Part 4—The Atlantic finesses the gap: A puzzle emerges in The Atlantic’s portrait of D’Leisha Dent.
Dent is president of the senior class at Tuscaloosa’s Central High School. She’s one of seventeen students in Central High’s Advanced Placement English class.
According to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, Dent is “an honors student since middle school” who “excels in school” and has engaged in “touch honors coursework.”
There’s a lot more to say about Dent, who seems to be a superlative young person. Last fall, she was Central High’s homecoming queen. She’s also a three-time individual state champion in track. She’s a member of the mayor’s youth council.
Here’s the puzzle:
The honors student who excels in school keeps scoring around the twentieth percentile on the ACT. On that basis, it looks like Dent won’t be able to attend a four-year college, despite the fact that she’s president of her senior class and a state champion athlete.
An honors student who excels in school can’t get into college! In our view, Hannah-Jones finesses this puzzle all through her 9900-word report.
What do we mean when we say that Hannah-Jones has finessed her report? When we say her report is structured in a way to please us lazy, uncaring liberals?
More to the point, how should sensible people resolve the puzzle we’ve just described, in which an honors student who excels in school can’t get a nibble from a four-year college?
To resolve that puzzle, let’s consider the way Hannah-Jones describes a series of Tuscaloosa high schools in her three-generation profile of D’Leisha Dent’s family. That progression starts with James Dent.
D’Leisha Dent’s grandfather, James Dent, graduated from Tuscaloosa’s Druid High School in 1968. At that time, Tuscaloosa still hadn’t dismantled its dual school system in the wake of the 1954 Brown decision.
Druid High School was the school for Tuscaloosa’s black kids.
As she describes Druid High, Hannah-Jones seems to tell two stories at once. We’d say the finessing starts:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): By the time he started his freshman year in high school, in 1964, a full decade after Brown, just 2.3 percent of the nearly 3 million school-aged black children in the old Confederate South attended school alongside white children. None of those children lived in Tuscaloosa. At Dent’s school, Druid High, students learned from hand-me-down textbooks and lagged behind their white counterparts on achievement tests. The curriculum pushed students toward learning a trade instead of preparing for college.Did you follow that? The students at Druid High “learned from hand-me-down textbooks and lagged behind their white counterparts.” They were “pushed toward learning a trade instead of preparing for college.”
Even so, Dent’s experience at Druid reveals a truth often lost in the history of school integration. Though its resources were not as rich as those of the all-white Tuscaloosa High, Druid was a source of pride within the city’s black community. Its students soaked up lessons from a committed staff of all-black teachers, many of whom were exceptionally talented, in part because teaching was among the only professional careers open to black southerners at the time. What the school lacked in racial diversity, it made up for in economic variety: the children of domestic workers walked the halls with the children of college professors. Condoleezza Rice was one of Dent’s schoolmates.
McDonald Hughes, Druid’s tall, stern principal, instilled a sense of discipline and of possibility in his students. “He’d grab you by the shoulders,” Dent recalled with a laugh. “He wanted you to succeed.”
One paragraph later, they are “soak[ing] up lessons from a committed staff of all-black teachers, many of whom were exceptionally talented.”
There’s no direct “contradiction” there. Technically, all those claims can be true.
We have no doubt that there were superb teachers at Druid High, in part for the reason Hannah-Jones states. (At one time, the teaching staff included Condoleezza Rice’s mother.) We have no doubt that students like Rice “soaked up lessons” from these teachers, though Rice’s family fled to Denver early in her high school years. (She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic school.)
In that passage, Hannah-Jones tells a familiar, accurate story about black education during the era of legal segregation. In essence, it’s the story of the “talented tenth,” the famous group which saved literacy within the black community during the many long years (during the centuries) when the majority culture was trying to stamp it out.
Even so, the story of a talented tenth omits ninety percent of the tale. In this case, Hannah-Jones makes no real attempt to describe what life was like for the average kid at Druid High—for students like James Dent.
How far behind did those students “lag” under the weight of centuries of educational oppression? All through her 9900-word sponge bath, Hannah-Jones seems determined to keep us from wondering or finding out.
James Dent, a superlative person, graduated from Druid High in 1968, then went to Vietnam. Two decades later, his daughter, Melissa Dent, had a very different high school experience.
By now, Tuscaloosa had completely merged its black and white high schools. Melissa Dent attended the new Central High, the city’s sole public high school.
Every kid in the city went there, black as well as white. In principle, that was a great, good idea.
In line with that obvious fact, Hannah-Jones pours on the praise for that version of Central High. Once again, we think we see her finessing things a bit. She’s telling two stories at once:
HANNAH-JONES: In the fall of 1979, Central High School opened to serve all public-high-school students in the district—no matter their race, no matter whether they lived in the city’s public-housing projects or in one of the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River. The mega-school, a creative solution to a complex problem…was spread across two campuses—ninth- and 10th-graders at the former black high school, now called Central West; 11th- and 12th-graders at the old white high school, called Central East.Could that earlier version of Central High really “reach any child?” Principals will always say such things. Journalists will always quote them.
