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Are Private Schools Immoral?

A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.

The Atlantic

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Public schools in gentrifying neighborhoods seem on the cusp of becoming truly diverse, as historically underserved neighborhoods fill up with younger, whiter families. But the schools remain stubbornly segregated. Nikole Hannah-Jones has chronicled this phenomenon around the country, and seen it firsthand in her neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is white,” she says. “If their neighborhood school is black, they want choice.” Charter schools and magnet schools spring up in place of neighborhood schools, where white students can be in the majority.

“We have a system where white people control the outcomes, and the outcome that most white Americans want is segregation,” she says.

In a recent episode of The Atlantic Interview, Nikole Hannah-Jones and The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, discuss how integrated schools are good for white children and black children.

“If one were to believe that having people who are different from you makes you smarter, that you engage in a higher level of thinking, that you solve problems better, there are higher-level ways that integration is good for white folks,” Jones says.

For black children, the benefits of attending an integrated school are much more drastic. “It’s literally, will you receive a quality education or not? Will you be a full citizen in the country of your birth?”

In a hyper-competitive economy where test scores and college admissions and lifetimes earnings are all linked, Hannah-Jones has seen that the soft benefits of integration, like empathy or compassion, are low on a family’s priority list. “Most white people are willing to trade that,” she has found.

An edited transcript of their conversation is below.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You and I have both had these conversations with my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates about the arc of history and which way it bends. I’ve adopted the viewpoint of Barack Obama, that history is an arrow and the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. And Ta-Nehisi says that there really is no moral arc, but if there were it would just bend toward chaos. Are you in the camp of people who say that long-term optimism is premature?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I think it has not a lot of basis in historical fact. I would say the arc is actually a circle. It just perpetually turns back on itself.

Goldberg: But let’s use African-Americans as an example. Life has gotten better, no? Before there was before there was Brown v. Board of Education, there was no Brown v. Board of Education. Before there was a Civil Rights Act, there was no Civil Rights Act. We don’t live in a period of history free of lynchings, but the number of lynchings has gone down. There are more African-Americans in the middle class since Reconstruction. Life in America for African-Americans has gotten better. It’s been stutter stepped, but we ain’t in 1866 or 1873.

Hannah-Jones: I am not a slave. That's true.

Goldberg: Well … All right.

Hannah-Jones: If that’s the bar.

Goldberg: No, no, no.

Hannah-Jones: None of us would argue that there hasn’t been progress in a range of things. I guess I get almost offended by people who want us to pause and be congratulatory about forward progress.

Goldberg: I just want it known for the record that I'm offending you already. And we haven’t even started.

Hannah-Jones: I mean, in a country that has set itself apart as a beacon of democracy, the fact that we’re applauding that black folks now have had, for 40 years, full citizenship rights in the country of their birth, in the country of their grandparents’ birth, in the country their great grandparents’ birth—it's just hard to feel a lot of optimism.

Goldberg: I’m not arguing for applauding. Obviously there is a long road to go. I’m just saying that there is a direction to things.

Hannah-Jones: Well, there’s forward progress and then we move back. We’re clearly right now moving back. So yes, we get the Voting Rights Act and now we get the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. We see a wave of voter suppression. We get Brown v. Board of Education and now black children are more segregated than they’ve been since the 1970s. We never made any real progress on housing segregation outside of the South and the West even though we outlawed housing discrimination in 1968. The wealth gap for black and white Americans is the largest that it’s been since we started really recording this in the 1970s. There are more black men incarcerated than were black men enslaved during slavery. There are more black men killed by police than there were black men lynched in a year.

Goldberg: Okay fine. You win.

Hannah-Jones: For small numbers of us, there’s a lot of progress. And for large numbers of us, I think the progress can be very hard. It’s still really bad.

Goldberg: I’m not disagreeing with your analysis on any of those. It just seemed two years ago that we were moving in the right direction.

Hannah-Jones: And then what happened?

Goldberg: Well, a reaction. I want you to analyze the root of these continuing dilemmas. Is at the bottom what we’re talking about a lack of understanding on the part of white America about the actual lived lives of African-Americans? I mean, Germany grappled with what it did in a way that America’s never grappled with what it did. As Ta-Nehisi—who can always out-pessimism me—once said, Germany’s easy because Germany killed all the people it hated.

Hannah-Jones: I would say we’re not grappling what this country is about. Period. Not for African Americans.

Goldberg: You’re not one of these people who says, “This is not who we are.”

