Part 2—This dog doesn’t parse: First, you embellish.
All too often, that’s the way journalists create interest in an alleged problem.
In a lengthy study of Tuscaloosa’s schools, Nikole Hannah-Jones focused on an alleged problem which basically can’t be solved—the problem of “segregation” in our public schools.
Writing for ProPublica and The Atlantic, Hannah-Jones produced a 10,000-word report on the “resegregation” of Tuscaloosa’s schools.
Her report is fascinating, but we’d have to say the embellishments started early and came fairly often. Building our interest in “segregation,” Hannah-Jones keeps putting her thumb on the scale.
As the very start of her report, Hannah-Jones describes Tuscaloosa’s “resegregation.” She says this process is occurring all over the South (for text, see below).
By paragraph 10, she offers a statistical comparison in support of this seminal claim. It was designed to shock the conscience. But this dog just doesn’t parse:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): In recent years, a new term, apartheid schools—meaning schools whose white population is 1 percent or less, schools like Central—has entered the scholarly lexicon. While most of these schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, some 12 percent of black students in the South now attend such schools—a figure likely to rise as court oversight continues to wane. In 1972, due to strong federal enforcement, only about 25 percent of black students in the South attended schools in which at least nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. In districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, 53 percent of black students now attend such schools, according to an analysis by ProPublica.In this paragraph, all-black schools become “apartheid schools,” a term designed to shock the conscience. For ourselves, we were struck by the highlighted statistical comparison, which plainly doesn’t parse.
In the highlighted passage, Hannah-Jones discusses the percentage of black kids attending schools which are heavily black. We seem to see a very large increase in the number of such students—a jump from “only about 25 percent” to 53 percent.
That looks like a very big jump, but the comparison doesn’t parse. Alas! In her first statistic, Hannah-Jones is talking about black kids in all school districts all over the South. In her second statistic, she is discussing black kids in a certain highly specialized type of district.
That’s a type of apples-to-kumquats comparison which will mislead many readers. It’s a type of comparison Sean Hannity loves. Editors at two respected news orgs decided to let it go.
Below, we’ll show you how large that jump has been using apples-to-apples statistics. But first, let’s look at some of the embellishing which preceded paragraph 10.
Are Tuscaloosa’s public schools engaged in “resegregation?” Does this process include the creation of “apartheid schools?”
Whatever you think of Tuscaloosa’s policies, that’s highly emotional language. Starting in paragraph 7, Hannah-Jones starts pouring it on.
We’ve discussed the following portrait before. We’d say this strongly resembles embellishment:
HANNAH-JONES: Tuscaloosa’s schools today are not as starkly segregated as they were in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared an end to separate and unequal education in America. No all-white schools exist anymore—the city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students. But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.Let’s review the highlighted statements, which strike us as types of embellishment:
“Tuscaloosa’s schools are not as starkly segregated as they were in 1954?”
That strikes us as a world-class understatement. In 1954, Tuscaloosa’s public schools were completely segregated, by law. No child was allowed to attend school with a child of the other race.
Today, they’re not as starkly segregated? That’s a world-class understatement (see data below). In our view, it rises to the level of outright dissembling.
Today, “the city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students?”
That too is a ludicrous understatement, at least on the high school level, the level on which Hannah-Jones focuses in her report. These are the enrollment figures for Tuscaloosa City’s three high schools:
Public high schools, Tuscaloosa CityOn the high school level, all the city’s white students attend schools with large majorities of black students. On a journalistic basis, we’d say that Hannah-Jones struggled to avoid conveying this fact.
Bryant High: 19 percent white, 75 percent black
Central High: 100 percent black
Northridge High: 35 percent white, 61 percent black
(On the elementary and middle school levels, some schools are majority white. For our taste, Hannah-Jones didn’t pay sufficient attention to this fact, given the length of her article.)
“While segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious?”
The “segregation” defined by those statistics is massively different today. Indeed, in two of those three high schools, “segregation as it is practice today” isn’t even “segregation” in any meaningful sense.
Meanwhile, is “segregation” as it is practiced today “no less pernicious” than it was in 1954?
Hannah-Jones tells a fascinating story about the way today’s Central High came to be all-black. But on balance, we’d have to call that a very peculiar judgment.
That’s especially true in the face of these enrollment figures from the six public high schools which are found elsewhere in Tuscaloosa County, beyond the city limits. This too is “segregation” today, Tuscaloosa-style:
Public high schools, elsewhere in Tuscaloosa CountyTwo of those high schools are heavily white. But hallelujah! Large amounts of integration exist in Tuscaloosa County’s nine high schools. In 1954, none of this would have been permitted.
Brookwood High: 91 percent white, 8 percent black
Hillcrest High: 57 percent white, 41 percent black
Holt High: 44 percent white, 51 percent black
Northside High: 96 percent white, 4 percent black
Sipsey Valley High: 73 percent white, 25 percent black
Tuscaloosa County High: 60 percent white, 36 percent black
This brings us back to the statistics which appear in paragraph 10, at the start of this very lengthy report. Hannah-Jones offered the following claim, which strikes us as grossly misleading:
“In 1972, due to strong federal enforcement, only about 25 percent of black students in the South attended schools in which at least nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. In districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, 53 percent of black students now attend such schools, according to an analysis by ProPublica.”
Has the percentage really jumped from 25 to 53? Actually no, it has not, if we compares apples to apples.
In this recent piece in Slate, Jamelle Bouie presented an apples-to-apples comparison, linking to statistics from Gary Orfield, a leading advocate of public school “integration.” Using Orfield’s statistics, this is Hannah-Jones corrected:
HANNAH-JONES CORRECTED: In 1972, due to strong federal enforcement, only about 25 percent of black students in the South attended schools in which at least nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. Today, the figure is 34 percent.If we assume the accuracy of Hannah-Jones’ first statistic, the percentage has jumped from 25 percent to 34 percent, apples to apples.
You might regret that increase; someone else might not. But Hannah-Jones suggested a much larger change by producing a highly misleading comparison.
Meanwhile, this actual, smaller change has occurred during a time when the percentage of white students in the nation’s public schools has substantially dropped. In our next post, we’ll show you how Bouie tried to maintain the sense that this actual change is an actual problem, even as he used statistics which show how small the change is.
For whatever reason, you might recoil at the thought of a school where 90 percent of the students are “racial minorities.” But in part, we have more such schools today for an obvious reason—many more of our American kids are “racial minorities.”
In our view, Hannah-Jones should have mentioned that highly relevant fact. An unkind person might say that she started her report in a familiar way, by embellishing her alleged problem.
Is it really a problem when a public school enrolls a lot of black kids? We taught in all-black schools for years. We wouldn’t put it that way.
There are several reasons to prefer schools which are racially balanced. But as we explained in yesterday’s report, this is a problem which can’t be solved in an overall way.
Despite this fact, Hannah-Jones focused on this alleged problem—and embellished that problem to boot!
In her lengthy, fascinating report, Hannah-Jones focused on “resegregation.” In the process, she largely finessed our nation’s large achievement gaps.
She encountered these gaps in Tuscaloosa. But she focused on something else, on a problem she had to embellish to create a sense of alarm.
To us, that seems like a very poor choice. Tomorrow, we’ll return to the very large gaps Hannah-Jones almost seemed to disdain.
Tomorrow: A simple solution