Part 5—Coates buys a slightly flawed package: “Please come to Tuscaloosa,” an old siren song seemed to say.
When Nikole Hannah-Jones obeyed the command, she ran into her nation’s very large achievement gaps. This is what some of the gaps looked like when Tuscaloosa’s class of 2013 was completing eighth grade:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, NAEPUsing a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often compared to one academic year.
Students in Alabama, 2009
All students: 268.52
Higher-income students: 281.83
Lower-income students: 255.04
White students: 280.31
Black students: 248.01
Higher-income white students: 285.84
Lower-income white students: 269.15
Higher-income black students: 261.63
Lower income black students: 243.98
That is a very rough rule of thumb. But even allowing for imprecision, we’re looking at very large gaps.
In their broad outlines, those data track the patterns found across the United States. They reflect the patterns which have always obtained in the course of our brutal racial history.
After going to Tuscaloosa, Hannah-Jones produced a 10,000-word report for ProPublica and The Atlantic. Given the subject matter of her report, everything Hannah-Jones writes must be understood within the context of those punishing gaps.
In our view, Hannah-Jones largely finesses those gaps in her chapter-length report, “Segregation Now...” One example:
She tells us that Tuscaloosa’s current version of Central High was deliberately zoned to be a low-income, all-black school. She then complains that Central didn’t offer Advanced Placement courses in the manner of Northridge High—a school which enrolled a whole contingent of higher-income white kids from the wealthy neighborhoods across the Black Warrior River.
Whatever one thinks of the “gerrymandered” zoning which created the new Central High, anyone with an ounce of sense would know why Northridge offered more AP classes than Central did. Those math scores provide the context for another complaint by Hannah-Jones, about the way schools like Central don't always offer calculus classes.
Go ahead—review those gaps! Are you shocked to learn that the school which enrolls the higher-income white kids might offer different courses from the school which enrolls the lower-income black kids? Do you really fail to understand the obvious dynamic here?
If so, Hannah-Jones is the perfect writer for you! In our view, these obvious matters were largely finessed in her lengthy report—and we’d have to say that Ta-Nehisi Coates may have purchased the misleading package, which we aren’t calling a “con.”
Just for the record, we share the old school tie with Coates. We taught math for one year at Lemmel Junior High. A few years later, Coates arrived there as a student.
Coates does a lot of superlative work about the history of race. In this case, we’d have to say he may have purchased a bit of a con—a pleasing ideological package which grossly finesses those gaps.
This is why we say that:
A few days after “Segregation Now...” appeared, Coates posted this reaction. He jacked her headline up a bit, using the highly dramatic “Segregation Forever.”
As he started, he praised Hannah-Jones’ work on housing segregation, which may be very good. He then posted this excerpt from “Segregation Now...,” thus buying a rather flawed package:
Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, typically as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s—back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.It’s hard to list all the misdirections lodged in those paragraphs:
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.
From that passage, you’d never guess that black kids’ test scores have risen substantially during this move “back toward segregation.” You’d never guess that black-white achievement gaps have narrowed during this period.
(Hannah-Jones never mentions this fact in the course of her 10,000 words.)
That passage ends with a grossly misleading statistical comparison, which gives the impression that many more black kids now attend schools in which at least nine out of 10 students are racial minorities. As of 2011, the actual number across the South had risen to 34 percent—not to the 53 percent which surely misled many readers.
In the passage posted by Coates, Hannah-Jones compares apples to kumquats, making this increase seem much larger than it actually is. In the course of her 10,000 words, she never notes that this change has occurred during an era when the overall percentage of minority kids in American schools has greatly increased, a fact which helps explain the growth in the majority-minority schools she seems to find so undesirable.
Meanwhile, is there something wrong with attending a “majority-black school?” On the high school level, every white student in Tuscaloosa attends such a school! But in the course of her 10,000 words, Hannah-Jones never reveals the enrollment figures for those “resegregated” schools.
In our view, there’s a great deal of misdirection lodged in those two paragraphs. But we throwback liberals also receive a stirring tale in that passage:
All-black schools were refashioned as “apartheid schools” in that passage; this designation helps fill our souls with a type of moral fervor. Beyond that, we’re told that the move “back toward segregation”—whose size Hannah-Jones greatly embellishes—has been caused by a rollback in court-enforced integration.
