Part 3—How this predicament happened: How did a superlative kid like D’Leisha Dent get into this situation?
D’Leisha Dent’s mother, Melissa Dent, is a university graduate (University of Alabama, 1995).
Today, D’Leisha Dent is a senior at Tuscaloosa’s Central High School. She’s president of her senior class. She’s a three-time individual state champion in track.
Last fall, she was voted homecoming queen. She’s an honors student who is enrolled in Central High’s Advanced Placement English class.
It also seems that she may not be able to get into a four-year college. For details, see yesterday’s report.
D’Leisha Dent, a superlative kid, can’t score high enough on the ACT to merit a nibble from four-year schools. In the current Atlantic, Nikole Hannah-Jones spends 9900 words explaining this situation in a manner we would regard as possibly lazy and somewhat subjective—and extremely familiar.
Don’t get us wrong! Many of Hannah-Jones’ explanations may be relevant to the deeply important question at hand. She focuses on the “resegregation” of the Tuscaloosa schools in the past fourteen years, a “resegregation” which has produced these enrollment figures at the three high schools maintained by the heavily-black Tuscaloosa City Schools:
Tuscaloosa City high schools:(Our data come from greatschools.org. By way of perspective, roughly 50 percent of the nation’s students qualify as “low income.”)
Bryant High School:
75 percent black, 19 percent white
59 percent low-income
Central High School:
100 percent black
83 percent low-income
Northridge High School:
61 percent black, 35 percent white
47 percent low-income
In fascinating detail, Hannah-Jones describes the process which produced these three high schools, along with a set of elementary and middle schools whose enrollment figures rarely reflect the city’s racial balance.
A bit of basic history:
Melissa Dent, D’Leisha’s mother, attended Central High too. But when she graduated in 1988, Central High was Tuscaloosa’s only public high school.
All Tuscaloosa kids, white and black, attended this one high school together. The city also maintained a single middle school for all its kids, black and white.
At that time, all Tuscaloosa kids, black and white, attended these citywide schools together. On the merits, all things being equal, we think that’s a great idea.
In principle, we like that idea. But in this passage, Hannah-Jones describes a problem which developed during the twenty-one years when this policy obtained:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): After Melissa Dent graduated [from Central High], in 1988, Central continued as one of the state’s standout high schools. But over time, local leaders grew more concerned about the students who didn’t attend the school than those who did.This process, often described as “white flight,” has taken place all over the country. It’s also true that black parents have often moved across city lines to access suburban schools.
White students once accounted for a majority of the Tuscaloosa school district’s students. But by the mid-1990s, they made up less than a third. Total enrollment had dropped from 13,500 in 1969 to 10,300 in 1995. Many white parents had decided to send their children to nearly all-white private schools or to move across the city line to access the heavily white Tuscaloosa County Schools.
Hannah-Jones never says if this has occurred in Tuscaloosa, or if so to what extent.
Starting in the year 2000, Tuscaloosa began rearranging its districting policies in an attempt to stem this white flight; Hannah-Jones tells this story in fascinating detail. As part of this ongoing practice, Central High was districted—and sometimes gerrymandered—to serve as the city’s high school for low-income black kids, Hannah-Jones reports.
In the 1980s, Melissa Dent attended a citywide high school for black and white kids. Today, her daughter, D’Leisha Dent, attends an all-black high school. In fact, she has attended all-black schools for her full thirteen years in the Tuscaloosa schools—like “nearly a third of the district’s black students,” according to Hannah-Jones.
In a series of explanations, Hannah-Jones suggests that this “resegregation” explains the predicament faced by D’Leisha Dent, a superlative young person. None of her explanations is obviously “wrong,” although we’d say she may sometimes be a bit selective in her presentations.
Hannah-Jones describes the “academic benefits” which are said to accrue to black kids who attend racially-balanced schools. She also describes the deficits which sometimes obtain at schools like the current Central High—schools which serve a population of heavily low-income black kids.
Sometimes, Hannah-Jones seems to put her thumb on the scale a tad. Consider this somewhat puzzling passage about one boon of desegregation in the wake of the Brown decision:
HANNAH-JONES: Desegregation had been wrenching and complicated, but in Tuscaloosa and across the country, it achieved undeniable results. During the 1970s and ’80s, the achievement gap between black and white 13-year-olds was cut roughly in half nationwide. Some scholars argue that desegregation had a negligible effect on overall academic achievement. But the overwhelming body of research shows that once black children were given access to advanced courses, well-trained teachers, and all the other resources that tend to follow white, middle-income children, they began to catch up.Did desegregation “achieve undeniable results” if “some scholars argue that it had a negligible effect on overall academic achievement?” In this report, it did!
In this passage, Hannah-Jones is referring to a reduction in the achievement gap in the 1970s and 1980s as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But she never notes that black students’ achievement on the NAEP has risen markedly in the past two decades, during the era she describes as “resegregation.” In our view, Hannah-Jones may sometimes put her thumb on the scale a tad when she describes the results of academic research.
For ourselves, we’d rather see black and white kids attending school together, as they do at Northridge and Bryant High Schools, as they do in the half-dozen high schools run by Tuscaloosa County. We’d rather see superlative kids like D’Leisha Dent attending school with kids of both races.
(Tuscaloosa’s student population is almost entirely black and white.)
We’d also rather see writers like Hannah-Jones stop pushing the frameworks which please us Yankee liberals. We’d like to see these writers go where the rubber meets the road.
For our money, Hannah-Jones routinely fails to do this in her fascinating report. In the passage shown below, she warms the cockles of liberal hearts—and she skips right past an extremely important point.
In this passage, Hannah-Jones describes what happened after the year 2000, when Tuscaloosa abandoned the practice of maintaining Central High as its single high school:
HANNAH-JONES: The night the Tuscaloosa school board voted to split up the old Central [High School], board member Bryan Chandler pledged that there would be no winners and losers. Yet while Northridge 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.As she continues, Hannah-Jones describes a familiar state of affairs, one observed all over the country. According to Hannah-Jones, many teachers didn’t want to teach at the reconfigured, all-black Central High. For that reason, the school may have become a “dumping ground” for less qualified teachers.
Obviously, low-income and minority kids deserve good teachers too. On its face, it’s also heard to defend the state of affairs described in the highlighted passage, where Northridge High’s kids got AP classes and a school newspaper while Central High’s kids did not.
That said, we think Hannah-Jones may be glossing this matter in a very familiar way. As she does, we think she does a gigantic disservice to superlative kids like D’Leisha Dent.
Hannah-Jones tells a stirring tale in that highlighted passage. In our view, uncaring liberals have been telling this tale for several decades now.
This stirring tale makes us liberals feel good. In the context of Hannah-Jones’ report, you might even call us “Tuscaloosa liberals,” at least for this one week. (Our attention span is quite limited when it comes to the interests of black kids.)
This stirring tale makes us liberals feel good. So do headlines like “Segregation Now,” the thrilling banner editors placed atop Hannah-Jones’ report.
For decades, stirring tales and thrilling headlines have served to make us liberals feel good. They’ve also helped us lazily evade the actual challenge we’re facing.
Tomorrow: About Central High