Hannah-Jones: No, this is clearly who we are. I write about race from the year 1619. The English landed at Jamestown is 1607. Twelve years later, we have imported Africans to be enslaved and determined that they will be a wholly different caste of people with no legal rights in this country. That’s one hundred and forty years before we declare independence and decide that we want to be a country. This is embedded in the DNA of this country. I mean, Ta-Nehisi’s claim to fame is “The Case For Reparations,” which says we’ve never even repaired the damage that we’ve done and we only grudgingly even give legal rights—on paper—to this group of people.

Goldberg: It is amazing that we are talking about Robert E. Lee and voter suppression as issues in 2017.

Hannah-Jones: I mean tell me another country where a group of people break off from a country, try to fight that country, and lose, and those people are glorified and defended by the highest office in the land.

Goldberg: So the South won in one key cognitive way—in a narrative way?

Hannah-Jones: Yes, of course. What we were fighting in the South was a national sin. We want to pretend it was a Southern sin, but it was a national sin. We can’t grapple with the South unless we grapple with ourselves.

Goldberg: Two issues preoccupy you: housing segregation and education segregation. They’re linked, obviously. To get to a place where there’s actual equality in housing and actual equality in educational opportunities for African-Americans, what has to happen? It’s not just a legislative process.

Hannah-Jones: It is not. Though, equal rights for black Americans has always had to be legislated. It’s never been willingly given. What it would take, if we’re honest, is a fundamental restructuring of society. Our public schools are not broken, but are operating as designed. Our public schools were set up to provide unequal, inadequate education for black children. So that’s what they do.

Goldberg: But aren’t the public schools just a downstream problem of housing segregation policies?

Hannah-Jones: No. They are clearly linked, but whether you have integrated communities or segregated communities, we have school segregation. In communities that are gentrifying, the gentrification stops at the schoolhouse door. White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is white. If their neighborhood school is black, they want choice. Housing segregation just becomes a convenient excuse. The problem—and I never use the phrase “white supremacy” because it’s a word that people automatically discount as soon as you use it, but that is the problem.

We have a system where white people control the outcomes. And the outcome that most white Americans want is segregation. And I don’t mean the type of segregation that we saw in 1955. I don't mean complete segregation. I don't think there are very many white Americans who want entirely white schools. What they do want is a limited number of black kids in their schools.

Goldberg: What do you call “curated diversity.”

Hannah-Jones: I never talk about school inequality in terms of “diversity” because I think it’s a useless word. I think it’s a word that white people love. When I say “curated diversity,” it means white parents like a type of diversity so they’ll still be the majority and there won’t be too many black kids.

White Americans, in general, are willing to accept about the ratio of black Americans at large: 10 to 15 percent.

Goldberg: But you get into the 20s...

Hannah-Jones: When you get into the 20s, white folks start to exaggerate how large the percentage is. So in New York City, one of the most segregated school systems in the country, if you’re a white parent in the public schools, you don’t want all-white schools.

Goldberg: Because you’re a liberal?

Hannah-Jones: Yeah. But what you want is a majority-white school with a small number of black kids and a good number of Latino, a good number of Asian. That makes you feel very good about yourself because you feel like your child is getting this beautiful integrated experience. The problem is that the public schools in New York City are 70 percent black and Latino. So, for you to have your beautiful diversity, that means that most black and Latino kids get absolutely none.

The tolerance for increasing particularly the percentage of black kids is very low, and even lower if those black kids are poor. No white parents in New York City mind having my kid in their school because they feel like I’m on their level. But if you get too many of kids like mine who are black but poor, there’s very little tolerance.

Goldberg: Do most white parents in New York City achieve curated diversity for their children?

Hannah-Jones: Yes.

Goldberg: They’re winning that?

Hannah-Jones: Oh, definitely.

Goldberg: And it’s the black and Latino kids who are not winning because there’s not enough whites in that sense to go around?

Hannah-Jones: There would be. I hear this all the time: “You can’t integrate schools in York City because there’s not enough white kids.” But that's only based on the premise that you can’t expect white kids to be in the minority. The demographics of the New York City public schools are about 40 percent Latino, almost 30 percent black, 15 percent Asian, 15 percent white. If you picture a classroom like that, that's a beautiful school. That’s a beautifully diverse, integrated school. You could have that if you chose. We just don’t choose it, because we automatically say, “You can’t expect that a white parent will put their kid in school with all those black kids.”

