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Extended Interview: Nikole Hannah-Jones on the Resegregation of American Schools

Web ExclusiveSeptember 08, 2017
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Extended web-only interview with prize-winning New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her latest piece is titled “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, bringing you Part 2 of our discussion with Nikole Hannah-Jones. As students return to school across the country, we’re going to look at the resegregation of schools, particularly in Alabama. A new article in this week’s New York Times Magazine is headlined “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.” It’s by Nikole Hannah-Jones, looking predominantly at white towns in Alabama increasingly pulling out of regional school districts, creating new schools that are overwhelmingly white, critics saying this is a new form of segregation.

Nikole Hannah-Jones has been writing about education for years.

Now, you know, for people not in Alabama, they might not have heard of Jefferson County or Gardendale. Even the names of the tows are a kind of code or buzzword that people in Alabama understand. Can you explain that?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Sure. I don’t think, in that way, that suburban Birmingham is any different than any other diverse metropolitan community where people can mention certain neighborhoods or mention certain towns as a way of talking about race without being explicit. So, in this particular case, there was a flier about this effort to—for Gardendale to secede from the Jefferson County school system, and it listed a bunch of towns, and it said, you know, “We have a choice to make. Do we want to be these towns?”—and then it listed several other towns—”Or do we want to be these towns?” They never mentioned race, but it was clear to everyone who lived there the towns that the community did not want to be like were all heavily black, and the towns that the community did want to be like were all heavily white. And the white towns had seceded and broken their schools off from the larger system, and as a result, their schools and the towns were very white.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s called “secession”?


AMY GOODMAN: Secession.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Yes. It actually has nothing to do with the Civil War, but that is what they’re doing. It is when a community wants to split off from a larger community and run their own affairs to create basically a new form of government—in this case, a local education district.

AMY GOODMAN: How do black families in town look at this?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: In Gardendale or—

AMY GOODMAN: In Gardendale and outside of Gardendale.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right. So, part of the reason that this community wanted to secede is Jefferson County operates under a 50-year-old school desegregation order. And so, the schools that are located in Gardendale are part of this larger school system.

AMY GOODMAN: And that comes out of Brown v. Board of Education.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Exactly. It came out of—Jefferson County, a decade after Brown v. Board, had not desegregated a single school, and so, finally, was forced by the courts to implement a zoning plan to integrate the schools. So there are large numbers of black students who are bused in to Gardendale from a neighboring working-class black community and some other communities. And the people in Gardendale didn’t want those students coming into their schools anymore, so the way that they thought they could avoid that would be to break off from the school system, and then those children would no longer be a part of their children’s schools.

I mean, clearly, the people in the black community in North Smithfield objected to that. These were schools that their parents paid taxes for, as well. These were often the only chance that their children would get for an integrated education, was because of this court order. And suddenly they were being told, “These aren’t your schools anymore. You’re not welcome, and we don’t want your children here.” So they fought it.

AMY GOODMAN: And part of the fascinating aspect of your piece is the characters you profile, like U.W. Clemon. Tell us who he is.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, U.W. Clemon is like a reporter’s dream. I’m originally writing about a lawsuit and a secession, and I come across a current lawyer on the case who I find out was actually the same lawyer on that case in 1968. So, U.W. Clemon was born right outside of this area, a native Alabamian, who, because of segregation, had to go out of state to get his law degree, got his law degree at Columbia and then came home and immediately began to tackle the very system that had discriminated against him. He went on to become the first black federal judge in the history of the state of Alabama.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a guy—I mean, just the way you describe his education in these segregated schoolhouses—


AMY GOODMAN: —what he experienced. He couldn’t go to law school at the University of Alabama.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right. So, he graduates college in 1965, which is 11 years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools. And the University of Alabama, which operated the only law school in the state of Alabama, still refused to admit black students 11 years after the Supreme Court ruled this practice unconstitutional. What it did instead was it would pay black students to get their law degrees out of state. So he actually got a great deal out of it. He got to go to Columbia—clearly, he was one of the brightest students in the state. He got to go to Columbia on Alabama’s dime, graduates from Columbia—

AMY GOODMAN: So, he goes to Columbia Law School—


AMY GOODMAN: —but is not good enough for the University of Alabama.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: That’s right. So, I’d say he likely got a superior legal education, uses that, and, as soon as he graduates, comes back to Alabama and works for the Legal Defense Fund to try to force desegregation on the schools and to get for black children the constitutional rights that he had been denied.

AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, you point out in the piece, it’s not just they don’t want to educate African Americans in Alabama, but they hope—and probably it was, from their point of view, worth paying more to go to Columbia Law School, paying for him to go to Columbia—was that they feel once African Americans would leave this segregated area, they’d never want to come back.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right. I mean, so, the only reason Alabama was paying was the Supreme Court had ruled before Brown that in order to comply with the “separate but equal” doctrine, you had to provide opportunities for professional and graduate education for black students in the state. They didn’t want to do that in Alabama, because, they bet, if you are a bright student who was able to get into a college out of state and able to breathe freer air, you weren’t going to come back to Alabama, which had some of the most repressive racial laws on the books. And I think, often, that was a good bet for them to make. I think when a lot of bright black student were able to escape the South, they didn’t return. But there were students also that they didn’t account for who were like U.W. Clemon, who were very determined that they were going to get this degree and come back and take down the whole system.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain how he is doing that.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, he comes back, and immediately, his very first—one of his very first cases is the Jefferson County school desegregation case, where he goes in and argues that the Supreme Court has ruled that actual integration has to happen, that these white schools and black schools have to be eliminated. And he wins. And he actually goes—sets precedent that goes all the way to the Supreme Court, and precedent that still stands today. Again, on top of that, he becomes the first black senator—one of the first black senators in the state since Reconstruction. He becomes the first black federal judge in the history of the state.

He has changed that state in indelible ways. And I think a large part of that is because he was able to get one of the best legal educations in the country. When he went to Columbia, that is actually when he came in contact with the Legal Defense Fund, because Jack Greenberg, who was a lawyer who actually worked on the Brown v. Board of Education case, was running a clinic there. So, Alabama’s racism actually provided him the opportunity to dismantle segregation in the state. It’s kind of a beautiful story.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in your piece, Nikole, “In the mid-1960s, the Justice Department [started] suing segregated school systems, but under President [Ronald] Reagan, it began trying to close out the court orders it had once championed, often siding with school systems over civil rights groups.” So, then talk about where the Justice Department, under former Alabama Senator Jefferson Sessions—where he stood on all of this.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, what you found was, under conservative administrations, really reticence to enforce school desegregation orders, and, in fact, to try to bring them to a close, with a sense that these had gone on long enough. Now, it should be clear that there was never a moment where school systems stopped fighting desegregation. School officials didn’t want integration because white communities didn’t want integration, and they fought them all the whole way. And it was only under strong enforcement that you started to see integration.

But Jeff Sessions, though he says he was a champion of civil rights, the record speaks very differently. And that’s true of a lot of federal judges, as well, who are also very eager to end these orders. And they were helped by a Supreme Court that was conservative-leaning and began to say you didn’t actually—school systems didn’t actually have to fully desegregate, they just had to show that they tried. And if they showed that they did it to—the actual wording is—”the extent practicable,” they could be released from their desegregation orders, even if large numbers of black students never attended integrated schools.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, motivation is so hard to determine.


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it seems that really what is needed is just to look at the facts on the ground, what the results are.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right. I mean, what’s so powerful about school desegregation orders is, any segregation that you find in a district, it is assumed that it is illegal, because the reason you came under the order is for violating the constitutional rights of black children. Once a school district is released from its court order, the assumption is that the segregation is not intentional, and so plaintiffs have to prove motive. Plaintiffs in desegregation cases don’t have to prove motive. This is what makes kind of the judge’s ruling in the Gardendale case so remarkable, as not only did she find that they shouldn’t be able to secede because it was going to thwart the desegregation of Jefferson County, but she found intentional racial animus and motivation on behalf of Gardendale’s citizens in wanting to create a district so that their schools would be more white.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back in time to 1963, to Alabama’s Governor George Wallace openly embracing segregation during his inaugural address.

GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

AMY GOODMAN: Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, 1963, more than half a century ago. Where is Alabama today?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Alabama is a—it still has the second-highest number of school systems under desegregation in the country. And in those school systems, they’re kind of holding the ground. I think it’s important to point out that because of court orders, the South went from being the most segregated part of the country for black children to the most integrated part of the country. And it remains so. So, though we Northerners like to look down on the South, the South actually is far more integrated when it comes to schools than we are.

