How The Systemic Segregation Of Schools Is Maintained By 'Individual Choices' : NPR Ed Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones says school segregation will continue to exist in America "as long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children."
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How The Systemic Segregation Of Schools Is Maintained By 'Individual Choices'

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How The Systemic Segregation Of Schools Is Maintained By 'Individual Choices'

How The Systemic Segregation Of Schools Is Maintained By 'Individual Choices'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to talk about why so many neighborhoods and schools across America remain segregated, and how that affects the lives of children and parents. My guest, Nikole Hannah-Jones, covers what she sometimes describes as the segregation beat. She writes about racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine, and was a reporter at ProPublica before that. For the past few years she's investigated why schools remain segregated or have become resegregated. She's also written about housing segregation, and how in the north it was in part engineered by local and federal government policies. And she's written about how housing discrimination has led to or reinforced school segregation. She recently wrote about why she chose to send her daughter to her neighborhood public school, which is largely attended by low income black and Latino students.

Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Peabody Award and a George Polk Award for her This American Life story about Michael Brown's high school. She helped found the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which is dedicated to increasing the ranks of investigative reporters of color. And she's writing a book about school segregation.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. So school segregation is an issue you've covered and investigated, it's also an issue you've had to confront as a parent. In June, you wrote a story about choosing a school for your daughter. You live in Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, which you describe as a low income, heavily black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of brownstones. So what was the choice you were confronted with when it was time to send your daughter to school?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, as your listeners may or may not know, New York City is one of the top three most segregated cities in the country, and its school system is among the most racially and economically segregated school systems - large school systems in the entire country as well. So while as a reporter I have been cataloging the harms of school segregation and kind of the necessity of integration, I had done that most of my career, not as a parent but as a journalist. And then we moved to New York City, my daughter is turning 4, and we have to decide where we're going to enroll her in schools.

I live in a segregated neighborhood. The schools in my neighborhood are extremely segregated, both by poverty and by race. And so my husband and I had to decide if we were going to enroll her in one of the schools - types of schools that I write about, or if we were going to use our privilege, like many middle class parents, and try to get her into a school that was less poor and less segregated.

GROSS: So assuming that the school - assuming if you use your privilege, you could have gotten your child into a school that had better scores and achievement and everything and more resources for students. Why did you choose to keep your daughter in the public school that had fewer resources?

HANNAH-JONES: I think for me it was a couple of things. One, I know enough about the research to - that I knew that my daughter would actually be fine in that school. So the research shows that higher income families who go into high poverty schools, the education of their students - their children does not suffer. So I knew that, but I also really believed that it was important for me to live my values. One of the things I've done in my work is kind of show the hypocrisy of progressive people who say they believe in inequality, but when it comes to their individual choices about where they're going to live and where they're going to send their children, they make very different decisions. And I just didn't want to do that, I felt morally that was not the right thing to do.

And I also think it was - that it is important to understand that the inequality we see - school segregation is both structural, it is systemic, but it's also upheld by individual choices. As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children, you can support equality as a principle all you want, but we're not going to see a change. And so for me, it was a matter of needing to live my values and not being someone who contributed to the inequality that I write about.

GROSS: So the school - the public school that you sent your daughter to, there were a lot of the things you liked about that school, including a lot of the teachers, and things were going pretty well. But then another elementary school, P.S. 8, which was less than a mile from the school your daughter was going to, that other school was overcrowded. This school - the overcrowded school - was in an affluent neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. So how did the Department of Education deal with the overcrowding in the more affluent school?

HANNAH-JONES: So what's interesting is the school that we ultimately sent our daughter to is located in an area that had seen a rapid demographic shift. And it had gone from an area that was fairly industrial and only had - the only people who lived there were people who lived in public housing projects, to a place where a lot of new housing had been built.

And most of the new housing, the people living in that housing were white and they were very, very affluent. And so their neighborhood school was actually my daughter's school, many of them, but they weren't sending their children to their neighborhood school. They were sending their children to that school a mile away, P.S. 8, which had already turned into a majority white, very wealthy school. And because of that and because of how - schools where - that start to see a white population tend to attract large numbers of white parents, that school was very overcrowded. That school was considered the only option - public option for people in the surrounding area.

