TUSCALOOSA LIBERALS: Portrait of a superb young person!

MONDAY, MAY 5, 2014

Part 1—A strange journalistic claim: We’ve never been to Tuscaloosa, but we can assure you of this:

With the inevitable struggling exceptions, Tuscaloosa is full of good kids and fine young people.

They love their parents. They want to do good and do well in the world.

D’Leisha Dent, 17, is one such outstanding young person. She’s a senior at Central High, one of Tuscaloosa’s three public high schools. Extending back through three generations, her family’s educational history is described in “Segregation Now,” Nikole Hannah-Jones’ flamboyantly-titled, lengthy portrait of Tuscaloosa’s schools.

Hannah-Jones’ lengthy piece appears in The Atlantic. We strongly recommend it. Given our modern liberal values, you’ll see it discussed nowhere else!

Who is D’Leisha Dent? At one point, Hannah-Jones describes her as “the all-American girl—the homecoming queen dating a football player.”

However you feel about that honorific, Dent seems to be one of her school’s outstanding citizens. Along with being homecoming queen, she’s president of her senior class.

Like her mother, Melissa Dent, she’s also an outstanding athlete—“the three-time state indoor shot-put champion,” Hannah-Jones reports. Because she has achieved at that level, we’re going to guess that D’Leisha Dent knows how to apply herself.

We’re going to guess that D’Leisha Dent is a superb young person. At one point, Hannah-Jones sums it up like this: “D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in.”

That strikes us as a slightly strange, but rather revealing, journalistic claim.

Does D’Leisha Dent “excel in school?” On balance, we don’t quite know why Hannah-Jones chose to say that. On an objective basis, D’Leisha Dent, a superb young person, doesn’t exactly “excel in school.”

We base that assessment on Hannah-Jones’ reporting. For starters, consider the passage where she describes Dent’s AP English class:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): She [Dent] eventually broke free from a tangle of girls to enter Tyrone Jones’s Advanced Placement English class and take her seat at the front. She dropped two black bags taut with notebooks and binders beside her desk.

Jones didn’t waste time setting the boisterous class to task. The AP exam was approaching. Students who didn’t score high enough wouldn’t get college credit for the class. Even though the 17 girls and boys gathered in front of him made up Central’s brightest, their practice essay about a poem hadn’t gone so well.

D’Leisha raised her hand, her brow furrowed. How many kids had made the cutoff last year? she asked. Only two students had, but the teacher dodged the question. “I really do believe all of you can make those scores,” he said.
Only two kids at Central High had passed the AP exam the year before. That tells us nothing about Dent’s scholastic standing, of course.

Based upon enrollment figures, those 17 kids in that AP class seem to be roughly the top twelve percent of Central High’s senior class. Dent’s inclusion in that group might lead you to say that she has “excelled in school.”

But at the very end of her lengthy report, Hannah-Jones profiles the college prospects of D’Leisha Dent, a superb young person who is one of her school's most respected seniors. The great disgrace of our American history is on display in the following passage, along with the great challenge our miserable history throws us:
HANNAH-JONES: Standing one day last fall outside the counselor’s office at Central, D’Leisha looked up at the college bulletin board. It was dominated by National Guard and Army flyers, with some brochures for small Alabama colleges tucked among them. Students with D’Leisha’s grades and tough honors coursework often come home to mailboxes stuffed with glossy college brochures. But most days, nothing showed up in the mail for her, and no colleges had come calling. She had taken the ACT college-entrance exam twice already. The first time she scored a 16, the second time a 17. Her mother’s alma mater, the University of Alabama, expects a 21, the national average. Many four-year colleges will not even consider students who score below an 18.


Because D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in, her teachers and counselors don’t worry about whether she’s on the right track. They’re stretched thin trying to keep in class the seniors—roughly 35 percent of them—who fail to graduate each year. But in December, at home texting with her boyfriend, D’Leisha admitted that she’d filled out only one college application. Lately, she said, she’d been looking more closely at those military brochures, just as her grandfather had, something that angers her mother. “I am kind of clueless how to get stuff done for college,” D’Leisha told me, looking down and fidgeting with her phone. “They are supposed to be helping us, but they think because I am the class president I know what to do. Sometimes I don’t speak up, because I know people have expectations of me.”


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.
If that 16 is a composite score, it places Dent in the 22nd percentile nationally. On that basis, we can’t help wondering about the slightly strange journalistic claim that Dent “excels in school.”

Hannah-Jones closes her report with a profile of Dent’s college prospects. “As of this writing, [her college hopes] 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,” Hannah-Jones writes. “No official offer of admission has yet arrived.”

We’ll bet the farm on our basic premise; D’Leisha Dent is a superb young person. It’s astonishing, and a national problem, that she may not move on to college, even with her athletic success.

All through her lengthy report, Hannah-Jones attempts to explain this puzzling state of affairs. We’ll admit it! On balance, we aren’t fans of Hannah-Jones’ report, although we strongly recommend it as a fascinating history.

