Solving Tuscaloosa: Hannah-Jones speaks!

TUESDAY, MAY 13, 2014

About her trip to the South: This morning, we motored over to Morgan State to do The Marc Steiner Show.

Long ago, we sat around watching Colts’ games with Marc. (We refer to the Baltimore Colts.) Today, he runs the nation’s Most Valuable Radio Program, according to The Nation.

After the program, we discussed the racial balance, or lack of same, in the nine public high schools of Tuscaloosa City and County. (Tuscaloosa City runs three of the nine high schools. For enrollment figures, see our earlier post.)

Baltimore City and County’s racial balance is worse, Marc suggested. Incomparably, we took a look at the record.

This is what we found:

Baltimore City’s student population is more than 10-to-1 black. You can’t create racial balance in high schools with such a heavily unbalanced student population.

Beyond the city line, the situation is different. The overall student population in the large Baltimore County school system looks like this (black and white students only):
Baltimore County student population:
White students: 47,490
Black students: 41,253
Despite the relative balance, four of the country’s twenty-three high schools come close to being all black. You can decide how you feel about that, but these are the relevant numbers:
Four Baltimore County high schools
White students/black students

Milford Mill Academy: 13/1308
New Town High: 37/812
Randallstown High: 16/960
Woodlawn High: 20/1227
On balance, we’d have to say there’s less racial balance in Baltimore City and County’s high schools than in Tuscaloosa’s.

In part, this is why we thought the focus of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ piece on Tuscaloosa was a bit odd. When we read her long, fascinating report, we were most struck by the academic profile of Tuscaloosa’s Central High, the one all-black high school of the county’s nine.

Hannah-Jones focused on the school’s lack of racial balance. Her piece bore a rather flamboyant headline: “Segregation Now...”

Don’t get us wrong! We also think it would be better if D’Leisha Dent, a Central High senior, attended school with black and white kids together. But we were more struck by the fact that Dent, who seems to be in the top ten percent at her high school, can’t score well enough on the ACT to get into a four-year college, despite the fact that she’s senior class president, homecoming queen, a member of the mayor’s youth council and a three-time individual state champion in track.

By all accounts, Dent is a superlative young person; why isn’t she doing better in school? More to the point, how well are Central's other kids doing if Dent, “an honors student since middle school,” is having this much trouble?

Why isn’t Dent doing better in school? Tomorrow, we’ll review Hannah-Jones’ suggestions on that score, such as they are. But we were struck by the lack of emphasis placed by Hannah-Jones on the academic profile of Central High, where a lot of good kids are going to school, in favor of a report about “resegregation” in an “apartheid school.”

Lack of racial balance matters. But Tuscaloosa seems to have more of it than Baltimore, to cite one northern example.

What explains Hannah-Jones’ focus? On April 17, the Tuscaloosa News published an interview with her which may answer that question.

According to reporter Jamon Smith, Hannah-Jones spent a year on her lengthy, detailed report, including two months in Tuscaloosa. Why did she focus on the Druid City? We were struck by the highlighted passages:
SMITH (4/17/14): Hannah-Jones said she became interested in school resegregation while spending a year and a half investigating housing segregation. She saw a link between the two that she wanted to explore, particularly in the South.

In the initial stages of her research, Hannah-Jones came across a study by Stanford University that showed that within three years of being released from court desegregation orders, many school systems started resegregating.

“So I contacted the Stanford researchers and I asked them where are the districts that have resegregated most rapidly,” she said. “They sent me a list of the top 10 and Tuscaloosa was on that list. Tuscaloosa wasn’t the worst on the list, but it was among the worst in the country.”

She chose Tuscaloosa City Schools over the other nine because it’s in the South, the system still has white students and it hasn’t been extensively written about nationally.
Hannah-Jones isn’t being quoted here. But at two places, Smith has her saying that she chose Tuscaloosa in part because it’s in the South.

In some ways, that’s a bit odd. In her 10,000-word report, Hannah-Jones notes, in passing, that the bulk of the nation’s “apartheid schools” are found in the North and Midwest.

Why did Hannah-Jones go South? Smith’s report continues:
SMITH (continuing directly): “Tuscaloosa really interested me because it was small enough to intimately tell a story, and that it had gone from one high school (Central) with perfect integration—not perfect as in flawless, but perfect because all students went to the same school—to three high schools,” she said.

“I was interested that Tuscaloosa had found a solution to segregation that had worked, and I wanted to know why it had gone away from that. And of course, Tuscaloosa has a lot of history with the ‘Stand in the Schoolhouse Doors’ and Alabama being the cradle of the civil rights movement.”