The problem is, these orders are being closed out, and school systems are resegregating. And so, a lot of the gains that were forced upon the South, we’re losing. And black students are starting to—I mean, I chronicled what happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, once its school desegregation order closed. You have a third of black students now who attend entirely all-black schools for the entire 13 years that they’re in public education. So we’ve gone backwards. And we’ve gone backwards in, I think, very, very harmful ways.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if you call them secessionists, but they are people who want their school district to secede. But I’m wondering how the secessionists responded to you, as an African-American reporter.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I could not get a single one of them to speak to me on the record—not one of the secession activists, no one on the elected school board, no one on the elected city council, not the superintendent. All of them declined to be interviewed on the record for the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we move on to talk about another piece that you wrote, about getting your daughter into a school, I wanted to ask you about the period of time—well, you spent, what, like five months researching and writing this story—that you wrote this story, the same time as Charlottesville erupted. I just played Alabama’s Governor George Wallace from 1963. We don’t have to go back that far. Just a few—a month ago, in Virginia, hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists—now, they don’t—they feel comfortable enough not to wear hoods, not to cover their identity—marched through the University of Virginia. A young woman was killed in the anti-racist rally by one of the white supremacists. Talk about your experience of writing this piece in the midst of this.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, it was interesting, because, on the one hand, all I write about is how racism still exists in this country and the many forms that it takes. And often there’s a disbelief, I think, amongst readers that the problems are still this bad, that there are still large numbers of people in this country who are motivated by race. And so, Charlottesville kind of burst that into the open. It was hard to deny, because these weren’t the way that many in the mainstream media described kind of the right and Trump supporters. These were not folks who looked like working-class people in Appalachia, right? They looked very clean-cut. They looked like someone who could be your office mate. And it was—ended up being a very violent event.

I think my concern was—which is always my concern, and I tweeted about this—is, you know, even during the civil rights movement, the White Citizens’ Councils, who were businessmen and very buttoned-up, they despised the Klan, because the Klan exposed—brought a certain type of heat and light to their much more sinister efforts to repress black rights, which they did in a very civilized way. And so I think it was very easy for people to call out Charlottesville, because that’s a type of racism anyone can reject. But the things that I write about every day are not people walking around with torches and not people running over people in crowds. They are folks who would protest at a rally like that—and then fight to keep their daughter out of a school like my daughter goes to.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to the piece you wrote a year ago, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.” We’re not talking Tuscaloosa. We’re not talking Birmingham. We’re talking about New York City.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: That’s right. So, New York City, residentially, is the third most segregated city in the country. And in terms of schools, it’s among the most segregated large school systems in the country. And so there’s a very cerebral disconnect in this community, in this city, where we call ourselves the great melting pot, but we’re not actually a melting pot. We’re a diverse city, and we’re a very segregated city.

And I had written about segregated schools since my very first reporting job back in 2003, but never as a parent. And then I found myself with my own child getting ready to start school in New York City and then having to deal with, on a very personal level, what it is like to try to make a school choice in a city that is very segregated and very unequal.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about the journey.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So I documented it. I actually never intended to write about my daughter’s school. I had been writing about school segregation. People knew this was kind of my area of expertise. And meanwhile, my husband and I decide that we’re going to enroll our daughter in one of the city’s segregated high-poverty schools, that it was important for me not to write that school segregation was wrong and that people needed to make choices for equity and justice, and then use my privilege to get my daughter into one of the city’s few higher-wealth and integrated schools. So we made the decision to enroll her in the segregated school, but didn’t know that, very quickly, our daughter’s school would become embroiled in its own integration battle.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what you mean, that it’s a segregated school.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, my daughter’s school is about 93 percent black and Latino, and it is almost entirely free and reduced lunch. Its attendance zone is drawn around a federal housing project, and my husband and I are among a small handful of black parents, middle-class parents, who attend the school from outside of the attendance zone. So, it is representative of the experience of large numbers of black and Latino students in this district, which is they are isolated in schools with almost no white or Asian students and where every student is poor. So we intentionally decided to go into a school like that.

Our school was underenrolled, and less than a mile away was a very wealthy, predominantly white school that was bursting at the seams, because in this city, as in many cities, in a segregated system, white students go—white parents put their kids in the school with all the white kids. And so the school was very full. And because of that, the New York City public school system decided to send some of those white students to my daughter’s school. And one can guess how those white parents felt about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about the controversy. What happened?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Those white parents didn’t want to send their children to this school, even though, for many of them, it was their neighborhood school. Many of them lived directly across the street from my daughter’s school. So, at this point, I was a parent, and I was attending meetings.