Goldberg: If you were the dictator of America, would you outlaw private schools? Would you force all the white kids, and all the upper-middle class and upper-class African-American kids, into the public-school system? You’d have a deep level of parental involvement, right? Are private schools immoral in this context?

Hannah-Jones: Interestingly, right after Brown there was consideration of whether or not Brown had to apply to private schools, or whether we should get rid of private schools in the United States altogether, understanding that the way to subvert Brown is to simply withdraw from public schools. Which is what happened all across the South—rather than share a public good with black folks, state legislatures decided to shut down public schools altogether and pay vouchers for white students to go to private segregation academies. We think it sounds absolutely crazy to consider ending private schools, but that was a consideration.

The answer to your question is yes, you would have to. If you truly wanted to equalize and integrate schools, you would have to. But you can go a step shorter than that.

New York City public schools are majority black and Latino. But you can go to any of the suburbs around, and they’re very heavily white. So in New York and all across the North, you could simply move into an all-white community and go to all-white public schools. And that’s how you avoided desegregation. In the South, most school districts were countywide. So you either paid for private school or you dealt with desegregation. In the North, you didn’t have to do that.

The key difference between the North and the South is for the vast majority of the history of this country, 90 percent of all black people lived in the South. The South responds with Jim Crow, by passing laws that restrict the movement of black people. The North doesn’t have to do that. It has a very tiny black population. It’s only once black people start migrating out of the South in the 1900s that the North shows its true ugly racist head.

Goldberg: You’ve described something that I actually experienced as a kid in the 70s. I was in a school system growing up that was about 60 percent black, 35 white—the local system right outside New York City. Very unusual. My experience going from kindergarten through 12th grade in that situation was fairly tension-free. People actually got along. There was mixing, there was interracial dating…

Hannah-Jones: Your first crush was a black girl?

Goldberg: No, we’re not even going there.

Hannah-Jones: OK.

Goldberg: But, yes. And the second and the third.

Hannah-Jones: Why are you turning red right now?

Goldberg: Because I’m interviewing you and you’re not interviewing me. But yes. My high-school sweetheart for many years was an African-American woman who’s a very delightful person. It was an atmosphere where that could happen without consequence. Granted, a lot of the people from the white parts of town went to Catholic parochial schools. If the school district actually took in all of the kids who lived within the boundaries, it probably would have been 30 percent black.

For the whites who went, it was a fairly beneficial experience. I can look back on that and say it was better for my intellectual, moral, civic development—my emotional development—to do that. That, you argue, is disappearing slowly as an experience for whites and blacks. The country is resegregating.

Talk a little bit about the benefits for whites of integration.

Hannah-Jones: I think this is where you struggle trying to convince white people they should do this. There’s a clear imbalance for black kids. It’s literally, will you receive a quality education or not? That is what integration means for black kids. Will you be able to transcend poverty? Will you be a full citizen in the country of your birth?

Goldberg: Hitching a ride to the white majority…

Hannah-Jones: Hitching a ride to the white majority, with the understanding that in a country built on racial caste, they get an inordinate amount of the resources. Things that are acceptable for black children are never acceptable for white children. So if you want what white children get, you have to be where white children are.

White kids don’t need black kids in the same way. Segregation does benefit white families. That is why the whole institution of segregation comes about.

Goldberg: How does it benefit white families, though, in a practical way?

Hannah-Jones: In a practical way, because you get to hoard resources. You get the best of everything. Even in a community where the schools pretty much suck, if there’s a school with black kids, it’s going to suck worse.

Goldberg: I would disagree with the whole premise.

Hannah-Jones: Would you?

Goldberg: Well, going to the second half. The benefits of integration for whites I think outweigh whatever resource hoarding you could do.

Hannah-Jones: It’s soft benefits versus hard benefits. The soft benefits of integration, which I think are also very important—it’s just a much harder argument. White people understand that they’re fighting to get into white schools for a reason. It is a benefit. They’re going to get the best teachers. They’re going to get the best instruction. They’re going to get the best curriculum.

Goldberg: With the assumption that it’s a zero-sum game.

Hannah-Jones: With the assumption that there are good teachers and bad teachers.

Goldberg: And that the bad teachers are going to be...

Hannah-Jones: ...overwhelmingly put into our schools. Yes.

Nothing about the American experiment tells us that we value black kids the same. We just don’t. I wrote about school resegregation in Tuscaloosa for The Atlantic. They created an all-black high school and an integrated high school. They promised the all-black high school it would have the same courses, and they just don’t do it. There was actually no reason not to do it. The white parents who wanted the integrated school didn’t give a damn what courses you offered in the black school. They weren’t fighting against giving those kids physics. They just didn’t care. In the end, they were poor black kids and they didn’t have that much value and no one thought they were going to go to college anyway.

