Part 2—Hannah-Jones softens the blow: We the people should thank the gods for kids like D’Leisha Dent.
Dent is a student at Central High, one of Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s three public high schools. She’s president of her senior class. Last fall, she was homecoming queen.
Dent is a highly accomplished athlete, a three-time individual state champion in track. Most important:
Based on the recent profile of Dent by Nikole Hannah-Jones, D’Leisha Dent wants to do good and do well in the world. It sounds like she’s a superb young person, like many others in Tuscaloosa—white and black, city and county.
Hannah-Jones' lengthy report appears in The Atlantic. For background, see yesterday’s post.
There is one downside to this portrait. Dent doesn’t exactly “excel in school,” though Hannah-Jones makes that peculiar, feel-good claim near the end of her report, which runs more than 9900 words.
Before she does, she cues the violins and starts to build the pathos, offering this portrait of Central High and the “stigma” it bears. In this way, Hannah-Jones softens the blow before presenting Dent’s academic profile:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): [I]n many ways Central is like any other high school. It’s got its jocks, its nerds, its mean girls and band geeks. D’Leisha herself is the all-American girl—the homecoming queen dating a football player. But students and staff say most people see only one thing about Central: it’s all black. And that still bears a stigma...As she continues, Hannah-Jones describes the one downside to this superb young person—in at least four tries, she hasn’t scored well enough on the ACT to qualify for attention from a four-year college. But before we’re given that news, we get the pathos, as we’re told that Dent has achieved good grades in “tough honors coursework” at Central.
The principal struggles to explain to students how the segregation they experience is any different from the old version simply because no law requires it. “It is hard, it is a tough conversation, and it is a conversation I don’t think we as adults want to have.”
Standing one day last fall outside the counselor’s office at Central, D’Leisha looked up at the college bulletin board. It was dominated by National Guard and Army flyers, with some brochures for small Alabama colleges tucked among them. Students with D’Leisha’s grades and tough honors coursework often come home to mailboxes stuffed with glossy college brochures. But most days, nothing showed up in the mail for her, and no colleges had come calling.
The word “stigma” is littered into the portrait, pleasing our lazy hearts.
Can we talk? This superb young person isn’t facing an empty mailbox because of a “stigma” attached to her school. D’Leisha Dent, a superb young person, isn’t getting approached by colleges because of her low ACT scores, which suggest that she possibly shouldn’t have been assigned “tough honors coursework” at all.
Finally, Hannah-Jones delivers the bad news. This news defines one part of our brutal American history. It helps define the size of one problem we still face moving forward.
That said, Hannah-Jones has filled our heads with many distractions and misdirections before she delivers this unwelcome news about a superlative kid:
HANNAH-JONES (continuing directly): She had taken the ACT college-entrance exam twice already. The first time she scored a 16, the second time a 17. Her mother’s alma mater, the University of Alabama, expects a 21, the national average. Many four-year colleges will not even consider students who score below an 18.That passage describes a series of failures. On its surface, it describes a failure by Dent’s teachers and counselors, who assume she knows what she’s doing with respect to her pursuit of college.
“My biggest fear right now is the ACT,” D’Leisha said. “I don’t have a good score. It’s been on my mind a lot.” She described an ACT study session she’d attended last summer at a community college. “We were with kids from Northridge, and they knew things we didn’t know,” she said. “They had done things we hadn’t done.”
Because D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in, her teachers and counselors don’t worry about whether she’s on the right track. They’re stretched thin trying to keep in class the seniors—roughly 35 percent of them—who fail to graduate each year. But in December, at home texting with her boyfriend, D’Leisha admitted that she’d filled out only one college application. Lately, she said, she’d been looking more closely at those military brochures, just as her grandfather had, something that angers her mother. “I am kind of clueless how to get stuff done for college,” D’Leisha told me, looking down and fidgeting with her phone. “They are supposed to be helping us, but they think because I am the class president I know what to do. Sometimes I don’t speak up, because I know people have expectations of me.”
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.
Beneath the surface, it describes at least two other failures. It describes an apparent failure by Melissa Dent, D’Leisha Dent’s mother, a university graduate who ought to be helping her child with this daunting task.
In our view, it also describes a failure by Hannah-Jones, who has spent many thousands of words filling the heads of liberal and mainstream readers with a succession of feel-good themes before she drops this information at the end of her lengthy piece. In this way, she helps us persist in our cluelessness and our lack of concern about the depth of the challenge described in this tribally feel-good piece.
Does D’Leisha Dent “excel in school?” Dent is a superlative kid—but actually no, she does not. (Neither do many others.)
Should Dent have been taking “tough honors coursework?” Did she take tough honors coursework? Let’s recall the description of her Advanced Placement English class:
HANNAH-JONES: She [Dent] eventually broke free from a tangle of girls to enter Tyrone Jones’s Advanced Placement English class and take her seat at the front. She dropped two black bags taut with notebooks and binders beside her desk.Based upon enrollment figures, the 17 kids in that AP class constitute perhaps the top twelve percent of Central High’s senior class. And yet one of those kids, a superlative person, can’t come close to producing a score that might get her those college brochures. Even with her superlative citizenship and her athletic success, colleges aren’t interested.
Jones didn’t waste time setting the boisterous class to task. The AP exam was approaching. Students who didn’t score high enough wouldn’t get college credit for the class. Even though the 17 girls and boys gathered in front of him made up Central’s brightest, their practice essay about a poem hadn’t gone so well.
D’Leisha raised her hand, her brow furrowed. How many kids had made the cutoff last year? she asked. Only two students had, but the teacher dodged the question. “I really do believe all of you can make those scores,” he said.
You can trust us—that lack of interest isn’t because of a stigma. It’s because of those low ACT scores.
Please understand: If Hannah-Jones can be trusted at all (and she can), D’Leisha Dent is a superb young person. But also understand this:
Based on what we’ve been told, it seems the ninety percent of Central High’s kids may “excel in school” even less than she does—and plainly, she seems to be struggling.
By normal standards, D’Leisha Dent is struggling in school—and yet, she seems to be in the upper ranks of her school’s senior class! Adjusting for kids who have dropped out, she probably ranks in the top ten percent of the freshmen who entered Central High four years ago, in her class.
Why does such a superlative kid find herself in this position? And what about the rest of those kids, the kids who are doing less well?
For decades, mainstream and liberal writers have handed us feel-good treatments of these important questions. On balance, we’d have to say that Hannah-Jones has extended that tradition.
We liberals—you might call us “Tuscaloosa liberals” this week—seem to prefer it that way. To all appearances, we “Tuscaloosa liberals” don’t care much about superb kids like Dent.
We like to have our tribal beliefs reinforced in familiar, feel-good ways. If that doesn’t help superb kids like Dent, that seems to be too damn bad.
Tomorrow: Explanations, good and bad