ProPublica reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses her year-long investigation into how one of desegregation’s success stories in Tuscaloosa, Alabama became one of the most segregated school systems in the country, as well as the high levels of segregation in northern schools 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
There’s a brand new story out detailing how one of desegregation’s success stories in the South has become one of the nation’s most racially and economically segregated schools. Today, a third of black students attend schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that look like the 60-year-old Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that said separate schools for black and white students is unequal never happened.
Writing for ProPublica, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, quote:
“Tuscaloosa’s school resegregation–among the most extensive in the country–is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes. It is a story shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city’s black elites. And it was blessed by a U.S. Department of Justice no longer committed to fighting for the civil-rights aims it had once championed.”
We’re now joined by the story’s author, Nikole Hannah-Jones. She’s a reporter for ProPublica, where she covers civil rights with a focus on segregation and discrimination, housing, and schools.
Thank you so much for joining us.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES, REPORTER, PROPUBLICA: Thank you for having me on the show.
NOOR: So, Nikole, you really get into this story by talking about Central High in Tuscaloosa. It was an all-white school before Brown v. Board of Education. It was desegregated over, you know, a fairly decent, long period of time, and it became, when it was desegregated, one of the top schools in the whole state. Tell us the story of how it went from being desegregated to re-segregated now and what the impact has been on the students.
HANNAH-JONES: Well, Central High School was actually created by a federal court order. Before Central existed–came to existence in 1979, there were two high schools in Tuscaloosa. One had been the historic black high school, and one had been the historic white high school. And even in 1979, 25 years after Brown v. Board, they were still segregated. So a federal judge ordered the merger of the two high schools into one, and they created Central High School.
So Central High School became a city-wide high school, meaning any public high school in the city, no matter their race, no matter where they lived, all went to the same school. And it became a true powerhouse in the state. It was the second-largest high school in the state. It was a school that swept up academic competitions, math competitions, just as easily as athletic competitions. And it really became the pride of the town and kind of a story of how integration in the South could be successful.
But what happened is there were white parents who had been turned off by desegregation. And as we’ve seen across the country, there was white flight from the school district. And city officials decided that the court order that had created this school was the problem and that they needed to break this school apart in order to bring white parents back to the district. So in 2000, when a federal judge dismissed Tuscaloosa from its federal desegregation order, immediately the school board voted to break apart Central High School. It created three new high schools, and it turned Central High School into a 100 percent black, almost entirely poor high school.
NOOR: And so talk about what that impact is for the students that go there.
HANNAH-JONES: Well, I think, one, we should make it clear that white–black kids don’t have to sit with white kids in order to learn. But what we also know is never in the history of this country has separate been made equal. So, in Tuscaloosa, once these kids were separated off from the rest of the kids in the district, they were then kind of ignored. These kids spend their entire education, starting in kindergarten through graduation, in entirely segregated schools. These schools were once called the dumping ground for bad teachers. A teacher could be let go from a school that was an integrated school and could be hired on to work at Central or the other all-black schools in Tuscaloosa. Or, until last year, Central High School didn’t even offer physics to the students. There were many years where it didn’t offer advanced placement courses. So the most integrated high school in the city offered 12. So these kids were not given the same education opportunity as other kids, and they suffered for it.
NOOR: And this story of resegregation is not just happening at Central High or Tuscaloosa; it’s really happening all over the South. Talk about how–talk about its broader impacts.
HANNAH-JONES: Okay. I mean, first I think we should note that the reason that I focus on the South was in 1954 the South was completely segregated, and it was the most segregated part of the country, but because of these court orders, by the early ’70s the South had become the most integrated part of the country, far more integrated than the Northeast or the Midwest, and it actually remains the most integrated part of the country. So I wrote about the South because the South has the most to lose. It educates more black students than anywhere else in the country. And because it had actually desegregated, where, as we know, many northern cities never have, this is the one place we got traction.
