SEGREGATE THIS: The New York Times does Tuscaloosa!


Part 4—The 15 percent solution:
How about it? Is it true, what that recent Vox report said about These Schools Today!

Is it true that "schools today are re-segregating?" Is it true that "schools in the South are as segregated now as they were" in 1968?

If you made us give you a yes or no answer, we'd have to go with "no." If you wanted to think about what's being said, we'd recommend that we drop the fraught term "segregation" in favor of terms like "racial imbalance."

We'd also suggest that we acknowledge an obvious point. With America's student population now less than 50 percent white, there's no way to create the liberal world's apparent Eden, in which black kids get to go to school with oodles of so-called white kids.

There's just no way to do that. And no, you can't produce majority-white public schools in districts whose frequently adorable kids present like this, so-called racially speaking:
Student population, Durham Public Schools
African-American: 46.7%
Hispanic/Latino: 30.1%
White: 18.6%
Multiracial: 2.8%
Asian: 2.3%
That's the current alignment in that North Carolina district. Below, we'll show you the breakdown in New York City, where every school would be "segregated," according to Vox, if its kids were evenly distributed according to their so-called race.

In theory, is "racial exposure" a good thing? In theory, it certainly is.

In theory, good journalism is desirable too, but it can't be based on semantic cons and on the practice of disappearing essential data. Except as an example of tribal cheerleading, we thought the Vox piece was grossly misleading and quite unfortunate.

That said:

Perhaps for those very reasons, Chang's piece in Vox was quickly hailed by the New York Times. We refer to this series of tweets by Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning journalist who now writes for the Times.

In April 2014, Hannah-Jones wrote a valuable, detailed report for ProPublica about the modern history of the Tuscaloosa City Schools. Her 10,000-word report was also published by The Atlantic. Its headline was perhaps exciting, eye-catching:
"Segregation Now"
If you care about topics like this, you should definitely read Hannah-Jones' report. Warning! We thought her detailed, nuanced history was absolutely fascinating. At the same time, we saw no sign that she has any real understanding of instructional issues for low-income kids from ow-literacy background who may be "years behind" their educationally advantaged peers.

Beyond that, we'd advise staying away from historically fraught terms like "segregation." In the present day, the term is almost guaranteed to produce more heat than light.

With those disclaimers, we strongly recommend Hannah-Jones' detailed report. That said, we thought she had both thumbs on the scale when we read her summary of that report on page A3 of last Thursday's hard-copy Times, perhaps the dumbest current page in all of American journalism.

It seemed to us that Hannah-Jones was picking and choosing from her own report as she praised Chang's effort. Below, you see the way her tweets appeared, after editing, on the Times' hard-copy A3:
HANNAH-JONES (1/11/18): This is such important work. I’ve long said that school attendance zone lines are as heavily gerrymandered as electoral districts. Someone sits down with a demographic map and draws these lines, more often than not to make schools more segregated, not less.

We showed this when I wrote Segregation Now for ProPublica. Tuscaloosa officials created an enirely black feeder system of schools, and blamed the all-black high school on residential segregation.

Except we asked for the attendance zone maps and then Jeff Larson showed that the high school was in an integrated neighborhood—but its noncontiguous attendance zone was drawn entirely around the black and poorest part of the city.

In fact, the white kids who lived near Tuscaloosa’s Central High were zoned to the most heavily white high school outside of their neighborhood. Some went to Central to catch a bus to the whiter school in order to avoid their “neighborhood” school.

When segregation persists no matter the conditions on the ground—in segregated communities, in integrated communities, with busing, without busing—we must admit that schools are segregated because people with power want it that way. THIS IS INTENTIONAL.
In that way, Hannah-Jones summarized the story she told in "Segregation Now." But uh-oh! As Chang left out the most basic facts about our nation's changing student demographics, we thought Hannah-Jones left out a great deal of the information from her 2014 report.

For starters, did Tuscaloosa officials create an "all-black high school" (Central High) in a way which was INTENTIONAL?