AMY GOODMAN: And what grade was your daughter in?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: She was just going in—she was in pre-K. So I was attending meetings where parents were—white parents whose children were being rezoned for my daughter’s school were fighting against coming to the school. They were saying many of the same things that I’ve heard in Gardendale and that I’ve heard in Southern districts about why they didn’t want to send their children into a heavily black and Latino school.

And I started to get a lot of—it became a national news story because it’s Brooklyn. And, of course, the reputation of Brooklyn is that it is a very liberal borough and has very liberal white people. And so the headlines would be something like, you know, “White Liberals Fight Integration.” It was a story that got a lot of media attention. And people were emailing me, like, “Are you going to write about what’s happening at this school?”—of course, not knowing that my daughter was in the school. So, after a while, as all journalists, I think, as writers, it becomes—you write because you feel like you have to. And so, even though I didn’t want to write a personal story, it felt impossible, knowing that I cover these issues all the time, not to write about what it was like to be right in the middle of one of these battles.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s a year since then. And where do the two schools stand?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Yeah, it’s actually—so, she was in pre-K at the time, and my daughter just started second grade. So it’s been a while. But the school—the New York City public schools did rezone large numbers of white parents to the school, and they haven’t come. I don’t know where they are, but they’re not at my daughter’s school.

AMY GOODMAN: And how is your daughter enjoying school?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: My daughter is doing great. It’s a beautiful school, and she’s excelling academically. But more than that, she learns a lot from her classmates that other parents are afraid of. And she’s doing great.

AMY GOODMAN: So what advice do you have for other parents who are choosing schools for their kids?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I think that what I always say is, the inequality in New York City and other school districts, it is structural. But it also is upheld by individual choices. In my work, I’m not even trying to convince conservatives or Trump supporters to believe in integration. I’m trying to convince progressives, who say they believe in integration, to actually live their values.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end by saying we’re in the midst of an election year here in New York City. Bill de Blasio, one of his signature programs was pre-K. You know, he set up, within a year, like what is—would be a major school system in any other city in this country, 70,000 kids or so going to pre-K. What is your assessment of where it’s gone?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I mean, I think that the research shows pre-K, particularly for low-income parents, is very, very valuable and that it is one of the things that can close the achievement gap. I think, in this city, it has been a huge missed opportunity for integration. Pre-K in the city is actually more segregated than the already very segregated public school system, K through 12. And a lot of people in the city have been very disappointed with Mayor de Blasio’s unwillingness to address and to lead on the issue of integration in schools.

AMY GOODMAN: How could he do it?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I mean, at this point, he doesn’t like to publicly speak about it. He’s not even using the bully pulpit that he has. And under a lot of pressure last year, his Department of Education—or, this year—released a so-called diversity plan, that refuses to even say the word “integration” or “segregation.” What he has typically said is that these are very old problems and not something that any one mayor can fix. But I think advocates for school integration, who understand that it is necessary for equity, think that there are lots of big problems and that that’s what you go to leadership for, is to take these issues on.

AMY GOODMAN: And how could the system be much more integrated than it is, structurally?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Yeah, I mean, I think that there are a couple things that really drive it. One is housing segregation. Particularly elementary school children are mostly zoned to neighborhood schools, and we are a very segregated city. So, that’s a little harder to address. But we have a city that from sixth through 12th grade is all choice, which means no student is zoned to a particular school. But the best schools all require applications. They require entry exams. And so that leads to a great deal of segregation. I think if this city really was serious about integration, it would implement a zoning plan that would draw from segregated communities and take away a lot of the choice that allows white parents to get their kids into the most advantaged schools.

AMY GOODMAN: How does gentrification affect the segregated schools of New York?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: It doesn’t really. Gentrification could actually benefit school integration, because, of course, you have white people moving into formerly all-black neighborhoods. The problem is just like my daughter’s school. So, my daughter’s school is located in the DUMBO, Vinegar Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, which is heavily gentrifying, but those parents are not enrolling their children in my daughter’s school. And I think you find that—

AMY GOODMAN: And her school is named, is called?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: It’s P.S. 307. And so, even when we have neighborhoods that are gentrifying, white parents are choosing not to enroll their kids in their neighborhood schools. And we don’t have leadership, so you don’t have the mayor or Carmen Fariña, who is over the Department of Education, who are saying, “We’re going to try to capture those parents to go into these schools.” So, it is a tremendous missed opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Nikole Hannah-Jones, award-winning reporter at The New York Times Magazine. We will link to both of her pieces, on “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” and also the story about her daughter and enrolling her daughter in school, which won a National Magazine Award this year. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

To see Part 1 of the conversation, go to democracynow.org.

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