TUSCALOOSA LIBERALS: Attempts to explain!

FRIDAY, MAY 9, 2014

Part 5—The superintendent’s tale: Nikole Hannah-Jones tells a fascinating, sprawling story in her flamboyantly headlined report, “Segregation Now...”

Rather, she tells a fascinating set of stories—a set of stories about race and the public schools of Tuscaloosa, Alabama:

She discusses three generations of a family whose current member, D’Leisha Dent, is president of the senior class at all-black Central High School.

She reviews sixty years of racial policy in Tuscaloosa’s schools. This dates to the years before (and even after) the Brown decision, when the city ran a legally segregated school system.

She offers ideas about the best ways to help low-income black kids succeed in school. She discusses Tuscaloosa’s attempts to deal with “white flight.”

Hannah-Jones tells a fascinating set of stories, though she may not do so perfectly. In our view, there are also several things she doesn’t do:

She doesn’t interview any white families, asking then to explain their departure from Tuscaloosa or its schools.

She doesn’t ever mention “black fight.” She doesn’t interview any black families who have moved out of Tuscaloosa’s West End, or beyond the city line into the rest of Tuscaloosa County.

For our money, she fails to ask some basic questions about various aspects of Central High’s educational program. In particular, she fails to ask a punishing question:

Why is it that D’Leisha Dent, who seems to be one of Central’s best students, can’t get accepted to college?

Hannah-Jones features the story of Dent, a superlative young person who may not be able to get into a four-year college because of her low ACT scores. As Hannah-Jones ends her 9900-word report, she describes Dent’s truly unfortunate plight.

Dent is a superb young person. That said, we’d have to say that this passage is somewhat selective:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): For black students like D’Leisha—the grandchildren of the historic Brown decision—having to play catch-up with their white counterparts is supposed to be a thing of the past. The promise was that students of all colors would be educated side by side, and would advance together into a more integrated, equitable American society. Polls show Americans embracing this promise in the abstract, but that rarely translates into on-the-ground support for integration efforts.

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.

A few months earlier, D’Leisha had talked about how much she looked forward to meeting people from different cultures at college and sitting in a racially mixed classroom for the first time. But her college hopes are thinner now than she’d expected then. As of this writing, they largely hinge on the tenuous promise of a coach at a small, historically black college outside of Birmingham, who has told her that the school will have a place for her despite her score. No official offer of admission has yet arrived.
For the record, Dent’s score on the ACT places her around the twentieth percentile on a nationwide basis.

If you have any heart, you have to hope that this fine young person gets to “meet people from different cultures at college, sitting in a racially mixed classroom for the first time.” God bless D’Leisha Dent!

In fairness, though, we thought we’d mention several points which may get lost in Hannah-Jones’ portrait, which we think is somewhat selective:

Tuscaloosa City and County run a total of nine public high schools. At eight of those high schools, “students of all colors” are being educated side by side, even as we speak.

(For enrollment figures, click here.)

Many black kids at those high schools will be attending four-year colleges. Hopefully, they have been “advancing into a more integrated, equitable American society” and will continue to do so.

(D’Leisha Dent will do so too, whatever path she takes. Despite her relatively poor academic performance, Dent is a high achiever.)

Hannah-Jones doesn’t interview those other black kids or any of their parents. She doesn’t ask those parents how their kids ended up in one of the other eight high schools, where black and white Alabama kids are going to school together.

She doesn’t acknowledge a further point—the existence of those eight high schools suggests that someone in Tuscaloosa City and County seems to have exhibited some sort of “on-the-ground support for integration efforts” at some point in time, perhaps this very week.

That returns us to the question of Dent, a superlative kid who may not be able to attend a four-year college next year—a superlative kid who has never gone to school with kids of the other race.

(In perfectly reasonable ways, Hannah-Jones describes this as a loss for Dent. It’s a loss for Tuscaloosa’s white kids too.)

We’re left with a basic question: Why can’t Dent, an “honors student since middle school” who “excels in school” and has taken “tough honors coursework,” achieve a score on the ACT which will take her to college?

Hannah-Jones offers some familiar answers to this deeply important question. We can’t and don’t say her answers are “wrong,” and we suggest you peruse them. (We’ll explore them in more detail next week.)

