Part 5—The superintendent’s tale: Nikole Hannah-Jones tells a fascinating, sprawling story in her flamboyantly headlined report, “Segregation Now...”
Rather, she tells a fascinating set of stories—a set of stories about race and the public schools of Tuscaloosa, Alabama:
She discusses three generations of a family whose current member, D’Leisha Dent, is president of the senior class at all-black Central High School.
She reviews sixty years of racial policy in Tuscaloosa’s schools. This dates to the years before (and even after) the Brown decision, when the city ran a legally segregated school system.
She offers ideas about the best ways to help low-income black kids succeed in school. She discusses Tuscaloosa’s attempts to deal with “white flight.”
Hannah-Jones tells a fascinating set of stories, though she may not do so perfectly. In our view, there are also several things she doesn’t do:
She doesn’t interview any white families, asking then to explain their departure from Tuscaloosa or its schools.
She doesn’t ever mention “black fight.” She doesn’t interview any black families who have moved out of Tuscaloosa’s West End, or beyond the city line into the rest of Tuscaloosa County.
For our money, she fails to ask some basic questions about various aspects of Central High’s educational program. In particular, she fails to ask a punishing question:
Why is it that D’Leisha Dent, who seems to be one of Central’s best students, can’t get accepted to college?
Hannah-Jones features the story of Dent, a superlative young person who may not be able to get into a four-year college because of her low ACT scores. As Hannah-Jones ends her 9900-word report, she describes Dent’s truly unfortunate plight.
Dent is a superb young person. That said, we’d have to say that this passage is somewhat selective:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): For black students like D’Leisha—the grandchildren of the historic Brown decision—having to play catch-up with their white counterparts is supposed to be a thing of the past. The promise was that students of all colors would be educated side by side, and would advance together into a more integrated, equitable American society. Polls show Americans embracing this promise in the abstract, but that rarely translates into on-the-ground support for integration efforts.For the record, Dent’s score on the ACT places her around the twentieth percentile on a nationwide basis.
Late last year, D’Leisha took the ACT for the third time, but her score dropped back to 16. So early on a Saturday in February, she got up quietly, forced a few bites of a muffin into her nervous stomach, and drove once again to the community college where the test is administered. A few weeks later, she got her score: 16 again. She contemplated a fifth attempt, but could see little point.
A few months earlier, D’Leisha had talked about how much she looked forward to meeting people from different cultures at college and sitting in a racially mixed classroom for the first time. But her college hopes are thinner now than she’d expected then. As of this writing, they largely hinge on the tenuous promise of a coach at a small, historically black college outside of Birmingham, who has told her that the school will have a place for her despite her score. No official offer of admission has yet arrived.
If you have any heart, you have to hope that this fine young person gets to “meet people from different cultures at college, sitting in a racially mixed classroom for the first time.” God bless D’Leisha Dent!
In fairness, though, we thought we’d mention several points which may get lost in Hannah-Jones’ portrait, which we think is somewhat selective:
Tuscaloosa City and County run a total of nine public high schools. At eight of those high schools, “students of all colors” are being educated side by side, even as we speak.
(For enrollment figures, click here.)
Many black kids at those high schools will be attending four-year colleges. Hopefully, they have been “advancing into a more integrated, equitable American society” and will continue to do so.
(D’Leisha Dent will do so too, whatever path she takes. Despite her relatively poor academic performance, Dent is a high achiever.)
Hannah-Jones doesn’t interview those other black kids or any of their parents. She doesn’t ask those parents how their kids ended up in one of the other eight high schools, where black and white Alabama kids are going to school together.
She doesn’t acknowledge a further point—the existence of those eight high schools suggests that someone in Tuscaloosa City and County seems to have exhibited some sort of “on-the-ground support for integration efforts” at some point in time, perhaps this very week.
That returns us to the question of Dent, a superlative kid who may not be able to attend a four-year college next year—a superlative kid who has never gone to school with kids of the other race.
(In perfectly reasonable ways, Hannah-Jones describes this as a loss for Dent. It’s a loss for Tuscaloosa’s white kids too.)