This fills us with righteousness too.
In our view, Coates basically bought the package. In comments, he notes that he isn’t an education specialist. In our view, this was apparent in his reactions to Hannah-Jones’ report.
Coates quoted that passage from Hannah-Jones. This rumination same next:
COATES (4/18/14): Hannah-Jones profiles the schools in Tuscaloosa where business leaders are alarmed to see their school system becoming more and more black, as white parents choose to send their kids to private (nearly) all-white academies or heavily white schools outside the city. It's worth noting that the school at the center of Hannah-Jones' reporting—Central High School—was not a bad school. On the contrary, it was renowned for its football team as well its debate team.On the high school level, did Tuscaloosa “effectively resegregate its schools?” Once again, these are the enrollment figures for the city’s three high schools:
But this did very little to slow the flight of white parents out of the district. (This is beyond the scope of Hannah-Jones's story, but I'd be very interested to hear more about the history of housing policy in the town.) Faced with the prospect of losing all, or most of their white families, Tuscaloosa effectively resegregated its schools.
Bryant High: 19 percent white, 75 percent blackDoes it look to you like Bryant and Northridge have been “effectively resegregated?”
Central High: 100 percent black
Northridge High: 35 percent white, 61 percent black
That strikes us as a strange description. But in fairness to Coates, Hannah-Jones never cites those enrollment figures in the course of her 10,000 words. Beyond that, she grossly distorts this state of affairs at the start of her piece, writing this: “[T]he city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students.”
On the high school level, that’s a world-class understatement—an understatement so vast that it qualifies as a distortion.
Whatever one thinks of Central High’s zoning, Coates may have been misled a bit about the extent of this “resegregation.” In our view, he bought the package a second way with respect to the older version of Central High.
The original, citywide Central High “was not a bad school,” he writes. “On the contrary, it was renowned for its football team as well its debate team.”
It’s true that Central High’s various teams were very successful. According to Hannah-Jones, this was partially tied to the school’s very large size as compared to other schools in the region and state.
Meanwhile, were there downsides to the old Central High? Were there problems at Central High which may have made other options seem preferable?
Hannah-Jones never interviews any families, white or black, who chose to leave Tuscaloosa’s schools, so there is no way to judge such matters. Beyond that, she offers statistics about the “white flight” which seem to have a peculiar time line, perhaps overstating the amount of flight which followed integration.
Why did families leave Tuscaloosa’s schools? According to Hannah-Jones, white enrollment dropped by 24 percent over a 26-year period starting in 1959. That doesn’t seem like a stampede to us, but city leaders, black and white, were concerned about where the process might end, and so they reconfigured the city's middle schools and high schools.
Hannah-Jones calls this “resegregation.” In Coates’ post, the process ends in a slightly peculiar place, with a gloomy proclamation that white supremacy will never end:
COATES (continuing directly): There doesn't seem to be much of a political solution here. It's fairly clear that integration simply isn't much of a priority to white people, and sometimes not even to black people. And Tuscaloosa is not alone. I suspect if you polled most white people in these towns they would honestly say that racism is awful, and many (if not most) would be sincere. At the same time they would generally be lukewarm to the idea of having to "do something" in order to end white supremacy.There’s a bit more, and we’ll suggest that you read it. For ourselves, we thought Coates was overdoing things a bit. In part, that was because we remembered his earlier columns about where his own son goes to school.
Ending white supremacy isn't really in the American vocabulary. That is because ending white supremacy does not merely require a passive sense that racism is awful, but an active commitment to undoing its generational effects. Ending white supremacy requires the ability to do math—350 years of murderous plunder are not undone by 50 years of uneasy ceasefire.
A latent commitment to anti-racism just isn't enough. But that's what we have right now. With that in mind, there is no reason to believe that a total vanquishing of white supremacy is necessarily in the American future.
