At a national education journalism conference a little more than two years ago, New York Times magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones stood in front of a large group of reporters and editors and issued what some described as a call to action:
A year later, she returned to the same annual conference and praised the attendees for taking her advice, and her, seriously.
“One of the things that I have pushed really hard for is for journalists to stop ignoring school segregation,” says Hannah-Jones during a recent telephone interview. “But I think that’s changed a lot.”
And indeed, it has.
Largely because of Hannah-Jones’ work, it seems, school integration has been having a moment in the media and among liberal progressives especially. Her Google alert for school integration stories now pings her multiple times a day.
Hannah-Jones has “done more to elevate the issue of school segregation than any other journalist or researcher in the last decade,” says the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg. She has “almost single-handedly brought issues of school segregation to the nation’s attention.”
And the recognition of her talent and impact has reached far beyond the relatively small world of education.
On Oct. 11, the MacArthur Foundation announced that Hannah-Jones was a 2017 “genius” grant recipient for “chronicling the persistence of racial segregation in American society, particularly in education, and reshaping national conversations around education reform.”
Hannah-Jones speaking to other journalists at the Shorenstein Center
It’s incredibly exciting that Hannah-Jones, writing about what many might think of as the least sexy, most outdated topic imaginable, not only influences large numbers of educators, parents, policymakers, and reporters but also has been recognized as one of the top thinkers and doers in the world.
But what about the ideas she’s describing? Boiled down to its core, Hannah-Jones’ work – three much-discussed pieces in particular – makes the argument that school segregation has been and still remains a central factor in depriving black Americans from fully participating in society.
“Nikole’s work vividly highlights the degree to which we as a nation have so far failed to live up to the promise of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision,” says former Obama education secretary John B. King, now head of the Education Trust.
The argument is a strong one. A massive amount of research shows that integrating schools can have all sorts of positive effects. The period of peak racial integration in American schools (1970-1988) was the period when racial achievement gaps were closing the fastest. The re-segregation of schools over nearly 30 years since then has been disastrous for black and brown kids in particular.
To readers who may have thought that school segregation was a thing of the past, or that its effects could be ameliorated through other means, Hannah-Jones’ message is a stinging wake-up call. But she displays little worry about ruffling readers’ feathers.
“I don’t know how not to say what I believe to be true and right,” she says. “I don’t think it’s useful to pretend something’s not true to save someone’s feelings.”
Hannah-Jones is known for speaking her mind in her pieces, on Twitter, and in person.
If racial segregation in schools is at the heart of the problem we all live with, then racial integration is the solution – or at least a major part of it. According to Hannah-Jones (and many others), there is little chance for the current racially segregated school system to produce dramatically better outcomes for black and brown kids.
And, as a black woman who was bused across town as a kid in Waterloo, Iowa, who has described her own decisions about choosing a school for her daughter, and has written extensively about school segregation, Hannah-Jones has standing on the topic that few others possess.
Yet, despite all the respect she commands and influence she wields, some educators and civil rights advocates warn that a renewed attempt at school integration could actually be destructive for minority communities, or that it may distract from other, more immediate and powerful ways of addressing racial inequality.
There’s a somewhat similar concern from a journalistic point of view: the danger that, understandably excited by the energy surrounding Hannah-Jones’ work, reporters and editors could end up putting school integration on a pedestal rather examining the policies that aim to promote it with the same rigor as they would any other idea.
It’s happened before many times – the hype, the glossing over of obvious challenges, the bandwagon. It would be a shame to see it happen again.
One worrying sign: Farah Stockman’s Boston Globe series about the lessons of school integration, which came to conclusions that were decidedly mixed, goes strangely unmentioned in many of today’s racial equality conversations, even though it’s a 2016 Pulitzer prize winner.
Image from “Boston After Busing,” the Pulitzer prize-winning Boston Globe series.
Hannah-Jones’ rise to prominence took place over more than a decade, first slowly, then much more quickly.
Raised in a working-class home, she graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1998 and attended journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill from 2001 to 2003.
She didn’t always know she was going to be writing about racism in schools, according to journalism-school friend Joy Harrington, who recalls that Hannah-Jones worked part-time at a mattress store during journalism school, along with work-study and coursework.
And she didn’t know she was going to be doing it at the Times. “Other students aspire to those lofty publications,” says Harrington. “But I don’t think Nikole ever cared about that specifically.”