So the Department of Education New York City, after continuing to cram so many students into that building, finally decided they weren't going to admit any more new students, and they weren't going to expand kindergarten for new incoming students. And instead, those students were to come to P.S. 307, which was my daughter's school. So they weren't doing an intentional integration plan, they really were dealing with severe overcrowding at one school. And my daughter's school, which is also very common, being a poor black and Latino school, was severely under-enrolled, we had plenty of space. Of course, nothing is ever that simple.

GROSS: Right. So what was the reaction of parents who were told that they couldn't get their children into the more affluent school and they were going to be sent to the school your daughter was in?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, those parents were not happy at all. They called their elected officials, and they began holding meetings, and they went to the press and really revolted against the Department of Education's decision to send their children to that school. There were several pretty ugly meetings, and at that time I was not sitting in these meetings as a journalist. I had no intention of writing about this issue. I think it's important not to necessarily report a personal story on the beat that you cover.

So I was just sitting in these meetings as a parent who was interested to hear what people who could potentially be coming to my daughter's school had to say about it, and it was hurtful to hear that things that parents were saying, particularly these are parents who are progressive. They live in Brooklyn because they say that they believe in diversity, often held up as being these kind of hipster people who don't see race. And I was hearing the same thing from those parents that I had heard in Tuscaloosa, Ala., it was no different.

GROSS: You said that some of the things that were said at these meetings were hurtful to you. What were some of those things?

HANNAH-JONES: Well. There was lots of questions and concerns about safety. Keep in mind. These are elementary school children. These are very young kids. And there were questions about, you know, they believed our school was dangerous. They believed the children were dangerous.

It wasn't that they didn't want to go to school with black kids, it's just that these kids were poor, and they don't want their children around so many poor children. They talked about the achievement of the students. So our school does have very low test scores, and so they believe that their kids will be dumbed down if they came to school with our children. There was not an acknowledgment that these children were even part of the same community as them, even though many of them lived across the street from the school and lived across the street from the housing projects that these children lived in. So I think to hear those concerns - with no evidence, the school is not a dangerous school. There were rumors about, you know, guns, just all kinds of things that clearly showed a racial fear.

And talking about our community, our community, as if these children and their families were not members of that community - and I actually stood up at one of those meetings as a 307 parent and I told them - the P.S. 8 parents - if you don't want to come to our school that's fine, but you don't have to slander the children in the school because you don't want to come there. So, you know, make your objections known. But I think that language and to think that the families at 307 weren't hearing what their neighbors were saying about them was naive. I mean, people knew and it was very hurtful.

GROSS: So was the whole area rezoned or redistricted because of the overcrowding of the school, P.S. 8?

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. So ultimately the Department of Education did go through with the rezoning, which basically split P.S. 8's district in half, sending those who are closest to P.S. 307 to 307. And - but we haven't seen most of those parents come. So our school has not changed very much so far.

GROSS: Now, you write during this debate about what to do during the objections that were raised by the parents who didn't want to send their children to your child's school, that each group - white, black, middle-class, poor - had their own concerns. What were some of the other concerns that were expressed, and what were your concerns?

HANNAH-JONES: So the concerns on the part of the parents at P.S. 307, my daughter's school, was one, of course there are a lot of bruised feelings when you had people who were talking so terribly about your children and the education and what was happening in the school who were now supposed to be coming to that school. So parents really wanted the DOE to facilitate some kind of coming together of these two communities so that they could talk through those things and that there wouldn't be tensions if those parents did come into the school. But I think the biggest concern was there is a pattern in New York City of once a school is targeted for white expansion, that school very quickly flips. And this is what happened at P.S. 8, the overcrowded school, where these schools that are targeted are typically very high-functioning segregated schools. So they're not rezoning white children into failing segregated schools. They're rezoning them into schools that are actually serving black and Latino children pretty well.

