Patrick Semansky/AP

MacArthur grant recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones talks about the institutional and individual choices that continue to keep America separate and unequal.

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its list of 2017 fellows—24 people from all walks of life who will receive $625,000 “genius” grants, as they’re often called. CityLab is running a series of short conversations with several of the winners.

The work of the acclaimed New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones lays bare the institutional and individual decisions that continue to keep urban spaces separate and unequal. We caught up with her yesterday to talk about why that work is so important, and what she plans to do next.

Nikole Hannah-Jones at the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony in 2016. (Evan Agostini/AP)

Your work is essential reading for anyone who cares about cities. Could you talk about a few persistent myths on segregation that you push back on through your writing and reporting?

One of the big myths is that the segregation that we see both in housing and schools is not intentional—that it’s just a legacy of discriminatory past, or a matter of income or socioeconomic status. My work strives to disprove that and show that while clearly there is a legacy, there is also ongoing discrimination. There are policymakers who are making decisions right now that are maintaining segregation.

I have worked very hard to dispel the myth that somehow segregation that’s not required by law is less harmful, so we should be OK with it. I actually believe what Richard Rothstein believes, which is that much of the segregation we see today is de jure even though we call it de facto. It is a direct result of official action. And even where it’s not, we know that black people, specifically, and to a lesser degree Latinos, do not have the same choices and options as other families do. [They are not] somehow the only groups of people in this country who choose substandard schools and substandard neighborhoods; they are in those schools and neighborhoods because they do not have a choice.

I also try to push back against this idea that we tried really hard to integrate our schools and it just didn’t work. We didn’t try very hard for very long. And when we did try, it did work.

The most common myth that I confront is that racism, discrimination, and segregation are Southern phenomena, when clearly the most segregated parts of the country are in the Northeast and the Midwest—areas with white folks who believe that they are quite progressive, who say they believe in integration but practice segregation. My work in recent years has been most critical in trying to discomfort white progressives who’d like to believe that I’m writing about someone else. Really, I’m writing about them.

What made you decide to focus on school segregation, in particular?

I think through the years I just came to understand that the two most important barriers to equality are housing segregation and school segregation. The problem is most housing is not in government control, so there are limitations on what the government can do. But 9 of 10 American children attend a public school. Because of that, schools just should not be a primary driver of inequality.

I’ve spent most of my time in segregated black schools. You see elementary school kids, and you see—this actually makes me emotional—-you see these little black boys and black girls come in and they’re so excited to learn. They don’t know yet how little we value them. They don’t know yet that we’re going to shuttle them into inferior schools where they’re never going to have the opportunity to become someone like me. By middle school, you see that light is gone already. You see that they understand by the schools we built for them, just how little we think of them.

I remember sitting in these classrooms, reading [education] coverage, and wondering why are all these reporters were ignoring this. They weren’t writing about the most glaring thing, which is that these kids are separated for a reason. They’re separated because we’re going to give them an inferior education. I felt an outrage about us ignoring that fundamental truth that was backed up by all the data and research. Even though I don’t believe this country will ever do right by these children, I’m not going to let us ignore and pretend that we’re not doing what we’re doing.

Why are schools, in particular, such fraught spaces for racial progress? Why are these the battlegrounds where the ugliest fights for equal rights have—and continue to—play out?

We’ve seen the least motion forward in both housing and schools because everything else is seen as a choice. If I don’t want to be around black folks, I won’t go to the parks they go to, or I won't go to the restaurants they go to. But I can’t control who lives next door to me. That would force me to have an intimacy with people that I may not want to have intimacy with.

Schools are also extremely intimate spaces. These are spaces where parents leave their children for eight hours. The kids are sitting next to each other in classrooms and the fear—which most people probably wouldn’t say now—is that white boys would fall in love with black girls or white girls would fall in love with black boys. There’s also the sense that black children are not safe—that children are more prone to violence. And people automatically assume schools with large numbers of black children, particularly poor black children, are unsafe spaces.

What is probably focused on the least is that for the entire history of public education in this country, we’ve had a system where black children are not receiving an education writ large that would allow them to compete with white children for the best jobs. That is how it was designed. That continues to be so. So if we integrate schools, suddenly white children have more competition and you can no longer preserve the privilege that white Americans are used to.

And then you add into that the way we marketize the language of schools. To be a good parent you need to shop for every advantage for your child even within a public system, which is supposed to be about the common good. We’ve converted the idea of a public system to serving the individual needs of parents.

So you take this racialized history of education, you take all of the racial fears that white parents have about black children, and then you put on top of that this market-based idea of public schools. It creates a system that we have now. White parents on the one hand say they believe in equality and integration, but then say they’re damn sure not going to put their kids in a school with lots of black and brown kids—particularly not poor ones.

Why did you write about your own choice to enroll your daughter in public school in Brooklyn, which became the site for a contentious rezoning fight?

That was a piece that I actually came to reluctantly. I had enrolled my daughter in a public school—a segregated public school. It wasn’t a decision I made because I wanted to set some larger moral example. It was a decision I made because I felt it was the right thing to do. I had no intention of writing about it.

But while I was finishing up the This American Life story on Michael Brown’s school district, my daughter’s school kind of became embroiled in this integration battle because the nearby white school was over-enrolled. About 50 kindergartners were assigned to my daughter's school and then the district decided they wanted to do a larger rezoning. And, of course, the progressive white people of Brooklyn who were zoned to the predominately white school had no intention of sending their children to my daughter’s school.

It made headlines because it was Brooklyn—a place that has a reputation for progressive white folks. I started getting a lot of texts and e-mails asking, “Are you watching what's happening in Brooklyn?” because they know this is something I cover. Little did they know my daughter was in this school and I was attending those meetings as a parent.

I kept telling myself: “I don't want to write my own story; it’s not about me.” But I was very unsatisfied with the coverage of it. I’d been wanting to do a New York story for a long time and this was a way to really grapple with a lot of these issues—not just as a journalist, but as a parent. And maybe try to connect to readers in a way that some of my other less personal work hadn’t. After a while, it was impossible not to write about it.

Your September cover story in the New York Times Magazine is about an Alabama town that’s attempting a different tactic to resegregate.

Well, let me first say that in many places there has never been desegregation in the first place—New York City being one of those places. Resegregation is almost always in the South because the South was forced by court order to actually integrate schools. Most of the North was not. And even though there were some Northern cities placed under court order because of housing segregation, they often were unsuccessful.

What we see come immediately out of [Brown v. Board], when you can no longer explicitly use race to segregate schools, is a very adaptive strategy that white Americans have. Suddenly, you take up the banner of race-neutral language that you know will produce the same result. So it becomes about “local control”—saying “our tax dollars shouldn’t go to educate other children,” or “we want a small local school system that only serves our community.” Of course, that community is all white.

In a place like New York City, where you have a great deal of segregation, you have a neighborhood school system for elementary school, which means your kid will go to a neighborhood school. And since neighborhoods are highly segregated, that means your kid will likely go to a school that is also segregated. But then once you get to middle and high school, it is a “choice system” where white kids go to screened schools— schools that have these apparently race neutral screens, but where you have to have a portfolio, or where you have to take a test to get in.

What remains the same is that white parents are going to get access to the best education in a public system. They’re going to get access to disproportionately white schools, and they will wield an array of tools to do that. So if the neighborhood that those white parents live in is white, they want neighborhood schools. If the neighborhood school that those parents are near is black, then they want choice. So people will say they don’t want bussing, if their neighborhood school is white. If the neighborhood school is not white, they’ll bus their kids an hour away to get to a white school.

Once again, we spend so much time trying to prove whether people are doing something racist or not. Can we get in the hearts and minds of how a parent is making a decision? We can’t do that. And really, it’s irrelevant. What we know is that whether people are explicitly racist or not, the patterns that we have seen since the founding of public schools remain the same. And that is: Not only are white parents taking an inordinate amount of public school resources, but segregated black schools are getting less of everything.

I know you're going to get this a lot and so I apologize in advance, but my last question is...

What are you going to spend the money on?

Yeah, ha ha.

I have no idea. I say this jokingly with my friends a lot but it actually is true: I come from the dirt. My father was born on a sharecropping farm in Mississippi. So I don’t ever plan for anything unless it’s in my hand.

So I honestly haven’t thought of how I would spend the money. What I will say is that what the grants do is give you freedom. I know I don’t have to be beholden to any organization, if I choose not to. It gives you room to breathe a little bit. And coming from a family with no wealth whatsoever—I’m 41 years old and I still pay student loans—the ability to put some money away and try to have a different future for my daughter feels really amazing.

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