In our view, Hannah-Jones’ lengthy report is also a fascinating study of the way we liberals tend to approach public school issues. On balance, we don’t mean that as a compliment.

All week, we’ll review Hannah-Jones’s fascinating report about the Tuscaloosa schools—her fascinating profile of this superb young person about her family’s previous two generations.

By the end of the week, we may be calling Hannah-Jones a “Tuscaloosa liberal.” If we do, we won’t mean that as high praise.

Tomorrow: Familiar ways to feel good


  1. Why is failure to go to college such a tragedy? Becuse careers as millwrights, pipefitters, carpenters or electricians are no longer respectable. They actually pay rather well, $50k-$60k, and are not that hard to find. but they require thah one actually WORK for a living and get one's hands dirty. We no longer regard those as "good jobs" and shudder with horror at the idea that we or our kids might have to do such menial work.

    1. It is a tragedy because it is hard to make a good living any more without a college degree. Skipping college generally consigns a student to a much lower income throughout life. It perpetuates the race-based socioeconomic stratification of our society if African Americans are disproportionately those not attending college. But it does seem to me that failure to get into college due to low test scores reflects lower verbal ability and that is also going to limit performance. Schools that give high grades despite mediocre performance are creating inflated expectations.

    2. $60k-$100K is not a "good living? That's what a welder makes today. The job STARTS at $40,000 per year and after as little as 2-3 years is paying $50,000+. A good welder willing to work makes $100,000 per year and more. No college degree required, training requires about four months.

  2. In this specific situation, would the solution be for her to spend less time being class president and doing athletics and more time reading and doing more home work? Are you suggesting that the ACT is the problem because she cannot score higher on it?

    I have seen students like D'Leisha in my college courses, attempting to get into grad school with too low GRE's despite having done well in terms of gpa and course work. They typically cannot read and understand theoretical articles in my field but do well in the applied aspects. They do not understand the nuances of interpretation. Should they go on despite that? If this situation is addressed at the high school level, that isn't the end of the chain of educational advancement.

    I'd like to know what Somerby thinks can and should be done.

    1. Way above his pay grade.

      As Somerby reminds us, his is a blog about journalists. Thus, his job is not to actually care about black kids, but to point out journalists who don't care.

      Or at least as he defines caring. Thus, he can nitpick a report that pretty much shows what resegregation has done to one high school and its students.

  3. Why is the AP teacher telling the students they can pass the exam if he knows they cannot with the level of work they are doing in his class? It costs $89 to take the exam with $26-28 off for financial need. It doesn't seem right to ask students to pay that if they have no chance of passing.

    1. Why are you telling readers "the AP teacher is telling the students they can pass they exam if he knows they cannot?"

    2. Its in the post.

    3. The fact that "he knows they cannot" is not in the post.

  4. Not all superb young people should go to college.

  5. Where is D’Leisha Dent's father? (Warning: microagression ahead)

    Her mother is a single mother of four. Perhaps absent fathers and single mothers of four contribute to low scores like Dent's more significantly than does "this country's miserable history."

    1. Too bad yours didn't beat any sense into you. Perhaps.

    2. Studies like this one suggest that is a problem:

      Barajas, Mark S. (2011) "Academic Achievement of Children in Single Parent Homes: A Critical Review," The Hilltop Review: Vol. 5:
      Iss. 1, Article 4.
      Available at: http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/hilltopreview/vol5/iss1/4

      So, how would you address this problem? Chiding people doesn't work.

    3. Warning microagression ahead.

      "Where is D'Leisha Dent's father?"

      You presume he is absent. What is your presumption based upon?

      I could presume your presumption is based on racism with better evidence than you have that the girl's father is absent.

      I'm not chiding you. I'm calling you stupid. And presumptious.

    4. Anonymous at 2:42, this is to reinforce the point made by
      Anonymous at 2:51.

      The "study" you cite is not a study. It is a review of existing literature. The problem it notes is not as much with FA households, but with the qualityt of research into FA households. BTW, the one study he cited which might have bearing on your stupid assertion found the academic acheivement problems associated with FA households were greatest for white males.


    5. You presume he is absent. What is your presumption based upon?

      I could presume your presumption is based on racism with better evidence than you have that the girl's father is absent.

      The article went into extensive detail about the lives of her single mother and her grandparents with no mention of her father.

      You presumed the presumption is based on racism, but it isn't racist to notice the 75% illegitimacy rate and epidemic of absent fathers in the black community.

    6. It pains the bizarre modern progressive to admit that children have problems when parents produce them with no intention of caring for them, or whenever it is noted that once abandoned by parents, children tend to fare poorly. Modern progressive feels "judged" by these facts because the modern progressives wants to believe he is more important than his offspring.

    7. So, how would you address this problem? Chiding people doesn't work.

      By first denying there is a problem to see here. Then throwing the R bomb. Then becoming sickened by suggestions that children should be produced by parents who want to raise them and raised by those parents once produced.