And then there's a fear that then those parents come in and they take over and that the little power that these marginalized communities have in their school they lose. And ultimately, the black and Latino populations are pushed out of those schools. So there was a huge fear that this school that was doing a rare thing, which was serving poor black and Latino children well, would very quickly not be their school anymore and that those children would be sent away or crowded out of the school.

GROSS: OK, so this is a dilemma right here. If integration is a goal - to have more diversity and to have more fair schools - and here is something that's going to integrate a school not for the sake of integration but because of overcrowding - but still it would be more integration - and everybody has concerns, everybody's worried about the outcome, so what does that say about the predicament that parents and schools are in?

HANNAH-JONES: What I always say is we somehow want this to be easy and simple, and it never will be. The systems that and the actions that created this inequality took a lot of effort and a lot of time. And we want to undo them, you know, with no pain for anyone with a snap of the fingers. On my Twitter account, I say - I cover race from 1619. And 1619 is the year the first Africans were brought to what would become America as - to be enslaved. I say that so that we understand there is a very - before we were even a country, we had created this system that was going to put black people on the bottom, and we created a caste system.

And to undo that, we feel like no one has to give anything up or there's not going to be any tensions or it's going to be easy, and it simply won't. One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating the segregation and inequality, and we're willing to put almost no effort in fixing it. And that's the problem.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. She writes about racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. It's what she sometimes calls the segregation beat. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and has written extensively about why so many schools and neighborhoods today are segregated.

So you've described your daughter's school as a high-functioning kind of segregated black school, and most of the children in the school are low income. So if everybody has to make a sacrifice of some sort and if it's going to be painful all the way around to really integrate the schools, do you feel like you're making a sacrifice sending your daughter to this school because you're standing on the principle that you want to send your daughter to a public school and not put your daughter into a more - a school reserved for more privileged people? Do you feel like you're sacrificing anything in her life, the quality of her education, the resources that she'd have in a better school?

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. You know, I really grapple with this in the piece I wrote, and I'm quite honest about the arguments and conversations my husband and I had about this decision because I know better than most how segregated schools harm children. That's why I write about them the way that I do. But I think what is important for us as citizens of this country to think about is what do we see as the role of public schools? If - do we truly believe in the original mission of public schools and that they are to benefit all children, and they aren't to - you know, it's not the market. It's not private schools. It is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

And, no, I'm not going to - my daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private school tuition, but that's kind of the whole point of public schools. I think she - I know she's learning a lot. I think it is making her a good citizen. I think it is teaching her that children who have less resources than her are not any less intelligent than her, not any less worthy than her. And I truly - and I say this - and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent because a lot of other parents look at you a little, you know, like you're maybe not as good of a parent - I don't think she's deserving of more than other kids. I just don't.

I think that we can't say this school is not good enough for my child and then sustain that system. I think that that's just morally wrong if it's not good enough for my child then why are we putting any children in those schools? So I would say I have concerns. I'm not everyday sure that I'm making the right decision for her. Am I being fair to my daughter? But I think that I can provide my daughter anything that she's not going to get in that public school. I have the money to pay for tutoring. I take my daughter to museums. I expose her to writers who come to my house all of the time, and it is important for us to be in that school because we are able then to provide some of that for classmates whose parents are not going to have writers and business owners and journalists in their home. So I think that that is what is so critical is do we really believe in the public part of public schools?

GROSS: Let me quote something you say in your New York Times piece about this. You write (reading) true integration, true equality requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural.

So what's the feeling that - a natural feeling part of the equation for you? Do you feel like it's unnatural to surrender the advantage that your child has?

HANNAH-JONES: Of course. I mean, I worked to get where I am so that I could provide things for my child that my parents couldn't. And one of the few advantages that my parents were able to provide for me was to enroll me in a busing program that got me out of my segregated schools and into high-achieving, more affluent white schools. And I am not doing that for my own child, so I think it is the most natural thing in the world for parents to try to secure advantage for their own children. And to try to give up that advantage or tell people to give up that advantage is a hard ask. I understand.