We won’t say that Hannah-Jones’ answers are “wrong.” But she may tend to be a bit selective in her ruminations.

All her answers are pleasing to liberals. They culminate in the superintendent’s tale.

Hannah-Jones quotes Superintendent McKendrick. To us, this is happy talk:
HANNAH-JONES: D’Leisha arrived at Central in 2010...A year later, the district hired a new superintendent, Paul McKendrick.

Sitting in his office, at a desk six inches deep in papers and reports, McKendrick, a bespectacled man, quiet but forceful, said the black, mostly poor kids of the West End had been separated and written off. A recent audit of Central had found that 80 percent of students were not on the college track. The low test scores that have plagued the school don’t stem from “a child problem,” he told me. “You may have some children that have special needs or cognitive issues, but you are not going to say a whole group of kids” has “lost intelligence in some way.”
How odd! In almost 10,000 words, Hannah-Jones never offers examples of “the low test scores that have plagued” Central High. As we’ve said, her presentations often seem a bit selective to us—selective in ways which may tend to keep us liberals barefoot and clueless about the challenges we face.

If Hannah-Jones’ reporting is accurate, you could make a case, were you so inclined, that Dent and her schoolmates at Central High have been “written off” by their city in certain basic ways. At several points, for example, Hannah-Jones describes the deliberate “gerrymandering” of district lines, a policy designed to make Central High an all-black, low-income school.

Tuscaloosa City’s other two high schools are majority black. But Hannah-Jones quotes a former school official saying the current version of Central High was “relegated as a low-performing school from day one.”

Narrowly understood, that statement is accurate. Given the way district lines were drawn in the year 2000, there was little doubt that the new Central High was going to be “low performing” is the most literal sense.

In our view, though, Hannah-Jones largely finesses a basic question: Would Central High’s students have produced better scholastic results if district lines had been drawn in some other way?

Hannah-Jones cites research which finds that low-income black kids do better academically if they attend schools which are mixed by race and social class. That may be true, though Hannah-Jones doesn’t spend much time on this research.

She does present the superintendent saying the things such people say. For ourselves, we don’t think such happy talk is necessarily helpful.

Does Central High have a “child problem?” Surely, no one would say that.

Has “a whole group of kids” at Central High “lost intelligence in some way?” As the superintendent says, no one is “going to say that.”

But as everyone knows by now, kids who come from low-literacy, low-income backgrounds are way behind their middle-class peers by the age of three. They’re behind, often way behind, on the first day of kindergarten.

Given our brutal American history, very large “achievement gaps” are routinely observed between low-income black kids and their more advantaged peers, the kids who live in the wealthier precincts of Tuscaloosa City and County.

D’Leisha Dent doesn’t seem to come from a “low-income” family. Her mother works on the assembly line at the local Mercedes plant.

That said, Dent has always gone to school with lots of kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds. And almost surely, very large “achievement gaps” exist in the Tuscaloosa schools.

For our money, Hannah-Jones finesses those gaps and their meaning, as liberal writers almost always do. This makes us adult liberals feel good, but it tends to be a disservice to good decent kids like Dent.

In this post, Ta-Nehisi Coates cited the “white supremacy” lurking about Tuscaloosa’s white flight. Coates, who lives in New York City, sends his own child to Manhattan Country School, a superlative private school.

(There’s no reason why he shouldn’t.)

Next week, we’ll talk about white and black flight from the nation’s schools. We’ll also discuss the punishing gaps our brutal history has created—punishing, complicated gaps we’d say Hannah-Jones finesses.

Does Central High have “a child problem?” Plainly no, it does not.

That said, the school is confronted with punishing gaps. Once we tell our selective old tales, what do we do about it?


  1. "Given our brutal American history, very large “achievement gaps” are routinely observed between low-income black kids and their more advantaged peers, the kids who live in the wealthier precincts of Tuscaloosa City and County."