Back in 2012, Coates, a New York City resident, wrote several columns about the fact that he sends his son to a private school. In a column in the New York Times, he started with a touch of self-parody. Eventually, he described a stroke of luck:
COATES (7/12/12): Last month, my 11-year-old son completed his first year at the Manhattan Country School without cataclysmic incident. My wife and I, both being dutiful Hennessy-sipping liberal elitists, were attracted to the school’s diversity of race and income, and even more attracted to the sliding scale for tuition, for reasons both societally broad and personally austere.Coates’ son came by a stroke of luck, as all children should. In 1960, entering eighth grade, we got lucky in a change of states and school districts too.
The school was the sort I thought I would have wanted as a kid—small classes, a great deal of independence and myriad activities to stimulate the mind.
By some stroke of luck and by a greater stroke of privilege, my son enjoys a school that is the opposite of what I knew school to be. His teachers have seen him as something more than a potential statistic, as something besides another brown face in a demographic overrepresented in all the wrong columns. For him education has been not just the shield, but the sword.
In September 2012, Coates wrote this second column in the Baltimore Sun. It also discusses his decision to send his son to private school.
There’s nothing wrong with the decision, which Coates and his wife seemed to base on what would be best for their son. We recalled those columns when Coates orated about white flight in Tuscaloosa, about the failure of all those people to tackle white supremacy through the selection of the schools their kids should attend.
Coates could have sent his son to a New York City public school. His son comes from a highly literate background. In such a school, he might have served as a role model for struggling kids from different backgrounds.
Coates gifted his son with a stroke of luck. Parents in Alabama, white and black, are allowed to do that too.
Hannah-Jones did a terrible job reporting “white flight” in Tuscaloosa. She did a terrible job reporting the numbers. (Those numbers don’t seem gigantic to us, at least in the way she presents them.) Beyond that, she didn't interview any white families who left Tuscaloosa’s schools. In that sense, she did a terrible job exploring the reasons they left.
Meanwhile, how many middle-class black families left the Tuscaloosa schools? How many black families left the West End to avoid being zoned into low-income schools, including Central High?
We’ll guess the answer is quite a few, since this has happened everywhere else in the country. But Hannah-Jones doesn’t ever mention “black flight,” let alone say if any such thing happened in Tuscaloosa. She never mentions these enrollment figures from across the city line in this age of “resegregation:”
Public high schools run by the Tuscaloosa County Schools:Does that look like “Segregation Forever?” That said, did any black families leave Tuscaloosa in search of these schools? Such “flight” has happened everywhere else. Coates isn’t the only good person who wants the best for his child.
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
We’ll guess there are a lot of problems in Tuscaloosa’s schools. A lot of lower-income kids go to school there, and the gaps are large. Alienation and despair often hold hands with those gaps.
If the old Central High was still in existence, it would be enrolling kids from across the great divides we posted above. The new Central High enrolls lots of kids from the short end of those gaps. That creates a type of “low-performing” public school, a bit like the public schools in New York on which Coates took a pass.
The new Central High is full of kids from the bottom end of our gaps. You might not want your child attending that school, which is full of kids who are way behind. Coates could have chosen a struggling school, but we went somewhere else.
Today, we conclude “Our month of the gaps.” There are several things we want to know:
We want to know how a great kid like D’Leisha Dent got so far “behind.” We want to know how she was taught in kindergarten, in the first grade.
We want to know about preschool. We want to know where her “word gap” may have stood when she was 3 years old.
We want to know what Tuscaloosa can do to address that early “word gap.” To further the brain development which comes with early engagement.
We want to know what people can do to help the next group of Dents. By way of contrast, it seems to us that Hannah-Jones want to dream an impossible dream.
She wants to dream about “integration”—integration, in a school system whose population is 80 percent black!
Hannah-Jones sold us lots of exciting language, from an era which has passed. Apartheid schools! That made us feel good!
She let us feel like we’re on the front line in the civil rights era. Here's the problem. We aren’t.
Last night, Rachel Maddow played the same game with the story of James Chaney, the civil rights martyr. Therein lies a tale.
Can we talk? Maddow would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before she would discuss the gaps or look for solutions to same. Maddow doesn’t discuss the needs of black kids, as you know if you’ve watched her show. But we liberals really do enjoy striking the pose.
When we do, we adopt our pose at the expense of kids like Dent, a superb young person on the short end of our nation's large gaps. What can we do to address those gaps?
Let them take calculus, Hannah-Jones says. It seems to us that this sort of thing is done to make adults feel good.