We’re left with a basic question: Why can’t Dent, an “honors student since middle school” who “excels in school” and has taken “tough honors coursework,” achieve a score on the ACT which will take her to college?
Hannah-Jones offers some familiar answers to this deeply important question. We can’t and don’t say her answers are “wrong,” and we suggest you peruse them. (We’ll explore them in more detail next week.)
We won’t say that Hannah-Jones’ answers are “wrong.” But she may tend to be a bit selective in her ruminations.
All her answers are pleasing to liberals. They culminate in the superintendent’s tale.
Hannah-Jones quotes Superintendent McKendrick. To us, this is happy talk:
HANNAH-JONES: D’Leisha arrived at Central in 2010...A year later, the district hired a new superintendent, Paul McKendrick.How odd! In almost 10,000 words, Hannah-Jones never offers examples of “the low test scores that have plagued” Central High. As we’ve said, her presentations often seem a bit selective to us—selective in ways which may tend to keep us liberals barefoot and clueless about the challenges we face.
Sitting in his office, at a desk six inches deep in papers and reports, McKendrick, a bespectacled man, quiet but forceful, said the black, mostly poor kids of the West End had been separated and written off. A recent audit of Central had found that 80 percent of students were not on the college track. The low test scores that have plagued the school don’t stem from “a child problem,” he told me. “You may have some children that have special needs or cognitive issues, but you are not going to say a whole group of kids” has “lost intelligence in some way.”
If Hannah-Jones’ reporting is accurate, you could make a case, were you so inclined, that Dent and her schoolmates at Central High have been “written off” by their city in certain basic ways. At several points, for example, Hannah-Jones describes the deliberate “gerrymandering” of district lines, a policy designed to make Central High an all-black, low-income school.
Tuscaloosa City’s other two high schools are majority black. But Hannah-Jones quotes a former school official saying the current version of Central High was “relegated as a low-performing school from day one.”
Narrowly understood, that statement is accurate. Given the way district lines were drawn in the year 2000, there was little doubt that the new Central High was going to be “low performing” is the most literal sense.
In our view, though, Hannah-Jones largely finesses a basic question: Would Central High’s students have produced better scholastic results if district lines had been drawn in some other way?
Hannah-Jones cites research which finds that low-income black kids do better academically if they attend schools which are mixed by race and social class. That may be true, though Hannah-Jones doesn’t spend much time on this research.
She does present the superintendent saying the things such people say. For ourselves, we don’t think such happy talk is necessarily helpful.
Does Central High have a “child problem?” Surely, no one would say that.
Has “a whole group of kids” at Central High “lost intelligence in some way?” As the superintendent says, no one is “going to say that.”
But as everyone knows by now, kids who come from low-literacy, low-income backgrounds are way behind their middle-class peers by the age of three. They’re behind, often way behind, on the first day of kindergarten.
Given our brutal American history, very large “achievement gaps” are routinely observed between low-income black kids and their more advantaged peers, the kids who live in the wealthier precincts of Tuscaloosa City and County.
D’Leisha Dent doesn’t seem to come from a “low-income” family. Her mother works on the assembly line at the local Mercedes plant.
That said, Dent has always gone to school with lots of kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds. And almost surely, very large “achievement gaps” exist in the Tuscaloosa schools.
For our money, Hannah-Jones finesses those gaps and their meaning, as liberal writers almost always do. This makes us adult liberals feel good, but it tends to be a disservice to good decent kids like Dent.
In this post, Ta-Nehisi Coates cited the “white supremacy” lurking about Tuscaloosa’s white flight. Coates, who lives in New York City, sends his own child to Manhattan Country School, a superlative private school.
(There’s no reason why he shouldn’t.)
Next week, we’ll talk about white and black flight from the nation’s schools. We’ll also discuss the punishing gaps our brutal history has created—punishing, complicated gaps we’d say Hannah-Jones finesses.
Does Central High have “a child problem?” Plainly no, it does not.
That said, the school is confronted with punishing gaps. Once we tell our selective old tales, what do we do about it?