    8. You are clueless to think that blacks or poor people of any race will start engaging in social practices that include planning for children or their upbringing. The best we can do is chide people who talk about family values, and provide government services for children of parents who don't plan for them or want to be bothered by them.

    9. We presume that all the Anonymous responses bunched between 7:56 and 8:11 were from the absent 12:55 - 2:42, whose first comment was based on a presumption and second based on a false assertion about a scholarly work.

      Your first comment made a hypothetical generalization about race based acheivement to raise questions about one person's score based on an unknown fact about her. We responded by doing the same thing to you. Instead of getting the point you responded citing a study that 3:36 indicates show something quite different than you represent it to show.

      Your flurry of late responses begin with the false statement I presumed your comment was racist. I simply said I could make that presumption based
      on "better evidence" than you offered about Ms. Dent's "absent" father.

      You follow that with generalizations about "progressives,"
      black people, and poor people.

      Nobody threw an "R" bomb. You simply allowed your stupidity to explode onto a comment thread.

  6. "Given our modern liberal values, you’ll see it discussed nowhere else!"

    I'm not sure these relentless cheap shots serve any constructive purpose. In fact, the subject has been discussed on or in the following: NPR, C-Span, the Harvard Crimson, Bill Moyers' Journal, the Scholastic Administrator, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Times-Picayune, Arkansas Times, Yahoo News, among many others.

    Somerby misunderstands why many liberals have downplayed support for minorities -- in his shortcut lingo, "black kids" -- in recent years. The spirit is still there every bit as much as it ever has been, but the focus is on public policies that will gain mass support. Being the party that can be accused, usually indirectly and insidiously, of caring only about minorities is not the recipe for electoral success. Being the party that cares about things like universal health care, full employment and higher wages needed by "the middle class" -- under the very plausible theory that almost everyone with a high school education, white, black, Hispanic and Asian, considers himself or herself to be "middle class" -- is better strategy for putting the liberal agenda into action.

    I'm talking about the real liberals here, the ones who put rampant inequality, full employment, high wages and elimination of poverty way, way above the pro-Wall Street obsession with deficit reduction. Neo-liberalism is another and more complicated story.

    1. Crooks and Liars had a post on Hannah-Jones work on school resegregation just today.

    2. What Urban Legend said --- every word.

      Bob wants us to focus on black kids but never to talk about race or racism. He seems to ignore the fact that the more we "talk about black kids" --- or whatever it is he wants us to do --- we get marginalized by the Southern Strategy or other race-baiting politics.

      This --- yes, yes, yes: "Being the party that cares about things like universal health care, full employment and higher wages needed by "the middle class" -- under the very plausible theory that almost everyone with a high school education, white, black, Hispanic and Asian, considers himself or herself to be "middle class" -- is better strategy for putting the liberal agenda into action. "

    3. There is a difference between talking about race and calling others racists.

    4. How can you talk about race without calling out explicit manipulations of racism in politics: the Southern Strategy, Reagan's "welfare queens," and a host of code words and dog whistles. And because of decades of race-baiting, it is quite difficult for progressives to overtly advocate for Bob's beloved "black kids" without driving many voters into the arms of the race-baiters.

      To anyone who has followed politics in America since the passage of civil rights legislation, that is all rather obvious.

    5. Calling out explicit manipulations of racism in politics becomes just another tactic for opposing the right, instead of a means of addressing racial issues or the needs of black kids. Calling everyone but you a racist drives people into the arms of the right just as surely as failing to do so would. Civil rights legislation was passed without addressing the racism of the South through name-calling and examination of racial attitudes. People focused on the changes they wanted to see happen, not on changing the hearts of those who opposed them. They didn't bother trying to convert racists. They changed laws and social customs and created opportunities for those who wished to take them. There wasn't the kind of wholesale name-calling and one-upsmanship (cleansing and self-examination) that we see now on the left. Change happened because change was the focus -- not purity of thought.

      Someone can follow politics in America since the passage of civil rights legislation and come to different conclusions than you. What is obvious to you may be mistaken to others. Obviousness like that is a symptom of lack of mental flexibility, lack of an open mind, not truth.

  7. I would like to know whether black students learned more during Central High's integrated period than they do now. The article could be read to support that. It says: Central emerged as a powerhouse that snatched up National Merit Scholarships and math-competition victories... However, without knowing the race and financial background of the students who won these awards, the reader cannot tell whether poor black students are doing worse today than they did during the period of integration.

    1. Indeed. And there is probably no way to ever know, DinC.
      Nor is there any way to know if anyone will misinterpret the article the way Somerby suggests a "northern liberal" might.

      In fact the only misinterpretations I have seen are from Somerby readers.

  8. It's not wrong to say she "excels in school." Since her school is clearly not up to snuff - not teaching enough and not sufficiently demanding - she may well excel there but it's not good enough by other objective standards and won't enable her to succeed in any school beyond this one. That's the tragedy! Kids can think they are doing fine - rocking along getting all As - when in reality they haven't been given a chance to learn many things they will need to know if they want to continue with their educations.

  9. I appreciate you Susan Berlin!