But she was always pretty focused. “The only reason I ever wanted to be a journalist was to write about race and racism,” she told Teaching Tolerance earlier this year
During the early 2000s, she covered education for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer. Her talent was clear from the start, says former editor James Shiffer, who’s now at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Storytelling, reporting, data journalism. “She could do it all.”
Hannah-Jones then signed on at The Oregonian, where she wrote about demographics, the Census and county government. A few years later, she moved to New York City and began writing for ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet that partners with larger outlets.
It was there that things started to move faster.
Her best-known ProPublica series, Segregation Now, focused on a single black family from Tuscaloosa, AL, which, over three generations, experiences a full cycle of public education: all-black education, then integrated schools, and then the return to segregation in present times.
“She just has a presence, says Ilena Silverman, features editor at the Times magazine. “She’s got an investigative mindset. She’s a relentless reporter. She avoids easy assumptions. And she writes with great conviction and velocity.”
Hannah-Jones’ 2015 “This American Life” episode brought her work and ideas to a much larger audience.
In 2015, she collaborated with “This American Life” on an episode about school segregation around Ferguson, MO, near where a black teenager named Mike Brown had been killed by a white police officer.
Called The Problem We All Live With, it told a heartbreaking story about how the roughly 1,000 mostly black kids from the troubled Normandy schools near Ferguson were allowed to attend a mostly-white high school 30 miles away, but then had to return to their home schools.
The piece won a Peabody and generated an enormous amount of attention on issues of racial segregation in schools. Even for “This American Life,” which regularly produces memorable and far-reaching stories, the audience response was unusually strong.
“It felt like that show single handedly put [school segregation] on the table in a way that it had not before,” said producer Chana Joffe-Walt, who worked with Hannah-Jones on the segment. “It’s very rare that you put something up and it has such a direct impact… It really had an effect that I don’t know that I believed journalism could do.”
But Hannah-Jones wasn’t done. Hired by the New York Times magazine, she followed up with a 2016 cover story about school segregation in New York City.
The article, Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, again stood out among other reporting on schools. In it, Hannah-Jones made her choice of schools for her child a central part of the story, and called on other parents to consider the cumulative effects of individual family choices on the education system as a whole.
“I’ve spent my career chronicling the story of children in segregated schools,”she wrote. “This time, the child is my own.”
In focusing on her own child’s education, Hannah-Jones took segregation out of the political arena and brought it into readers’ homes.
Hannah-Jones’ 2016 New York Times magazine story.
With these three big hits in a row, Hannah-Jones and school integration were at the fore.
“All of a sudden, it seemed like she was everywhere,” remembers NPR’s Gene Demby. “She’d been grinding for a really long time, but it looks like it’s overnight.”
Along the way, Hannah-Jones has achieved a measure of celebrity.
She’s asked to speak all over the country, by parents, school systems, public officials, and journalists. At these events, she’s often surrounded by admirers.
She is among the best-known female journalists in the nation, and perhaps the best-known black American writer other than Atlantic magazine writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“There really is nobody in [the journalism business] right now that I respect more than Nikole,” Coates said during a 2015 event.
For many journalists, Hannah-Jones is a role model and inspiration. For many educators, she is a welcome voice putting school segregation at the center of the debate over racial inequality and social justice.
She’s deeply knowledgeable about a topic she and many others believe is critically important to the future of the country. She’s situated at a nationally prominent magazine where lengthy research and reporting are expected and allowed. And she is expressing a worldview that is exquisitely appropriate to the times we are in.
“I think I write with a moral outrage that is important for the type of work that I’m doing,” she says.
She’s alternately tough and funny, depending on her mood and the situation. In her Twitter biography, she describes herself as “the Beyoncé of Journalism.”
A screenshot of Hannah-Jones’ Twitter page, where she refers to herself as “the Beyoncé of Journalism.”
Hard as it may be to believe, coverage of racial segregation in schools was for many recent years considered unappealing. After years of obsessive coverage in the 1970s, and legal setbacks in the 80s and 90s, the integration battlers were often viewed as a thing of the past, or a hornet’s nest of controversy better left alone. There was little public attention to it – neither the Bush, nor Clinton, nor Obama administrations made school integration a high priority – and little media attention. The topic was a dusty, old, a seemingly unworkable knot.