Over the years, Central racked up debate-team championships. Its math team dominated at state competitions. The cheerleaders tumbled their way to nationals, and the Falcons football team trounced local competitors so badly, some refused to play against it. Central students were regularly named National Merit Scholars. In 2001, the state found Central’s projected dropout rate to be less than half Alabama’s average.
“Central and its resources could reach any child,” said Robert Coates, a former principal of the school.
The school was hardly perfect. Black students were disproportionately funneled into vocational classes, and white students into honors classes. Some parents complained that competitive opportunities were limited to just the very best students and athletes because the school, at 2,300 students, was so large. And the white flight that had begun when the courts first ordered the district to desegregate continued, slowly, after the formation of the mega-school. But despite these challenges, large numbers of black students studied the same robust curriculum as white students, and students of both races mixed peacefully and thrived.
That said, Hannah-Jones never tells us how many black students “studied the same robust curriculum as white students” during that era at Central High. Tacking in the opposite direction, she also says that the school was “funneling” black kids away from honors classes during this era.
Rather plainly, she suggests the school was doing this “funneling” on an inappropriate basis. She offers no evidence that this was the case, but she lets us picture the worst, as we “Tuscaloosa liberals” very much enjoy doing.
Most repellently, Hannah-Jones never tells us who was winning those debate and math team championships at Central High. She never tells us who was winning those National Merit scholarships, or even how many there actually were relative to Central’s size.
Instead, she lets us imagine the best about the wondrous school which was winning football games and debate trophies. Some of us then clip passages from her portrait and repeat her happy-talk portrait of Central High.
Central High “was not a bad school,” we tell our progressive readers. “On the contrary, it was renowned for its football team as well its debate team.”
News flash: A large school can have a top debate team and still be a lousy school. Question:
Aside from the large student population which helped it dominate on the gridiron, is it true that Central High was a good school in that era? If so, how good was it?
By that, we mean the following:
How good a job did Central High do with its many students, black and white, who came from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds? How good a job did Central do with its black kids who weren’t the daughters of professors, as Condoleezza Rice was—who weren’t the talented tenth?
In fairness, Hannah-Jones probably has no way to answer that question. That said, she largely finesses this basic point, no matter which high school or which era she is discussing.
Today, D’Leisha Dent, a superlative kid, attends a Central High which is quite different from the citywide mega-school her mother attended.
Today, Central High is all black (overall, Tuscaloosa’s student population is about twenty percent white). According to Hannah-Jones, its boundaries have been drawn, and sometimes baldly gerrymandered, to make it the high school for Tuscaloosa’s poor black kids.
Even as she draws this portrait, Hannah-Jones maintains the happy talk. D’Leisha Dent, who “excels in school,” has engaged in “tough honors coursework,” we are pleasingly told.
It’s only at the very end of Hannah-Jones’ long report that we learn about Dent’s failure to produce a college-ready ACT score, despite her multiple efforts and her desire to succeed. In deference to our cluelessness, Hannah-Jones never raises a fairly obvious question:
Should D’Leisha Dent have been enrolled in an AP course at all? By normal standards, did this superb young person actually quality for “tough honors coursework?”
Also this: Did any “tough honors coursework” actually occur in her AP class? Is it possible that this was an Advanced Placement course in name only?
Another obvious question is skipped as Hannah-Jones finesses basic facts. To formulate that question, we need to return to her portrait of today’s Central High School.
In the year 2000, the Tuscaloosa school board voted to end the arrangement in which Central High was the city’s sole high school. Instead, the board decided to establish three smaller high schools.
Two of the schools, Northridge and Bryant, would be majority black. Today, the smaller, reconfigured Central High is all black.
D’Leisha Dent attends the version of Central High created by this new plan. At one point, Hannah-Jones offers a familiar portrait:
HANNAH-JONES: The night the Tuscaloosa school board voted to split up the old Central, board member Bryan Chandler pledged that there would be no winners and losers. Yet while [the new] Northridge [High School] offered students a dozen Advanced Placement classes, the new Central went at least five years without a single one. Journalism awards stretch wall to wall in Northridge’s newspaper classroom, but for the better part of a decade, Central students didn’t have a school newspaper or a yearbook. Until last year, Central didn’t even offer physics.We are supposed to be angry as we read about the previous lack of AP courses at Central. As always, this makes us feel good.
A truly horrible question isn’t supposed to enter our heads: By normal standards, how many students at Central High actually quality for such courses? In a piece which runs 10,000 words, Hannah-Jones evades and finesses such basic, uncomfortable questions again and again and again.
In fairness, Hannah-Jones didn’t invent this familiar practice, which serves to keep us, the nation’s liberals, feeling good about ourselves. Our journalists have finessed such questions for decades now. They finesse such questions in their sleep, the way other life forms breathe.
This conduct is designed to please liberals and mainstreamers. In our view, this conduct tends to be very unhelpful for superlative kids like Dent.
Tomorrow: The superintendent’s tale