But at the same time, I don't think that she is going to be harmed by this. I think that it is only a sacrifice if you really believe that those kids are less than yours, and I don't think that that's true. With that said, one of the main reasons I write so much about segregation is because we do know that our country's education system was built on a racial caste and that once we isolate black and Latino children or poor children away from white and middle-class children, we often don't give them the same resources. They often don't have the same level of instruction. They often don't have strong principals. They often don't have the same technology. I mean, federal data shows that. So my daughter's school is rare in that way, and I think where...

GROSS: In that is does have better resources than the average...


GROSS: ...Low-income, racially segregated school.

HANNAH-JONES: Right. But almost entirely because of a principal who was there named Roberto Davenport (ph). And when you look at these schools, it is - if they are high functioning, it is almost always because of a single charismatic principal, and that's just not a way to get systemic equality. So I think that that is - the problem is school integration and integration in neighborhoods is not about some feel good notion.

It really is about - there's never been a moment in the history of this country where black people who have been isolated from white people have gotten the same resources, not in schools, not in communities. And, you know, Dr. King understood that in a visceral way that integration was about the sharing of power, and it was about full citizenship. And I believe that.

GROSS: My guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. She writes about racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. After we take a short break, we'll talk about her experiences when she was a child and was bussed to a white school and was one of the few children of color there. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. She wrote for ProPublica before joining The Times. Her focus has been on neighborhood and school segregation and how they continue to reinforce each other and why it's been so difficult to change those patterns. She lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant and sends her daughter to the neighborhood public school, which is primarily attended by low-income black and Latino students.

So we were talking about how you've chosen to keep your daughter in a public school and not send her to private school or a school for gifted children. Your parents made the opposite decision when you were in first grade and you went to a school that you described as poor and distressingly chaotic. Your parents decided to take you out of that school and sign you up for a voluntary busing program that sent you to a different school. What was the school you were sent to?

HANNAH-JONES: I was sent to Kingsley Elementary in Waterloo, Iowa, and it was quite far from my home. It was almost entirely white and a very wealthy school.

GROSS: And what was it like for you to be one of the students who were bused in? How many of you were there?

HANNAH-JONES: I don't know for sure, but I seem to remember there were about five of us in the whole school, including, for a period, my older sister.

GROSS: After you became an adult and after you started covering school segregation, did you ask your mother, adult to adult, why she decided to send you into that voluntary busing program to a more affluent white school?

HANNAH-JONES: I did. You know, it's funny. At the time, when I was a kid, I didn't realize I was part of a busing program. I always say, you know, as a kid, you do what your parents tell you to do. And my parents told me to get on a bus and go to this school, and that's what I did. And it wasn't until I was much older, and I started writing about school segregation myself that I realized that - what this program was designed to do and that my hometown had to enter into an agreement with the Department of Education to do this voluntary desegregation program. So I didn't realize it. I just knew that I used to be able to walk to school, and then all of a sudden I was riding the bus for two hours a day.

So as I started reporting, particularly this last story about my own daughter, which was the first time that I had really written about being in a busing program myself, I did ask my mom why did she decide to do that because I have very mixed feelings about my own experience. And I know from talking to a lot of other black folks my age who also went through busing programs that they also tend to have very mixed experiences because academically, it was transformative for me, but it was very, very difficult socially. And that definitely, I think, played a role in my knowing - I knew very early, before I even had a child, that I was not going to put my child in a situation where she was one of a handful of black kids. I didn't think she would end up in an almost completely black school, but I knew I didn't want her to be in that same situation I was in.

So I did - I talked to my mom when I was writing the story that published in June about kind of her decision-making and why she picked this particular school, which was kind of the furthest away from us and also probably the whitest. And for her, you know, our - my family was very working-class. My mom was a probation officer. My dad drove a bus. And this was an advantage that they could give us. They both understood that my neighborhood school was not high-functioning, and this was the one thing they could give us was a good education. And the only way - because my parents couldn't afford private school, the only way that they thought they could do that was through this busing program. They weren't thinking, of course, about the social issues for us. They were thinking about the quality of schools, which, of course, is what so many parents are faced with.

GROSS: You said academically this school busing program worked for you really well, but socially it was very problematic. What were the social problems you confronted?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, one, not only were we black in a very white school, but we were working-class in a very affluent school. So I remember - I mean, things that stick out to me was all the white kids lived in the neighborhood. They walked to school. This was their school. The black kids came every day on a bus. And at the end of the day, when all of our friends were playing and walking home and hanging around on the jungle gym, we were having to hurry up and get loaded on a bus and head back to our neighborhoods. So it never felt like our school. And I was bused from second grade all the way until I graduated high school, and there were none of those schools that I went to that I felt were my schools because we were going to school in someone else's neighborhood and always felt like those schools belonged to them.

There was a particular incident when I was in middle school. And at that time, most of my friends were still white because there were hardly any black kids at the school, and I was in talented and gifted so I hung out with a lot of the kids in talented and gifted. And in my hometown there's a, quote, unquote, "white side" which was the West side and all the black people lived on the East side. And we lived on the East side and were bused to the West side. And there was a swimming pool that served each side of town, and we used to always go and play and go swimming with my white friends at the swimming pool on their side of town. And one day I suggested, hey, why don't you all come to the swimming pool on my side of town? And everyone was down with it. We were all excited.

And then that Saturday morning, I got phone call after phone call from every one of my friends who was going to come telling me they couldn't come, that their parents wouldn't let them come to the pool on my side of town, but I was more than welcome to come to Bernes Park (ph), which was where the pool was on their side of town.

And I just remember very clearly understanding what that was about, that my white friends' parents were either afraid or didn't think this was good enough. And so it was kind of constantly those types of things. I didn't ever experience really blatant racism, but it was always these things that were kind of telling you you didn't belong, and you weren't good enough.

GROSS: So looking at part of the problem of segregated schools, you write that schools with large numbers of black and Latino children are less likely to have experienced teachers. And this is according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Why are those schools less likely to have experienced teachers?

HANNAH-JONES: So those schools are less likely to have everything. They're less likely to offer advanced placement courses, college prep curriculum, they have worse facilities, they have - less likely to have technology, high teacher turnover. So everything that you can measure, these segregated schools have it worse than schools that are white and middle-class. So when we ask why, we have to go back to the very beginning. We have a caste system. We understand that when we separate the most marginalized students out, we simply neglect those schools. We just don't care enough. And I think people want some other answer.

But when you look at every community in the country and this fact holds true, then that tells you that this is systemic, that whether people are making intentional decisions or not, it is replicated all over the country. And this is a thing that is the strongest argument of Brown v. Board of Education. It's an argument that we kind of conveniently overlook was - Brown v. Board understood that in a country built on the subjugation of black Americans, that as long as you separate black Americans from power, which is white Americans, that they will never receive equal treatment. And there's never been a period of time where we have seen black Americans who are not in the same spaces as white Americans receive the same things that white Americans receive. And that's true in our schools, and it's true in our neighborhoods. ****

GROSS: You write that the evidence shows that integration is really the only thing that improves the academic performance of low-income children of color. So what is that evidence?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, you can look at test score data. You can look at - so there's both - so let me also be clear. Brown v. Board of Education never talks about test scores. We are hyper focused on test scores now. And the way that we have comforted ourselves with the segregation in schools is to say we're just going to get those schools' test scores up to par. Well, one, we haven't done that. But there are lots of measures of what schools are supposed to do. And, you know, when we found public schools in this country, it's not to get kids to have good test scores.

So let me just say that. But what the data shows is we know if we're looking at test scores, if we're measuring the achievement gap, which is the test score gap between black and white students, that gap was the narrowest at the peak of integration in the school integration, which was 1988. As soon as we start to see the segregation increasing again, that achievement gap increases. And we've actually never gotten back to that low point that we were at when schools were their most integrated.

But there's also great science out of University of California, Berkeley by a professor named Rucker Johnson that shows the longitudinal effects of school desegregation on black students. And what it showed is that it changed the entire trajectory of their lives, that it wasn't just about how well they scored on a test, that black students who went to integrated schools were less likely to be poor as adults, were more likely to go to college. They lived longer. They were healthier, and they passed this benefit onto their own children. And even within the same family, if one child remained in segregated schools and one child went to integrated schools, the child in the same family who went to integrated schools had these same lifelong effects.

So if we understand that schools overall are how we can gain opportunity in this country for black students, it is much more critical. It is - and it wasn't about something about white kids makes black kids smarter. It was getting those kids in those schools gave them the same access to the education opportunities that white kids were getting. And we just don't do that otherwise.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and has written extensively about why so many schools and neighborhoods today are segregated.

When writing about the schools, you often use the word resegregation. What does that mean?

HANNAH-JONES: So we have this period after Brown - so just a quick history lesson - Brown v. Board happens and kind of the way that we're taught it or the myth about it is immediately our nation repented and, you know, went into an integrated future together. That's not what happened. There was massive resistance. And we don't see real desegregation occurring in this country until 1964 and really most rapidly from 1968 on. And then you see pretty rapid desegregation particularly in the South and - but then that changes. And in 1988, we start to go backwards.

So we reach kind of the peak of schools integrating, of black students attending majority white schools at the highest rates that they ever have in the country. And then we start to see school districts resegregating which means black students are starting to go to schools that are more and more segregated. And school districts that had had a degree of integration are losing that integration. So what we know...

GROSS: And why is that? Is that families moving, out is that rezoning, is it a combination of things?

HANNAH-JONES: It's a bunch of things. Particularly, I think one of the big things was, again, most of the desegregation occurs in the South. And it occurs in the South because the South was segregated by law, and therefore the way that the courts have kind of determined desegregation law, you could get court orders to integrate.

It was - been much more challenging to desegregate in the North, and there was a lot of resistance to desegregation in the North. So what happened is across the South beginning under the Reagan administration but really speeding up under George W. Bush was a release of many of these school districts from their federal desegregation orders, which meant that as long as these districts, once their court orders to integrate have been closed, they can do whatever they want as long as they don't say they're doing it to discriminate.

So they can rezone to create all-black schools. They can build all-black schools. But as long as they don't say they're doing it to be discriminatory, it's actually perfectly legal. So that's a big part of it. White flight out of cities was a huge part of it. You had, you know, cities like New York and Philadelphia and Chicago that lost most of their white population. And so in the North, most school segregation is between school districts, between a urban school district and the suburbs that surround it. And so that contributed a lot to it as well.

GROSS: Do you think people just take for granted nowadays that there's black schools and white schools, some schools are integrated, lots of schools aren't, there's black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, some neighborhoods are integrated, lots of neighborhoods aren't and that's just the way it is?

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago, no one was writing really about segregation. I would, you know - I was working on these year-long projects and would wake up in a complete sweat. So I'm like my editors are going to never let me do a project like this again because I'm spending all this time writing about something that no one's going to care about.

I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying we're going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability, so no one was discussing integration anymore. And I think it's because, one, we never really wanted it. If you look at the great civil rights legislation that gets passed in the '60s, the very last law that's passed is the Fair Housing Act which gets passed in 1968. That was considered the northern civil rights bill. And that's why that was the toughest one, so the '64 Civil Rights Act - very successful.

It would be very surprising if I were to try to walk into a cafe or go on a bus and be turned away because of my race. The Voting Rights Act was considered extremely successful, but the Fair Housing Act is the one that's considered the complete failure because that was going to integrate where we live and by proxy that would integrate schools, and Northern congressmen fought that the same way that Southern congressman were fighting the other civil rights laws. And the only reason that law gets passed is Dr. King gets assassinated. A hundred cities riot - black, poor, segregated, Northern cities, and it's in the flames where there literally are rioters within feet of Capitol Hill that Congress manages to pass the Fair Housing Act.