Based on Hannah-Jones' detailed report, it seems they plainly did, and that no one is saying different. But some of those officials were black, and last week's summary omits the reasons Hannah-Jones reported for their action.

Alas! The gruesome "world the slaveholders made" continues to haunt our dreams and decisions today! In ways Hannah-Jones described in detail, Tuscaloosa officials had long been looking for a way to keep their school system from becoming all black.

Ever since court-ordered desegregation, the city had been operating a single, both-races high school (Central High), along with three single-grade, both-races middle schools. From Grade 6 through Grade 12, there had been only one public school a Tuscaloosa child could attend. In this way, the system had been thoroughly integrated, in law and in fact, from the sixth grade on.

Perhaps you can guess what happened. As time went by, "white flight" was taking students out of the district. (Presumably, so did middle-class black flight. Today, the suburban Tuscaloosa County Schools operate a bevy of high schools with admirable black-white racial balance.)

At any rate, white flight was hitting the Tuscaloosa City Schools hard. In the passage shown below, Hannah-Jones described some of the thinking which led to the creation of the attendance zones which made Central High all-black and heavily low-income:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): 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.

Tuscaloosa’s business leaders and elected officials had witnessed the transformation of other southern cities after their school districts had reached a tipping point—the point at which white parents become unsettled by the rising share of black students in a school, and pull their children from the school en masse. School districts in cities such as Birmingham and Richmond had seen their integration efforts largely mooted: just about all the white students had left. As white families had moved out to the suburbs, eroding the tax base, both the schools and the cities themselves had suffered. Many officials in Tuscaloosa obsessed about the rippling consequences of continued white flight. “Money follows kids, and the loss of white students was very, very critical,” said Shelley Jones, who is white and served as a school-board member in the 1990s, and later as the chair.
According to Hannah-Jones' original report, school districts in cities like Richmond had become all black. For better or worse, every black child in those cities was thereby attending a school which was completely "segregated," if that's the term we like.

According to Hannah-Jones' original report, city officials were trying to keep that from happening in Tuscaloosa. They proceeded to make decisions which were flat-out realpolitik.

You may or may not agree with the decisions they made, but we don't think it's helpful or intelligent to omit the punishing context in which those decisions were made. You can read about those decisions in Hannah-Jones' detailed report.

Beyond that, it seemed to us that a reader might get a distorted idea from Hannah-Jones' reference last week to the way "the white kids who lived near Tuscaloosa’s Central High were zoned to the most heavily white high school outside of their neighborhood." (That refers to a zoning decision made in 2007.) In fact, Tuscaloosa created only two high schools other than Central High, and each of those schools was then, and remains today, majority black.

No white students were zoned or bused to majority-white high schools. No such schools were created. If we want to understand the actual world in which we actually live, we think that point is worth noting.

In her 2014 report, Hannah-Jones presented a detailed history of these decisions. (The successful attempt to secure a Mercedes-Benz plant for Tuscaloosa was also involved.) We think her history is highly instructive. We think her judgment is perhaps a bit faulty, in familiar ways, about various other matters, especially concerning instruction of kids from low-literacy backgrounds.

In our view, Hannah-Jones' original report was also weak in one other respect—her reliance on the word "segregation." In discussions of this type, the word produces enormous heat, perhaps not a whole lot of light.

Alas! Use of the word seems to make liberal adults feel morally pure; this seems to be one of the leading objectives of modern progressive journalism. On the down side, we think the nation's "minority" and low-income kids deserve better service from the adults who pretend to write about their interests and lives.

How silly can it sometimes get when progressive adults work from the "segregation now" mental framework? Consider the fascinating report Hannah-Jones wrote for the New York Times magazine in June 2016.

That piece was quite lengthy too; it too ran over 10,000 words. It was also semi-autobiographical. It appeared beneath this headline:
"Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City"
Hannah-Jones described the struggle she and her husband faced in picking a public school for their 4-year-old daughter to attend.