The article is one of three resegregation stories Hannah-Jones said she plans to write. The next two will focus on school resegregation in the Midwest and Northeast—the most segregated regions of the country, she said—and how school resegregation has affected Latinos.
At this point, we’ll be unkind and unfair. Hannah-Jones wanted to tell a good story. And she wanted to get a boost from the exciting, feel-good image of those southern governors “Standing in the Schoolhouse Doors.”

They did that fifty years ago. We'd rather try to solve Tuscaloosa today than to keep beating that drum.

Things are worse in the Midwest and the Northeast, but ProPublica headed down South. We’re inclined to think this is bad journalism and bad politics, one more exciting, liberal-friendly way to divide the 99 percent.

It’s exciting to talk about “apartheid schools” and “segregation now.” Our question would be different:

Why can’t a great kid like Dent get into a four-year college?

Tomorrow: Fleeting attempts to solve Tuscaloosa


  1. Bob, you are writing terrific posts, again and again. I am delighted and thankful.


  2. "At this point, we’ll be unkind and unfair."

    At what point are you not?

  3. Well. It's Tuesday.

    Tal post. Check.
    Tuscaloosa post. Check.
    Benghazi, anyone? We'll always have Benghazi.

  4. The unkindness and unfairness is misplaced. The South is where legal segregation existed 50 years ago and where integration within about 20 years had reached its high-water mark; the "re-segregation" occurring there -- a perfectly valid term given its historical context -- is a matter of concern to African-Americans in particular because it looks like regression. The Midwest and Northeast are very different stories. They are coming next. The idea that the South came first to "please liberals" is about as half-assed a bit of mind-reading as you can get.

    For sure, trying to figure out reasons why she cannot score higher on the ACT but is in an advanced placement class is an extremely important story. Arguably it's a more important story. But it's a different story. The history of de facto segregation after the elimination of the de jure kind is itself an important story. We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. If Somerby wants a different story written (and to be written in a certain way), then he should write it, not criticize others for not doing his work.

    1. Should he do it before or after he posts Chapter 7?

    2. If you want to talk about de facto segregation, the best place to focus on it is in the North and Midwest because there was not the same history of legal segregation as existed in the South. It is also better to focus on it because it has the potential to change stereotypes that the South is racist while the North and Midwest are less so -- often not true. Somerby is saying he wants a different story told, yes, but he is also complaining about the way this one was told.

      This story does please liberals because it lets Northern liberals off the hook by focusing instead on those red necks in the red states. The bias against the South is as ugly in many respects as other forms of bias. I think Somerby is motivated to call it out because he lives in MD, but he is right to cry foul. Segregation and resegregation were not invented in the South. Look at the history of the Sunset laws. Look at the segregation of the Chinese in San Francisco. There is no excuse for defining racism as a strictly African American, strictly Southern phenomenon because that lets too many people feel smug and safe without challenging their own resegregated neighborhoods.

    3. So she is going to do the Midwest and Northeast in the next installments. Are you really going to hang your hat on the order she chose? Talk about frail reeds.

      Nobody says segregation or racial bias was invented in the South, or that it is strictly an African-American and Southern phenomenon. That is nothing but your over-active imagination at work.

      I wonder if Somerby is proud to have relentlessly-fawning defenders like you.

    4. I assume he is happy enough to have commenters who can read.

  5. One thing that should be considered is the different geographical distributions of the races in North vs. South. In the South there are still many black people in rural areas (don't know about suburbs), whereas in the North blacks tend to be concentrated in the cities - many moved there from the South to try to find jobs. There may actually have been more geographical segregation of blacks from the beginning in the North. You won't understand resegregation - if that's what it is - without considering these things.


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  7. Not sure why Somerby expects Dent to be doing well in school. I am not saying she is a bad kid, but she doesn't particularly sound like a scholar. She's class president. Okay, so she won a popularity contest. She's homecoming queen - another popularity contest which helps explain why she won the first one. She's a 3 time state champion in track. Okay, so she's a jock, and really good in one sport. She's in AP English, but apparently a low achieving class. She may have done decent on the English part of the ACT. Say she got my score on that - a 25. There are still three other subjects that she may not be working at - math, science and social sciences.

    Being in AP English does not mean she is doing much in other subjects. Nor does being homecoming queen, class president, or a track star mean she is doing all that much studying.

    I have to wonder if there are not some band geeks at that school who crushed the ACT but are not singled out for attention because they are not as glamorous as a homecoming queen.

    1. Bet you didn't follow the link to the Atlantic article, did you?

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