    Achievement gaps are also observed between Asian immigrants of any income level versus others. Progressive policies guaranteeing multigenerational dependence and the progressive victim mentality and excuse-making culture create these ethnic differences. They, not racism (except to the extent racism from 50 years ago provided the excuse for such a defeatist culture) account for why blacks fail and why the "advantaged peers" who maintained a cultural ethic and expectation not defined by government dependence, low expectations, and excuse making are advantaged.

    1. African immigrants are also doing well, outperforming Asian immigrant children academically. That does imply that it is not race per se (because these children and adults appear the same as African American children) but culture and our "brutal American history" that is at the heart of this problem. Immigrants are people who show the initiative, courage and wherewithal to leave their homes and start over somewhere else. That selects for certain personality characteristics that also correlate with academic performance. You have to ask how immigrants are different from their peers left behind in their home country.

      There was no "government dependence" during slavery or the 100 years afterward. Yet African Americans did not make academic progress in their segregated schools. Why then do you claim that it is government dependence now that is holding them back? Government dependence is a catchall term for the efforts to help improve the situation of African American children. It has resulted in considerable test score gains and the creation of an increasingly large African American middle class. I cannot see how "government dependence" is to blame for this situation. We need to increase government efforts to help African American children, but that effort needs to start during the first five years, not when kids start school already behind. It needs to work with adults who will become parents, helping them understand how to increase chances for their own kids. This is not the time to abandon African American children by deciding that the problem was that we have helped them at all, not that they need more help than we have provided.

    2. Yet African Americans did not make academic progress in their segregated schools. Why then do you claim that it is government dependence now that is holding them back?

      Because the best of intentions (in some cases) changed the culture, and not just for blacks. Better and integrated schools are a solution. Elimination of cultural standards and stigmas of dependency, absence of work ethic, and illegitimacy created dependency and destroyed the purpose of those victims of progressive enlightenment. It did make wealthy white progressives feel good about themselves.

      Nobody should abandon black American children or decide that they shouldn't be helped, but inflicting the same misery the left has inflicted for 50 years (eliminating cultural standards on the grounds of "they hurt feelings") is and always will be a failure.

    3. Again, what is the evidence that the left has inflicted misery when there has been social progress over that same time period, including steady increases in school test scores?

      It makes no sense to me to blame the left for a culture of dependency that is so clearly related to a legacy of slavery in which people are defined as dependent and systematically punished for showing initiative of any kind.

      This is an article of faith among conservatives but I do not believe it stands up to scrutiny.

    4. I wonder what rate of progress black students made before 1954, when they (mostly) had to attend segregated schools that were much worse than the white schools in many ways. It's an assumption that the rate of black academic progress speeded up after 1954, but I have never seen a comparison.

    5. Slight progress for a small minority of the minority at an unjustifiable cost for the rest of the minority and society at large. My father brought me up to go to work every day or if I was laid off, seek a job all day and every day. The third option would be to shoot myself in the head in humiliation having failed to meet instilled expectations that became my own for myself. Casting around for excuses and ways out of meeting those standards and expectations, and there were plenty to be made on our behalf by white liberals, didn't exist. In 2014 no excuses exist for creating further generations of dependent children. Their now imprisoned, drug addicted, jobless parents who produced them and the privileged white liberals who established and promote the absence of expectations, standards, morals, and ethics deserve all the credit.

    6. Their now imprisoned, drug addicted, jobless parents who produced them and the privileged white liberals who established and promote the absence of expectations, standards, morals, and ethics deserve all the credit.

      Let's play "Troll or Republican." This is a tough one. Sure it seems like a parody, but there's no position so absurd that some Republican somewhere hasn't adopted a position more extreme. Especially when it come to telling the shoeless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

  2. There are some studies of what happens when gifted kids are mainstreamed as opposed to placed in separate classes. When they are removed from regular classrooms, the leadership positions they occupied are open to other children who then have the opportunity to fill them. The performance of the gifted kids rises when they are in separate classes, but the performance of the other children suffers due to the reduced competition and influence.

    As an analogy, it may be that when higher performers are removed from a high school, it provides opportunities for the remaining kids to fill leadership roles, such as class President or homecoming Queen. On the other hand, the lack of competition prevents the remaining children from being challenged in the classroom. It means D'Leisha can be a top performer academically without realizing that other children do more, or recognizing that her performance may not be college level.