For today, consider only one part of Hannah-Jones' report. In this passage, she described the student demographics of New York City's public schools:
HANNAH-JONES (6/12/16): In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes those schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many. This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children.

The New York City public-school system is 41 percent Latino, 27 percent black and 16 percent Asian. Three-quarters of all students are low-income. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, released a report showing that New York City public schools are among the most segregated in the country. Black and Latino children here have become increasingly isolated, with 85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attending “intensely” segregated schools—schools that are less than 10 percent white.
Should public school students be "racially isolated?" Presumably, no—they should not. That said, this was Hannah-Jones' account of the city's student demographics:
Student population, New York City Public Schools
White kids: 15 percent
Black kids: 27 percent
Hispanic kids: 41 percent
Asian-American kids: 16 percent
Note the craziness to which we fall prey when we adopt the conceptual framework we progressive seem to adore:

If New York City waved a magic wand and created "racially balanced" schools, all its black kids would attend schools which were 15 percent white. (Warning! In fact, subsequent "white flight" would probably reduce that number a bit.)

Under current realities, fifteen percent would be the best we could do! But according to Hannah-Jones' lexicon, anything under ten percent would count as "intense segregation!"

(Note: Across the nation, Asian-Americans kids outperform white kids academically. But according to "segregation" jockeys, exposure to them doesn't help black kids at school! Only white kids matter. Everyone else is losing out if there aren't enough white kids around!)

Fourteen percent would be the best; ten percent would be heinous. That's the conceptual hall of mirrors we enter when progressive thought leaders feed our fantasies with traditional, street-fighting talk of "segregation now."

What should we do with our public schools? To be perfectly honest, we doubt that Chang and Hannah-Jones have even the slightest idea. That question takes us Beyond the Valley of Racial Balance into the realm of successful instruction. Modern progressives tend to churn the "segregation" numbers, then take an immediate powder.

They're boldly fighting "segregation;" beyond that, they say little else. To them, it's still 1968. Heroically, they're fighting the battle which existed when the student population was something like 90 percent white, when we didn't know how hard it would be to eliminate the achievement gaps which so gravely affect the interests of low-income kids.

Fifteen percent would be ideal. Ten percent would be awful! So it goes when progressive leaders build their lives and their careers around making us adults feel morally pure, just like it was in the day.

At any rate, you probably know what happened after that New York magazine piece, which didn't explain how to avoid "segregation" in a city with New York's demographics. Of course! After that New York magazine piece, Hannah-Jones was named a Rockefeller genius! In these slightly comical ways, our liberal elites continue to throw the nation's black kids down the drain and under the big yellow bus.

None of this will ever be mentioned on MSNBC. The corporate multimillionaire hosts on that shameless corporate channel don't give a fig about black kids. Nothing could be more clear.

A bit of irony: On the whole, we thought Hannah-Jones' history of Tuscaloosa was superb. That said, here's a bit of irony from the leading authority on her life:
Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, to father Milton Hannah, who is African-American, and mother Cheryl A. Novotny, who is of Czech and English descent...Hannah-Jones and her sister attended almost all-white schools as part of a voluntary program of desegregation busing. She wrote for the high school newspaper and graduated from West High School in 1994.
First, all praise to those parents! But did Hannah-Jones "attend almost all-white schools as part of a voluntary program of desegregation busing?"

We don't know if Hannah-Jones actually gained from that approach. But in large part due to changed demographics, that approach is frequently unavailable today!

What the heck do we do instead? What do we do to make low-income kids feel happy in school? What do we do to eat away at those punishing achievement gaps?

Now that it isn't 1968, what do we do for our low-income kids? With regard to that obvious question, progressives who talk about "resegregation" rarely have much to say.


  1. In some ways it's unfortunate that the US adopted 5 official ethnic groups and that many statistics are kept on that basis. That structure makes it too easy for a journalist or researcher to break down their data by these 5 groups. Yet, as Bob points out, this breakdown may not be the most important thing to look at.

