Award-winning New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones pulled no punches on Tuesday night before a crowd of more than 500 people at the kickoff event for the Color of Education initiative: “I don’t want you to leave here inspired, I want you to leave ashamed at the current state of resegregation in our schools.”
Hannah-Jones, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and former journalist with the News & Observer has spent most of her career chronicling racial segregation in housing and schools. She told the audience that integration is the only thing that has truly been effective at closing the achievement gap between black and white students. In fact, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress data, the smallest test score gaps between black and white students occurred at the peak of school integration. In less than 15 years of desegregation, the achievement gap had been cut in half.
However, Hannah-Jones pointed out that in 1988 as integration court orders were lifted, we began to see a reversal of desegregation efforts and the achievement gap began to widen again. Today, schools are as segregated as they were in the 1970s and achievement gaps have never returned to 1988 levels. She highlighted Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wilson County as among the top ten districts with the highest rates of resegregation in the country.
Despite rapid resegregation, she said, “The South has been and remains the most integrated part of the country.” And as a challenge to the audience to act, she cautioned that because the South was the only place that ever forced desegregation, “if we lose the South, we lose the country.”
Hannah-Jones cited the rise of charter schools in mostly white suburban communities and the fact that white parents in general often choose schools based on the percentage of black students that attend them as making integration more difficult.
With the rise of resegregation and inequality in education, she said, “We have sown the seeds for the undoing of public education altogether. We lost the moral message of public schools: that they are about a common, not an individual, good.”
Hannah-Jones made it clear that the work of creating more racially equitable schools is going to be uncomfortable, and that it will require an “undoing of the entire way that we structure education and equality.” She said that we have to understand that integration, as Dr. King said, requires a “sharing of power…It’s about creating spaces where children truly meet as equals.”
Keith Poston, President & Executive Director of the Public School Forum, challenged audience members to engage in the hard work of creating more racially and equitable schools in North Carolina and to be willing to get into what legendary civil rights leader John Lewis called “good trouble.”
The kickoff event is the first of much more work to come from the Color of Education initiative co-sponsored by the Public School Forum, Duke Policy Bridge, and the Samuel Dubois Cook Center for Social Equity. To watch the event video and view more photos, click here. If you would like to stay informed about future Color of Education events and programs, fill out this form.