    It has been argued that it is OK to deprive gifted children of the chance to do their best work because the remainder of the kids benefit from their presence and because they will succeed anyway, and because they need to learn to work cooperatively in diverse settings. When it comes to high performing but non-gifted children, parents don't seem to be willing to let them be sacrified to the betterment of kids not doing as well. They instead seek opportunities to place their kids with higher performers, so that they can benefit from that challenge.

    I have always found it problematic that gifted kids are expected to sacrifice their own ambitions while other kids do not. In this situation, there seems to be an implication that the parents who are fleeing low performing schools are doing something wrong by refusing to let their kids be role models for lower performers. If it is OK for some parents to flee less than optimum schools, why not others?

    Also, no one asks why D'Leisha Dent's mother stays living in a neighborhood where her daughter cannot get a better education, why she herself seems underemployed (working in a factory job with a college degree), and why she does not intervene to help her daughter get to college. When I was a single parent, I deliberately moved to a costlier apartment in a school district with better schools, for my kids sake. I sacrified to do so. Do we need to educate parents to the importance of monitoring the quality of their kids education? Is that possible when education has not seemed to improve the quality of life of the parent and thus may not seem to have much value? There is no law requiring people to live in poor neighborhoods and there are places to live in better neighborhoods. Why do more parents not take the initiative to flee bad schools?

    1. The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. And as Tal Fortgang might add, allows both the rich and the poor "to live in better neighborhoods."

      I won't ask you to check your privilege. I'll ask you to check where you misplaced your brain.

    2. Most communities now have requirements for building and zoning low income housing along with higher priced developments. In the LA area, I have met many people who have moved out of gang-troubled areas into suburbs. If you look for housing, often slum-quality apartments cost as much as those in suburbs. Yes, there are transportation problems, and yes, you typically need a work history and reasonably good credit to move, but D'Leisha's mother has those (based on the report). You can mock me, but I have met many working class parents who saw the benefits to moving and did so -- enough to ask why more people don't do this. My own mother in law moved from Central LA to Monterey Park in the 1950's, while a poor single-mother of three.

      I have to ask why it is OK for poor people to misplace their brains. You don't have the right to ask me to check my privilege without knowing more about what advantages or disadvantages I've had in my life. Doing so solely on the basis of color is racism, as surely as discriminating against those with darker skin is. You must be aware that not everyone white is automatically advantaged, even in our society with its brutal racial history.

    3. Anonymous @1:57P,

      Let's get some things straight.

      First off, I have the right to ask you any damn thing I please. Of course, you have the right not to answer or to take offense at the question.

      Perhaps you mean that I have no reasonable basis to ask that you check your privilege until I know about your life. Well, I have no reasonable way to know anything about your life, and that includes the touching tales of your fascinating biography that you contribute as part of this commentariat.

      But please note that I specifically did not undertake the fool's errand of asking you to check your privilege, since you evidently think that as the world works in your experience, so it must work for everyone else.

      When the irony fairy pays you a visit to smack you with her wand, ask her about how your whining that I don't know your life compares with your own judgments about D'Leisha's mother.

      The collection of poor people doesn't have a brain to misplace. That's because "poor people" is an abstraction, and as much as you may want to reify that abstraction, it's not the same as individual poor people.

      Your last two sentences are irrelevant to the conversation, right? I didn't mention race, and I don't and can't know yours.

      I pity your mother-in-law. For what shall it profit a poor single mother of three to move from Central LA to Monterey Park in the 1950's only to have her child marry a nitwit?

    4. what the...?

      First deadrat sets something straight that no one was confused about. But that's typical. Then there is his baffling comment at 1:12pm, an attempt at surreal humor? Next, some daytime-talk-show-esque back and forth with another confused commenter. Reading through it is a bit like being a rat trapped in a maze with no cheese at the end.

    5. Another nitwit left behind @5:40P,

      It's difficult to tell from your tortured syntax, but I gather you've spun us a yarn about the mother-in-law and how pleased she would be about the efforts of her child and and child-in-law to provide for the "prosperous" lives of her grandchildren. Not like those excuse-making black people in the Atlantic story who wallow in their "victim mentality traps" and "blame slavery" for children they can't or won't support.

      The only "sound like" we can attribute to the lady in question are the echoes inside your head. You don't even know whether she exists.

    6. Anonymous @6:29P,

      You won't be confused if you actually read the comments in a thread. Here, let me help. Go to the comment by Anonymous @1:57P. Yes, yes, I know it's confusing when commenters are too lazy and impolite to pick a nym so there are lots of them who go by "Anonymous." You'll have to look at the timestamps. Now go to the second sentence of the second paragraph, which starts "You don't have the right to ask me to check my privilege, …."

      See how easy that was?

      You're welcome.

    7. Some members of the underclass are more enterprising than others. What do we do about the kids of those people who cannot get their act together or do anything to improve their life circumstances? The kids are not responsible for their parents actions. They are also not being helped by their parents to the same extent as other kids. What can and should our public schools do about this?

    8. "There are some studies . . ."

      When a comment starts with these words without attributing the specific studies, you can rest assured that what will follow is more made-up bullshit.

    9. Not everyone wants to spend their spare time looking up references for people who will never read them anyway.

    10. What can and should our public schools do about this?

      Nothing, and if government is going to be involved it should only be to remove those children from their neglectful parents and cut off child-producing incentives to them. Remove problem children from functioning classrooms and educate them separately as funds allow.

    11. How about we remove "problem children" from classrooms and sell them for food?

    12. Deadrat's limited imagination leads him to grasp only two choices, selling problem children for food or permitting them to ruin the educations of children who aren't problems (and most likely raised by parents who didn't neglect them or push poisonous progressive defeatism on them).

    13. That whooshing sound you heard? It was the point going over your head.

  3. Facts you're told neither there nor here: African-Americans are 42% of the Tuscaloosa City population; African-Americans are 76% of the high school population within the city.

    Perhaps some of you might want to re-consider whether "resegregation" isn't a perfectly appropriate word to describe what has happened over the last 20 years. The reference point, obviously, is not the Jim Crow South of the 1950s but the high point of integration before the court orders were lifted -- or even the more recent past. As recently as 2001, Central High it had 15 National Merit Finalists. Last year, we may assume, it had none.

    1. Why doesn't Obama send his daughters to public school? If he doesn't want to, why should we blame any other parent who chooses to send their kids to the best school they can afford?

      This boils down to white people are more likely to be able to afford good private school tuition than black people. Is that anything new? Why must it be attributed to race when black people too are sending their kids to private school when they can afford it?

    2. And as a group, white people as a group are more likely to care about affording public school tuition and Asians are more likely to care about academic performance than white people. As a group. Why? Culture. Who reinforces aspects of black culture that promote not caring about education? Negligent black parents and white progressives who make excuses for them.

    3. I agree with you, to a degree Anon 12:58. But, I think there are other reasons for black culture. First of all, for hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow, America viciously told Blacks that they were inferior. I don't know how long it takes for that message to be replaced with a positive one.

      What I saw is that during the 1950's and 1960's, people of good will focused on high-achieving blacks, such as George Washington Carver. Not nearly as famous, mathematician David Blackwell received a certain amount of publicity. However, the focus then changed to victims. The horrible murder of James Byrd certainly deserved the publicity it received. However, James Byrd isn't a role model. It would be healthier IMHO if black children growing up knew that a brilliant black man had invented a field of mathematics, Dynamic Programming.

      IMHO one reason for this shift is politics. E.g., James Byrd's death serves the Democrats. It helps focus black voters on racism, which encourages them to vote Democratic. OTOH David Blackwell's mathematical and economic research doesn't serve Democratic politicians. These politicians can't take credit for Blackwell's brilliance. In fact, Blackwell achieved his eminence before the various liberal education programs were in place.

    4. Dear black people,

      If only you'd stop making James Byrd a role model (and stop paying attention to the fact that we're the successors to the Dixiecrats), you'd realize that your true hero is mathematician David Blackwell. And then you could learn from him to count the number of uses for the peanut that high-achieving black George Washington Carver found.


      The Republican Party.

      PS We're making it harder for you to vote.


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