You should feel sick: Speaker says racial caste system in NC schools is our choice

Education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks to about 600 education advocates at Duke University on Tuesday to kick off a long-term focus on race and equity in education.
Education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks to about 600 education advocates at Duke University on Tuesday to kick off a long-term focus on race and equity in education.

When acclaimed education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones visits schools where virtually all students are poor and black, she sees not only a legacy of historic racism but a result of choices by parents who talk about equality while sacrificing other children to give their own kids advantages.

And she told the sold-out crowd of 600 North Carolina educators, policymakers and advocates who came to Duke University on Tuesday to hear her that she wasn’t there to congratulate them on their good work.

“If you study history you’ll understand our schools are not broken. Our schools are actually operating exactly as they were designed,” she said, referring to inferior schools for black children. “The work ahead is not going to be about small fixes and little patches. It is going to have to require an undoing of the entire way that we structure education and equality.”

The “Color of Education” event where she spoke launches a long-term push to get North Carolinians to delve into the role of race in education. It’s expected to be the first of a series of annual summits, sponsored by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, Duke Policy Bridge and Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity.

Education reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones (left) talks with Minnie Forte-Brown (center), a Durham school board member and president of the North Carolina School Boards Association, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Mary McCray. Ann Doss Helms

Jones began her career covering Durham Public Schools for the (Raleigh) News & Observer. She has since piled up journalism awards writing about school segregation and now covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. She is also working on a book that traces today’s market-driven education scene back to times of slavery.

The common thread, she said, is that except for a period of court-mandated desegregation in the South, most African Americans have been kept separate and denied opportunity.

“Racism is in the DNA of our country,” she said. “It’s not a feature of our country. It is in the fiber of our country.”

Part of that pattern, she said, is blaming the people who are shortchanged by the system.

“One of the most pernicious myths in American society is that black people are the only people in the history of the world who don’t value an education,” she said. “You hear that all the time: ‘Black kids aren’t doing well because their parents don’t value education and neither do they.’ Nothing could be further from the truth.”

During slavery, she said, “despite the fact that you could be whipped, you could have your fingers cut off and you could be killed for learning to read or teaching other enslaved people to read, people still did it anyway. ... For black people literacy has always been about liberation.”

While the South has often gotten the rap for racism, it also has the greatest tradition of integrated schools, even if that was mandated by courts, she said. Hannah-Jones showed charts of national reading scores that showed black children’s test scores rising during those years of integration — not, she said, because there’s anything “magical about white people that makes black children smart,” but because black children finally got equal access to top teachers and high-level lessons.

Now, Hannah-Jones said, Southern states are copying Northern segregation strategies as some countywide districts seek to split into smaller ones.

Last year the North Carolina General Assembly created a study group to look at such splits; it ended without clear conclusions or action. This spring legislators approved a bill that allows four majority-white suburban Charlotte towns to create their own charter schools, with many seeing it as a possible precedent for the state.

“The way that white people avoided desegregation in the North was simply move five miles up the road to an all-white community with its all-white schools,” Hannah-Jones said.

“Because the South is the only place that has ever truly desegregated,” she said, “if we lose the South we lose the country.”

Education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks to a sold-out crowd at a “Color of Education” event at Duke University. Ann Doss Helms

One of Hannah-Jones’ best-known articles for the New York Times Magazine recounted her and her husband’s difficult decision to choose a school for their daughter in New York City’s public school system. As a reporter she had noticed how many journalists and activists chose to put their own kids into schools where most classmates would be white and affluent.

“As we have tried to give our children choice so we can escape schools with kids we don’t want our children by, we’ve sown the seeds for the undoing of public education altogether,” she said. “You are introducing the market into a public good. ... We have stopped talking about public schools as a common good and instead we started talking about them as an individual good.”

Hannah-Jones enrolled her daughter in a public school where virtually all her classmates are children of color from low-income homes. She’s doing fine there, Hannah-Jones said. “We need to stop being afraid of our kids,” she said, drawing applause.

But Hannah-Jones said such a choice does involve sacrificing the edge that comes with ensuring your own child the best education at the expense of others.

“When it comes to your own children, all of a sudden your kids deserve more than other people’s kids. And I understand that. But I think if we’re actually going to believe in public schools and public good, sometimes we have to make decisions that are not just about us,” she said. “In a country build on racial caste, equality means those who have had unearned advantages have to give some of that up.”

Hannah-Jones said she didn’t have solutions. White people created the problem, she said, and it’s up to them to fix it.

“I don’t want you to leave feeling good,” she said. “I want you to leave feeling sick.”

Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum, tried to offer some encouragement. He noted that the Hannah-Jones event was originally set for 300 seats, which sold out within hours. Even after doubling the seating tickets were quickly gone, he said.

He encouraged the crowd to keep educating themselves and others about racism in education, to incorporate that knowledge into their own action and to press for policy change.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms