A black and white photo of white mothers carrying a casket
with a black baby doll projects onto the screen. A moment later, the screen
switches to an image of six-year-old Ruby Bridges making her way down a set of
steps — escorted by US Marshals — clutching a tiny briefcase in her right hand.
“These photos are black and white, but this wasn’t that long
ago,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, staff writer for the New York Times and MacArthur
“Genius Grant” winner. Another photo of federal troops escorting black students
through a white mob appears.
“This was violently resistant,” she said. “These people are
arguing about children getting an education.”
Hannah-Jones gave a stirring presentation in the Kenneth R. Williams
Auditorium on Winston-Salem State University’s campus on Thursday evening,
speaking for more than an hour about the inequality and racial segregation in the
American public school system.
“I don’t give inspirational speeches,” Hannah-Jones said at the start of her talk. “If you don’t feel discomfort at the end of my speech, I feel like I’ve failed.”
Hannah-Jones has been writing and reporting on education for
the last 15 years. She got her start at Chapel Hill News and the News
and Observer after graduating with a masters in journalism from UNC-Chapel
Hill in 2003. From there, the journalist went on to work for The Oregonian,
ProPublica and now the New York Times. In August, she launched
the 1619 Project, a major initiative examining the legacy of slavery in the
United States timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the
first enslaved people to the country.
“All I ever wanted to write about was racial inequality,”
Hannah-Jones said in a phone interview on Friday. “So, when I started covering
Durham Public Schools it was perfect because it was very segregated. There was
no way to write about it and not talk about racial inequality.”
Displaying a timeline of racist policies from the start of
slavery through Jim Crow and beyond on the screen, Hannah-Jones broke down how
systemic injustice takes place within public education, detrimentally affecting
black and brown students.
She explained how for centuries, black Americans were barred
from being educated by having resources and access to schooling withheld from
them. Even after the Supreme Court Ruling of Brown v. Board of Education
in 1954 finding that racial segregation of children in public schools was
unconstitutional, subsequent court rulings and public policy just a few decades
later re-segregated much of the country back to how it was during the Jim Crow
era, Hannah-Jones said.
“Separate is inherently unequal,” Hannah-Jones said in her
speech. “The longer a child stays in a segregated school, the more the
achievement gap increases.”
Speaking to an auditorium full of educators, school board
members, parents and concerned community members, Hannah-Jones pivoted halfway
through her presentation to the state of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
“This is one of the most segregated districts in the state,” she said.
A 2018 report titled “Stymied by Segregation” by Kris
Nordstrom, a policy analyst with the NC Justice Center, backed Hannah-Jones’s
Nordstrom’s report found that the Forsyth County school district
was among the top ten most segregated district by race and economics.
Using an interactive tool called Miseducation by ProPublica during her presentation, Hannah-Jones compared two high schools in the district: Carver High School and Ronald W. Reagan High School. The first has a predominantly black student population, with black students making up 71 percent of the school, while the latter is 73 percent white.
Hannah-Jones quickly began pointing out the disparities
between the two.
At Carver, only two percent of students were enrolled in the
one AP course offered, while at Reagan, one-third of students were enrolled in
the nine total AP courses.
The statistics continued.
Carver had a 40 percent chronically absent teachers while
Reagan came in at 26 percent. Carver had a 65-69 percent graduation rate,
placing it in the lowest 10 percent in the entire district, while Reagan
boasted a 97 percent graduation rate.
The problem, Hannah-Jones said in her talk, isn’t that black
children and students are inherently inferior compared to white students. It’s
that for decades and centuries, black students have been compromised and
ignored. The solution? Reintegration.
“We do not value black children the same as we do white children,” she said.
“If that was the case, then there’s no reason why Carver and Reagan shouldn’t be doing the same.
“There’s not anything wrong with a black school,” she
continued. “There’s something wrong with how we treat black schools.”
On Friday, Hannah-Jones talked about how she always
localizes data in her speeches.
“I want them to know that I’m not talking about what’s
happening somewhere else,” she said.
As members of the crowded nodded, snapped and exclaimed in
agreement with Hannah-Jones’s report, she urged them to make a change.
She even brought up how she had to make the difficult
decision to act in accordance with her own values when her child entered school
in New York City. She mentioned how every time she asked advocates and other
journalists who cover racial inequality in schools where they sent their own
kids, their answers proved hypocritical; they had been sending their kids to
the whiter schools with the better resources.
“Either you can sustain the system or you can tear it down,” she said.
In the end, she and her husband chose to send their daughter
to the predominantly black school in their neighborhood.
“If you think, Not my child but somebody else’s,
that’s the same somebody else as it has been for generations,” she said. “This
is a system that we choose. Ask yourself, what side are you on?”
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Ms. Hannah -Jones would do better to confine her reporting to the public schools in New York City, Boston and Chicago because that is where REAL, hardcore racial inequality exists.