accidental, and that you have to look at people’s actions instead of just their intentions. She said she was fortunate enough as a kid to be bussed into a better school district so that she could have better opportunities for success.
Hannah-Jones ended her presentation by saying that “we have the power to change [how our society works] if we decide to. It’s the people in this room who can decide.”