Nikole Hannah-Jones: “What is your skin in the game?”

In a previous post, I summarized key points from the Brown@65 conference hosted by the Center for Education & Civil Rights and the Africana Research Center at Penn State. This post focuses on the riveting keynote from Nikole Hannah-Jones. As regular blog readers know, I write about her often, given her central role in the school integration movement. So, seeing her speak in person was a unique professional thrill.

Her talk had a clear arc to it, with individual arguments building on each other and slides that summarized key points in a straightforward and shareable way. The headline was this question: What are you willing to do to break America’s educational caste system? What is your “skin in the game”? Here’s how she got there:

Anti-Black racism is deeply a part of the country’s psyche

She started in 1619 – 150 years before American independence – when the first enslaved people were brought here. While early settlers were fighting for freedom from colonial rulers, they also needed to somehow justify their denial of freedom to others. So, a perverse psychology developed: Black slaves are not as good as white settlers, and not deserving of the rights/freedom they sought for themselves. Since then, Black people in this country have been fighting for full rights. In one of many eye-opening reflections, she noted that she’s “part of the first generation of black Americans to be born with full citizenship rights” related to where she can go to school, but also where she can live, what hotels she can stay at, who she marries, etc.

Education has always been supremely important to Black people

This part of the talk countered the narrative that Black people don’t care about education. Of course, there’s more than ample evidence for this in the civil rights era, especially the many families who fought segregation in the courts or sent their children through a rabid white mob on their way to school. Her talk noted this as evidence for the counter-narrative, but she went back further.

She noted that during slavery and immediately after emancipation, education was paramount to Black people: education “didn’t mean money or a career, it meant you would be free.” And, she cited a former slave who wrote that “being robbed of an education was the most brutal sin of slavery.” Black people were informally teaching themselves during slavery, and Emancipated Black people immediately sought the establishment of schools upon becoming free.

There have always been two purposes of education

Even before emancipation in the South, Black people in the North sued for school desegregation, but were denied. Specifically, Roberts v. Boston of 1849 was the nation’s first desegregation lawsuit. Its decision, however, laid the groundwork for the “separate, but equal” doctrine affirmed in Plessy’s 1896 decision.

This set up two central points of the talk:

  • There’s long been two purposes of education: to provide opportunity to one class of people and to deny opportunity to another class. Put simply: separate education was designed to uphold a racial caste system.
  • Brown was truly radical, and most people don’t appreciate how important it was.

Brown v. Board of Education: The first major rejection of caste

So, with Brown in 1954, we had the first major rejection of a caste system that had been in place since 1619. As we all know, progress was contested (to put it mildly). She noted the following as lowlights and highlights of the response to Brown:

  • Brown, ironically, led to more progress outside of schools that inside, especially the end of “separate, but equal” in other aspects of social life (e.g., public accommodations, transportation, etc). But, civil rights progress has always been toughest in areas where white and Black people have closest contact with each other: schools and housing.  
  • Newspapers gave an inordinate amount of press to white resistance, dominating the cultural narrative for years and giving us a faulty sense that we’ve made progress because we no longer throw rocks at buses carrying Black children.
  • Transformation in the South began 10 years after Brown, when desegregation was tied to federal funds in the Civil Rights Act, and it was eventually curtailed sharply by Supreme Court rulings of the early 1970s. So, that means we spent about 10 years (1964-1974) fighting a racial apartheid system that had been in place since 1619. Even if you mark the upper end of that at 1988 (the statistical height of school desegregation), the timing is starkly disproportionate.
  • One of my favorite quotes of the presentation: “integration isn’t important because white kids have magic that rubs off on black kids,” but it’s important because it allows Black children to break caste by getting the education that is intended for white children.

Dominant school reforms are akin to “neo-Plessyism”

Since the height of desegregation in 1988, the dominant education policy movement has pursued a sort of “neo-Plessyism” or a contemporary version of “separate, but equal” (also discussed earlier in the day in Janelle Scott’s presentation). Despite changes ostensibly aimed to pursue equal education for non-white students, gaps persist everywhere.

She focused on test-based assessment as a linchpin of neo-Plessyism. A few key points:

  • Testing was developed by eugenicists and used to prove Black inferiority.
  • Tests measure advantages, not intelligence or school quality.
  • Testing makes children in low-rated schools believe they are to blame for their school’s struggles.
  • Integration should never be about test scores. It should be about whether or not it allows Black children to break caste. She noted recent research from Rucker Johnson as a clear example of how integration leads to life changes that could never be measured in test scores and are so much more important than test scores anyway.

Looking in the mirror: What is your personal response to re-segregation?

This part built to the take-home message from the presentation: the challenge to find our personal “skin in the game” for real racial integration. Specifically, she noted that segregation is upheld by individual choices, by adherence to “what’s best for my kid” even when it conflicts with stated personal values and/or means that someone else’s child doesn’t get the same opportunities that you secure for your own. As she said, “you can’t argue that segregation is wrong when you are taking part in it, when your own children are benefiting from it.”

Pointedly, she challenged us to look in the mirror and ask:

  • If your child’s not worth a perceived sacrifice (i.e., to attend low-rated schools), then whose child is?
  • Do you think other children deserve the same opportunity as your kid?
  • Do you need to do something with your own child to challenge America’s long-standing racist caste system?

Of course, in a blog post about a stirring speech, much will be missing. Most notably, she used the story of D’leisha, a Black high school student (who she wrote about in the Segregation Now series) to punctuate the points above. Briefly, D’leisha is much of what we think when we think of so-called “all-American girls” – she’s at the top of her class, a homecoming queen, dating a football player, she’s kind and popular. Except our system is not designed for her success and would never hold her up as “all-American.” Because of our caste system, D’leisha and her family encounter obstacles that wealthy, white students would never encounter. Notably, D’leisha’s story is the story of resegregation- her mother attended a desegregated school in Tuscaloosa, D’leisha and her grandfather both attended segregated non-white schools.

In my conversations immediately afterwards, it was the challenge at the end that stood out. To me, this means critical reflection on my experiences as a white student in segregated/overwhelmingly white public schools. Too often, I think, people use the term “segregated schools” when they’re really talking about segregated non-white/global majority schools. But, segregated majority white schools are the other side of the two-part system that upholds caste. Indeed, on the same day as our conference, CECR and the UCLA Civil Rights Project released a report on school segregation trends. One of the major findings was that white students are the most isolated demographic group in the country. This is a problem always, and in the Trump era, it’s especially a problem. I have a lot to reflect on in this talk, but this is something that stands out to me immediately- the importance of talking about how segregated white schools uphold a caste system and the responsibility of white people to make decisions that challenge that system, decisions that are connected to personal biography and family.

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