Instead, education improvement efforts and media coverage generally focused on other, seemingly more attainable solutions: choice models, improving classroom instruction, higher standards, targeted funding, and in-school, within-district measures to make education work better for more kids within existing segregated school systems – an approach that Hannah-Jones (and many others) describe as futile.
A few journalists were tracking the mismatch between what was being discussed and what was going on in schools. “For years as an education reporter I watched everybody try to explain away the ‘achievement gap’ in this country,” says the New York Times‘ Erica Green. “Nikole made everybody confront the obvious, ugly truth in the room – race and resources.”
At the time, the school reform conversation was very much focused elsewhere, and white reporters may have found it uncomfortable to confront educational inequality through a racial lens. As “This American Life” producer Joffe-Walt pointed out in the 2015 segment on school segregation, “we like the idea that [fixing schools] is not a race issue.”
Much of that’s now changed, thanks in large part to Hannah-Jones’ efforts.
Hannah-Jones with fellow journalists at a recent conference.
As a black woman in a notoriously white, male work environment, Hannah-Jones had to work harder than most of her peers to bring these stories to the fore. Journalism has long struggled with newsroom diversity, even more so since the economic recession of 2008. There was no guarantee that her work was ever going to find a larger audience. Her career could have been derailed at any moment along the way.
Early on, she didn’t get an internship in part because one of her supervisors thought she was “too obsessed” with writing about race, she says. At The Oregonian, Hannah-Jones says she was again told she was writing about race too much and was biased in her coverage. According to friends, she felt like she was going nowhere and considered getting out of journalism.
The most well-known incident she experienced involved an encounter with noted author Gay Talese. It was just “an old white guy saying ‘You shouldn’t be where you are,’” according to Hannah-Jones, who says she was more troubled by coverage of the incident than the incident itself.
“For a black writer to be called duplicitous is pretty distressing,” she says. “You know as a black writer at the Times that there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny of your work. Your credibility is all you have. And there’s no way of knowing what are the long-term effects of that.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, empowering and inspiring other journalists of color is an important part of Hannah-Jones’ work.
The inaugural boot camp of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting that Hannah-Jones co-founded last year was “the first time outside of a college job fair or two that I attended an event where most of the audience and, I believe, all of the organizers were black,” says the Education Writers Association’s Marquita Brown. Hannah-Jones and other co-leaders “embody what’s possible.”
Hannah-Jones has also helped education reporters – most of us white – to see racial bias and cultural insensitivities that might be lurking in our well-intentioned stories about communities of color.
She called out a 2016 Philadelphia Inquirer story about a white family choosing a neighborhood school, tweeting that this “wink-and-nod writing about race in 2016 is just unacceptable.”
Indeed, Hannah-Jones or her supporters may well expose problematic aspects of this profile.
The problem is that even the most well-intentioned writing about racial inequality can unintentionally stigmatize communities of color, notes the Intercultural Development Research Association’s David Hinojosa. But “Nikole Hannah-Jones’ writings have done more justice to the issue than most,” he says. “She’s not talking downwardly about communities of color.”
Hannah-Jones has even gone so far as to explore the uncomfortable reality of education journalists’ complicity (as parents) in the inequitable education system that we write about.
“It’s not a comfortable thing for people to hear, but I think it would be hard to dispute,” she says. “Look at who makes educational decisions in households, and then look at who’s covering education.”
It’s not that Hannah-Jones doesn’t admire other education writers. She says she appreciates in particular Mother Jones’ Kristina Rizga, the Hechinger Report’s Emmanuel Felton, and the New York Times’ Kate Zernike and Emily Badger.
But she believes that reporters – especially education reporters – have to understand the multiple roles that they play. “Every time a parent makes a decision for justice, it makes it harder for other parents not to,” she told a roomful of education reporters at the Poynter Institute last winter.
Questioning a return to school integration: Fuller, Piché, Daniel Favors, Stewart
There are limits to her influence, of course.
Her pieces haven’t yet had the immediate real-world impact of some other pieces of investigative journalism.
Nationally, there are no big new large-scale school integration efforts being undertaken by federal, state, or local leaders, much less big-money foundations. Even the most fledgling proposals for mixing kids of different races in liberal enclaves such as New York City have faced enormous opposition.
It’s unclear how many parents actually changed their school choice decisions based on her work. One popular school consultant in New York City tells me that her clients are generally aware of Hannah-Jones’ writing but still have tended to go with the highest-rated schools they could find.