    1. Kids tell their schools their specific demographics and it is the researchers who lump them together into categories relevant to their research questions. It isn't the government that does that, even for census purposes. The results are organized because having 260 categories of Asians isn't useful when trying to find patterns in data.

      But you are an actuary. You should know this.

    2. I agree with you, 9:17, to a degree. Yes, collecting hundreds of categories would be unwieldy. The trouble is IMHO that the data collected may not be useful, and it's also pernicious.

      Suppose you know that my town is counted at 19% Asian students (which is a reasonable guess). You don't know how many are Laotian, Chinese, Burmese, etc. You don't know how many are recent immigrants who barely speak English and how many were raised here and have English as their first language. You don't know how their academic skills break down.

      The bad part is that these statistics encourage us to think of each other as if their ethic group were the most important thing about them. It encourages racism.

      Now, statistics are sometimes important, but the useful statistics may not be the 5 official categories. As an actuary, I believe it's better to wait until you know what you need and get that data via a survey than to require statistics kept forever that may not be what you actually want.

      My late adviser David Friedman was a brilliant statistician. He was once hired to analyze voluminous statistics collected by a large Canadian bank over a period of decades. After 3 months, he concluded that this data was entirely worthless.

    3. I don't know, Comrade DinC. Without all these statistics, how else would your racist party be able to target their systematic voter suppression with such "surgical precision". So relax, you racist bastard, it seems there are some useful applications you might not have considered.

  2. Race-mongering liberal clowns are like ancient medics with their four humours, or like medieval astrologers.

    Dear god, what a bunch of drivel.

  3. Unfortunately, humans tend to segregate themselves based on race or ethnicity. "White flight" is an example of that. We are now left with racially and ethnically segregated areas. At this point, forcing integration upon this structure presents impracticalities and even hardships on parents and schoolchildren. It would be nice if the racial/ethnic makeup of a school represented the racial/ethnic makeup of the community; that, to me, is a more desirable outcome than focusing on some preset racial targets. I'm not sure that "progressives" (again maligned by Somerby) only care about the ratio of white to black. Although historically, in the South anyway, white schools vastly outperformed black schools: you know, that was public policy then.

    As for Somerby's contention that "only white kids matter", and Asian kids don't, first of all, Hannah-Jones doesn't say that, and, secondly, no progressive would ever really believe something like that.

    Another issue that Somerby doesn't discuss: what about private schools and charter schools? What impact have they had on public schools? It's an important topic. And why are those 11% of NYC schools with 50% of the white population performing so much better than the other schools?

    Somerby's posts on education are founded on the view that progressives either don't care about schools, or are "segregation jockeys" with an axe to grind. Meanwhile, he only quotes from writers who seem to illustrate this view, and doesn't discuss conservative approaches to education. It's perfectly legitimate to criticize Hannah-Jones, or anyone else, but Somerby could skip the assumptions of bad faith that he ascribes to others and broaden his appeal.

    1. Conservative views on education include: (1) turn schools over to profit making entities that don't care whether kids learn as long as they make money, (2) let anyone teach regardless of training, ability, education, as long as they will work for low wages, (3) never regulate or supervise what happens at schools so that anything goes, including incompetence and even child abuse, (4) motivate kids by setting tough standards that children cannot meet, then prepare kids using drill and rote learning to teach kids the answers to the questions on tests keyed to those "standards", (5) make sure kids are indoctrinated into the conservative versions of history, civics, and so on, (6) eliminate non-essentials such as art, music, drama, and all sports except football and basketball which are money-makers, (7) make sure that fundamental Christianity is part of the curriculum and required of all students regardless of their own beliefs or their parents' wishes, (8) spend as little money as possible on infrastructure, facilities, materials, and frills like computers and textbooks. And finally, the conservative approach would be tracking along racial lines, not just by ability, since racial identifications determine ability (as conservative stereotypes reflect). No point in wasting any resources or effort on kids who cannot learn -- Charles Murray taught us that.