Now, if one were to believe—which I believe—that having people who are different from you makes you smarter, that you engage in a higher level of thinking—and there’s been research that shows that—that you solve problems better, there are all these higher-level ways that integration is good for white folks.

Goldberg: The richness of the human experience.

Hannah-Jones: Right. My daughter is in a high-poverty school. We’re clearly not poor. I think it makes her a better human being. I think she gets to see that these kids aren’t any less than her. They just have less than her. But those are all hard soft-arguments to make to people who fundamentally view education as, how my kid will rise to the top above every other kid and get into Harvard. They don’t actually give a damn about their kid being a better person.

Goldberg: You talk about “hard” benefits and “soft” benefits. I don't think they are that soft.

Hannah-Jones: Most white people are willing to trade that. There is an explicit racial fear that black kids are more dangerous, that if they put their kids in these schools, their kids are going to be exposed to violence, they’re going to be exposed to bad culture. There’s no longer the belief that black people are racially inferior but that black culture is inferior.

Goldberg: They don’t say it in such a blunt way, do they?

Hannah-Jones: They said it in a blunt way. In my daughter’s school, when white parents who lived next door to my daughter’s school would come and tour, they would tell the principal, “We'll bring our kids, but only if our kids are in classroom by themselves and you keep them together through fifth grade.”

Goldberg: You mean, a white class.

Hannah-Jones: Yes. This is what is being demanded.

Goldberg: And this is in “progressive” Brooklyn.

Hannah-Jones: This is Brooklyn. Hipster Brooklyn. There is this intrinsic racial fear that cannot be mitigated by facts. That’s the thing that is really embedded in all of us—the belief that black children are not as smart. There are exceptional black children, right? “Of course, I know little Johnny is smart, but he’s not like the rest of the black kids that are culturally depraved. That bad culture is going to rub off. We need to protect our kids from large numbers of these kids.” I've had parents tell me, “The middle-class black parents at the school are fine.”

Goldberg: What’s so interesting here is that you're not talking about stereotypical Trump voters in Alabama. You're talking about hipster Brooklyn. Liberals kind of piss you off?

Hannah-Jones: I am only writing and speaking to liberals at this point. I'm trying to get people who say they believe in equality and integration but act in ways that maintain inequality and segregation to live their own values. The most segregated parts of the country are all in the progressive North. If you could just get white liberals to live their values, you could have a significant amount of integration.

Goldberg: You know what group of people who would be really uncomfortable listening to you talk? The heads of progressive private schools in New York City, Boston, Washington.

Hannah-Jones: But here’s the thing. We’re in a capitalist country and if you can pay for something, then so be it. What I’m dealing with are public schools which are publicly funded for the public good. Every child should walk into a public school and get the same education. Those are the parents that I’m speaking to. What we are finding are parents who say they believe in a common good but they want a public school that operates like a private school—you can screen out the kids you don’t want, you can hoard resources in the school, you can hoard all the best teachers, you can determine what curriculum you’re going to get. And if that means that two miles down the road, another publicly-funded school doesn’t get any of that, then so be it. That, to me, is the height of hypocrisy.

Goldberg: Where does it work? Have you seen any place in America where liberals are living the belief system they profess to hold?

Hannah-Jones: If we get very, very micro, yes. My daughter’s best friend is a little white boy named Sam who started in Pre-K with her. They live right behind us in Bed-Stuy. And when they started Pre-K, about half of our class was white. He’s now the only white kid left in the class, and he’s still there. And his parents—I don’t actually know white people like them. They’re not actually doing it for some larger good. They literally are like, “This is a good school and I'm going to send my kid here.”

Goldberg: So they’re non-racial?

Hannah-Jones: They see race. They understand race. But their motivation for being at school is not to be racial do-gooders. They’re the rare white people who can just look at this school and see all these black kids and be like, “Well, they’re just kids and my kid is fine.”

If the question is, “Is there a single place in this country where black kids are getting the same education as white kids?” No. Not one. I challenge any listener, if you know of a place, and you can send me the data, send it to me. I can tell you places that are doing better than others. But I think the fact that we accept that most black kids will not get an equal education—I think that’s immoral. And I don’t accept it. More places should be trying.

Dianna Douglas is producer of The Atlantic Interview podcast.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published December 14, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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