BlackLivesMatter, perhaps the leading social justice movement of the current era, has generally focused its education-related efforts on such issues as the school-to-prison pipeline, local control of schools, and getting police out of schools, rather than racial integration.
And there are people who outright disagree with her about school integration or simply believe that there are more powerful approaches to alleviating racial inequality.
Longtime civil rights lawyers including Anurima Bhargava and Dianne Piché have expressed concerns about the way in which Hannah-Jones and those who emulate her have described school integration. “I worry that well-meaning elites – including those who listen to NPR and read the New York Times – don’t understand the political and legal constraints that make it virtually impossible to implement the comprehensive solutions to that are needed,” says Piché.
Writers including Malcolm Gladwell and Farah Stockman have written about the unintended downsides of school integration. Stockman, the former Boston Globe reporter now at the Times, won a 2016 Pulitzer for a series of deeply reported pieces looking back at desegregation efforts in Boston. Among many things, Stockman’s reporting questioned why a well-resourced school of black and brown kids could not be equal to or better than a white one.
“The ideas that [Hannah-Jones] is celebrated for writing are very problematic, and are crowding out a deeper and more nuanced vision of black intellectual thought,” says Chris Stewart, the education advocate who is perhaps Hannah-Jones’ most vocal critic. Among white progressive elites and education journalists especially, Stewart claims, “the whole integration thing has become kind of a fetish.”
Indeed, the real lesson of school integration attempts in the past has been “the ferocity of the resistance” from white people, says Howard Fuller, a Milwaukee-based education activist. No matter what laws are passed, he says, white people will find ways to avoid them. In the current political environment, “I just don’t honestly see any pathways for making it happen.”
If that’s the case, then talk of racial integration of schools is illusory, a way for people to talk about racial equality with the security of knowing it’s never going to happen. “I’m not ever going to accept the notion of inequality,” says Fuller. “But for me, equality is not the same as having to be with white people.”
The Center for Law and Social Justice’s Lurie Daniel Favors, who sat on a panel with Hannah-Jones in Brooklyn last winter, finds the reporter’s support of school integration overly optimistic. “She’s brilliant in her analysis,” Daniel Favors says. “But I don’t agree with where she ends up.” Black children in America have certain special needs, cultural and otherwise, and integrated schooling “doesn’t address them.”
These voices are not so frequently heard right now, however, due in part to Hannah-Jones’ extraordinary influence and also perhaps because the idea of school integration is so deeply familiar for journalists who grew up thinking separate could never be equal and that the best way to approach racial and cultural differences was to avoid acknowledging them. In that light, considering non-integrationist approaches to addressing racial inequality may feel uncomfortable, maybe even racist – especially for white reporters and editors.
After penning another Times magazine cover story last month (about a white community’s attempt to secede from a larger, racially diverse district), she’s now out on book leave, bringing her reporting to bear on school segregation in Detroit and around the nation.
Of her critics, Hannah-Jones says “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of them.”
“What you hear over and over is that [school integration] is too hard,” Hannah-Jones said in Teaching Tolerance. But she’s not buying that argument. “Communities need to decide if this is intolerable, that it is untenable and that it is unjust, and then they need to fix it,” she said.
She rejects the role that she’s practicing advocacy journalism. “I do not consider myself an advocate any more than all journalism is advocacy,” she says. “I think that we forget that most journalism has a stated purpose – written on walls: to speak truth to power, to hold power accountable. I see my work in that tradition.”
And she rejects the notion that she has an obligation to solve the problems she exposes. “My role as a journalist is to not let us ignore what we’re doing to children.”
On that issue, former DC Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson agrees strongly. “The person who calls the problem out is not necessarily the person who has to make it all good for you,” says Henderson. “We only get to good solutions when we start a conversation. People have to do their own work.”
In the meantime, neither the increased attention nor the ongoing controversy surrounding her approach seem to have put much of a dent in her laser-like focus and self-confidence.
“She is the same woman I met Day One of school,” says grad school friend Harrington. “She’s the same fierce, tell-it-like-it-is person.”
“She has outrage, which she puts into everything she writes. She doesn’t try to tone it down to appease whoever’s reading it.” And now, when issues of race and social justice are at or near the top of the public’s consciousness, Hannah-Jones is “exactly where she needs and deserves to be,” says Harrington.
“I’m grateful that she’s there. I would feel like we were missing something if she weren’t.”