And then Nixon is elected and immediately runs on a Southern strategy where he says if you support me - and he's appealing to white Southerners and white Northern ethnics - that he will stop forward progress on school segregation and - school desegregation and housing integration. And that's what he does. So we never as a country wanted this. It's always had to be forced. And as soon as our country lost, you know, our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine or which she sometimes describes as the segregation beat. We're going to take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and has written extensively about why so many schools and neighborhoods today are segregated. So the segregation beat must be a very discouraging beat to cover.

HANNAH-JONES: (Laughter) Yeah. I'm not an optimist that's for sure. I think that probably one of the hardest things about this job is there's nothing that segregation does not impact for black Americans, but it's also the thing that you can write about, and there's - it feels like there will never be political traction on it - the issue. You know, other investigative reporters can expose things, and someone will pass a law or there will be an investigation. And people get very riled up.

When I write about things, people are bothered by them, but it's not an issue that officials are going to press. There's - it's not an issue where someone is going to pass a law and say, you know, we really do need to follow the Fair Housing Act. We really do need to do something about these segregated schools. There is no political will on the left or the right - or I should say there's very little political will on the left or the right to do something about the issues that I cover.

GROSS: And that's because it's both very difficult to change things and also that kind of change makes people uncomfortable?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, yeah. So I think what's important to understand is the North has been able to portray the South as the part of the country that has a race problem and is very comfortable with that. So the South enforced its racial code through laws. In the North, race and racial code of racial inequality was enforced through housing.

So the North is the most segregated region of the country both for housing and for schools, and the North is no better on race in the South. It was just for most of the country, the black population in the North was very small. And as you start to see millions of black people migrating from the South starting in the early 1900s, suddenly the North is confronted with having to deal with black people. And it doesn't do any better than the South. It creates ghettos. It red lines. It forces black people to stay in very small sectors of the city.

And so when you're looking at something like the Fair Housing Act, that is forcing Northerners to deal with their race issue. And Northerners are not any more willing to do that than Southerners were. When Dr. - it is when Dr. King starts to move his movement for civil rights and equality and integration up North that he begins to lose his support. One of the worst incidents that he has - he, you know - he moves his family to a Chicago slum to highlight housing segregation in the North. And they try to do a march for open housing outside of Chicago and are nearly attacked by a mob. So the reason why the things I write about don't get traction is there is no constituency anywhere in the country.

White Northerners are not any better on race. I think when you look at how integrated schools are down South - and it is true it was because a court order - you would not see white children - it's rare to see white children in the North and schools that integrated. And that's the problem is that there's no one who will be pushing for this.

GROSS: And on this Martin Luther King Day, I'd like to ask you to reflect on what Martin Luther King and his work has meant to you.

HANNAH-JONES: I don't know that I would be here talking to you without Dr. King. I think that the version of Dr. King, the homogenized version that we have all come to embrace is not the Dr. King that as a lay historian I know. He was a radical believer in the potential of this country and also a radical believer that this country owed a debt to black Americans and needed to pay it.

And I think we now look back - I mean, it's funny. I get comments, and I read comments from people who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement and criticize protests for racial justice. And they say King would not approve. And I think when King died, a majority of white Americans didn't approve of him, and there was never a point I think where most white Americans approved of what he was doing. And now he is, you know, an icon.

So when I look back, his push for fair housing, his push for equality - I don't know that I would be here. He forced this country to try to reconcile its beliefs with its actions, and he was killed for that. And I think it is clear that vigilance to ensure we don't lose ground and that we move forward towards Dr. King's dream which was not some gauzy notion of holding hands but really was a radical vision of equality in this country that it will require vigilance. And I think that is a good thing to remember on this day.

GROSS: Nicole Hannah-Jones, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and thank you for your work.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Nicole Hannah-Jones writes about racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what it was like to be a Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage in 19th-century America. My guest will be Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of the new book "A House Full Of Females: Plural Marriage And Women's Rights In Mormonism." Her great and great, great grandparents were Mormons who migrated to Utah before 1860.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Kevin Griffin. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.

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