And what we’re seeing is, as the school districts–hundreds of school districts have been released from their court orders to integrate in the last ten to 20 years. And as they release, within a few years these districts almost always start to take actions that resegregate black students. And so we’re seeing a rise in the number of black students that are attending intensely segregated schools, which are schools that are less than 10 percent white. And a large number of students, black students, are now attending what some scholars call apartheid schools. And those are schools that are 1 percent or less white. And as a result, we’re seeing the achievement gap that had started closing during the height of desegregation has widened, and it has remained wide.
NOOR: And, you know, this is not–as you mention in your story, this is not limited to the South. In fact, the Northeast has a really high number of schools. And according to a new report out by the UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, it’s actually New York State and New York City itself that has the highest number of these apartheid schools that you just mentioned. And I worked at a Museum in New York and I taught at public schools across New York City, and it’d be an ordinary experience for me for one day, for example, to teach in the upper West side, often children of investment bankers, people that worked on Wall Street, very wealthy, and the next day I’d teach at a school in West Harlem, just a few miles away, where, you know, all the families there were African-American and, you know, lived in the projects. And, you know, you could see the resources were different. In New York City, you know, each school gets the same amount of funding, but, you know, for example, the schools in the Upper West Side, the parents of those students would raise $1 million every year for extra resources and extra funding, and even extra teachers. So you could see–and I would teach kids, you know, as young as kindergarten, but then all the way up to high school and college, and you could see what the long-term impact of the lack of resources and the isolation and segregation are.
HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. And I think even outside of additional funding that these schools are able to raise, you have to look at–districts make very clear which students they prize, and those students tend to be middle-class students, and they also tend to be white students, I think largely because people believe that those are–their parents are more influential in the community.
So what happens is black schools and Latino schools, not just in terms of additional resources, but they don’t get the same quality of teachers. They tend to get the least experienced teachers. They don’t–for instance, I live in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brooklyn, which is an almost entirely black neighborhood, and there’s not a single talented and gifted program in the schools in my neighborhood. So these kids aren’t even getting access to the same types of courses, the same types of rigor. And those are resources that school officials are providing, and it has nothing to do with the wealth of parents.
NOOR: Right. And, you know, with–ever since No Child Left Behind, and now Race to the Top, teachers in schools are evaluated by their student performance. And, you know, we know that the biggest predictor of student performance is your socioeconomic background, so there’s no incentive for teachers to really teach in the most challenging schools, because they know that they’ll be held accountable for their students’ performance.
HANNAH-JONES: That’s right. Teachers will be penalized for the way that school districts have allowed high poverty to be concentrated in certain schools. So there is a disincentive. That’s why you tend to see young teachers right out of college teaching in these schools. And once they get experience, they move on to more integrated schools.
NOOR: And so, you know, we’re almost out of time for this segment, but what’s being done in places like Alabama, and even in New York City, to challenge these policies, if anything? And do you see any hope of re-segregating these schools? You know, we’re talking about 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.
HANNAH-JONES: I mean, to be honest, very little, very little is being done. I think we’ve seen very little national will to deal with this issue. Even President Obama, while the administration says that they support integration, if you look into how they fund school, they offer no financial incentive and really no larger incentive for districts to voluntarily integrate. And, in fact, some of the biggest incentives are for charter schools, which, of course, research shows in many places are more segregated than traditional public schools.
So I think we don’t have a lot of will about this. I think we’re still trying to make separate equal. That’s what No Child Left Behind does, that’s what Race to the Top does, is it tries to say, okay, we have these high-poverty black and Latino schools, let’s bring them up to par, instead of doing what everyone knows can have a great impact on achievement, which is: why don’t you break up the racial and economic isolation of these schools? But we’re not really willing to talk about that.
NOOR: Worth mentioning: all these policies are supported by Democrats and Republicans.
HANNAH-JONES: That’s right.
NOOR: Nikole Hannah-Jones, thank you so much for joining us.
HANNAH-JONES: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: And we’ll link to your story in ProPubica at our site, TheRealNews.com. And you can go to The Real News for all of our coverage of public education around the country.
Thank you so much for joining us.
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