    2. You forgot the one about putting girls and boys in separate classes so that girls can learn homemaking skills and boys can learn shop and auto repair and neither sex gets confused by algebra.

    3. Anon 9:10 - Your #1 is backwards. When the public school has no competition, public school teachers and administrators will get paid their salaries no matter what. A profit-making school that is in competition with other schools will have to do a good job. Otherwise, they won't make money because parents will move their children to other schools.

  4. Unlawful segregation takes a back seat to cultural (or anthropological, if you will) segregation. It might be time to recognize that laws written in the 1960’s don’t apply so well given our new demographics.

    Don’t forget the glorious Wall we’re going to build, an attempt to thwart natural human migration, a result of the wonderful capitalist system we’re all supposed to endure. Why build a Wall? To keep the brownies out. Unless they can harvest our crops. Then it’s all good.

    Should we have public schools that teach students well in civics, the humanities, the sciences and art? Capitalism has already won that fight. But I’m glad to read Somerby, railing against the night.


    1. Leroy,

      Do you favor an open borders policy for the United States?

    2. Cmike, I suppose that would depend on what an ‘open border policy’ would mean from a functional standpoint. But it’s a deep question, and thanks for the gut-punch to my snark!

      The absurdity of building the wall as Trump would have it aside, my knee-jerk reaction to your question would be yes, but such policy would obviously require a lot of almost revolutionary thought to implement. I find it interesting that corporations are basically border-free. With the advent of NAFTA, American corporations were allowed to exploit low-cost labor in Mexico, building maquiladoras on the cheap. And the negative effect on Mexico’s farming economy is well-documented, when NAFTA allowed US farmers to export crops to Mexico and undermine the local farmers’ ability to compete.

      Perhaps that’s the whole idea behind our current immigration system. Keep the poor people poor, do not let them migrate so that corporations are able to maintain their destitute labor pool. Who knows: with an open-border policy, perhaps poor Americans could work in Mexico. There’s almost certainly an untapped skilled-labor potential, since the jobs formerly held by US workers have been exported. And Mexico is a beautiful country whose cost of living is relatively low to ours, a twofer. I wonder what the educational system in Mexico is like if you’re not rich.

      Open borders would certainly seem a solution the rank hypocrisy of our current system, which on the one hand is deporting long-time, productive residents, but insists on cheap labor to harvest American crops and perform other “menial” tasks. The desperate poor from Mexico seem in many ways, in fact, to be the backbone of our current capitalist system. Like Bob’s desire to see a competent, dedicated mainstream journalistic culture, however, the idea of open borders would work against the desires of the free-roaming corporate “persons,” and seems to me little more than a pipe dream. But my ultimate answer to your question is sure, why not?

      Thanks for making me even think about it, because I never had before.


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I am a former South Florida high school math and science teacher. I’m also a current resident of Tuscaloosa, AL - for the past ~12 years, whose children have attended Tuscaloosa City Schools.

    As a Tuscaloosa City Schools (TCS) parent, education advocate (for teachers, students, and equity), and participant-observer infor the past 12+ years, there is no question in my mind that there is both systemic (circumstantial) and systematic (intentional) racial “segregation” in Tuscaloosa City Schools. Educational leaders, advocates, stakeholders, etc. who are serious about closing race-aligned achievement gaps would be remiss to dismiss that reality or to try to sugar coat it with softer or kinder words like “racial imbalance.”

    The beginning of meaningfully addressing those achievement gaps must be: 1) understanding what the gaps are NOT., 2.) understanding what the gaps are, 3) understanding that systematic (intentional) as well as systemic (circumstantial) segregation are often at the causal root of race-aligned achievement gaps.

    With that foundation of understanding, educational leaders, advocates, and stakeholders will have a much better chance of meaningfully increasing equity and closing achievement gaps. We will then more likely and more meaningfully raise academic performance levels of students from all communities and demographics via programs rooted in authentically high expectations, engaging motivation, meaningful innovation, and continuous performance improvement for all students, schools, and communities.

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