Sometimes listening Nikole Hannah-Jones is kind of like going to church for me. Sometimes I need to hear things I already know spoken about with her passion and straightforwardness. Sometimes I learn things, broaden my perceptions. Never do I regret the time spent listening. Here’s a video interview from last week well worth an hour of time. (And if you’ve not yet read her NYT article on the choice she made for her daughter, please check it out).
Beyond the problems of funding equity, beyond test scores and achievement gaps, beyond the ways we often talk about schools and segregation, NHJ speaks in terms of citizenship. Brown v. Board of Education, she says, was really about “undoing caste.”
“We have lost sight of that, clearly. I think we don’t talk about public education in that way. We talk about public education in terms of… how are test scores at a school, what’s the curriculum. … Not that they aren’t important, but… we have come to think that if we just can test these schools to death, that we can maintain segregated high poverty schools and as long as we are implementing some kind of accountability measures, that it’s okay. But that doesn’t actually deal with the fundamental issue, which is that the separation of marginalized minorities deprives them of the ability to be full citizens.”
And then, “we’re fundamentally a racist country. That is what has allowed us, for the last 30 years, to stop talking about integration as a necessity at all, and instead to sustain segregated schools and pretend as if we can make them equal.”
Now, this is not uncontroversial. Many folks fighting the good fight for educational equity would surely agree that we are operating within a racist, white supremacist system. However, the fix, many argue, is not integration but, rather, more and equitable resources. Schools serving majority-minority kids, schools serving high-poverty kids do not get the same anything that privilege-segregated schools receive. Inequity then, and not “integrating with white/privileged kids,” should be the priority.
While I deeply appreciate this view and support the rallying cry for equity, this isn’t an either/or fight. Indeed, my white kid is not the solution. My white kid is nobody’s equitable education, benefit, or – God forbid – savior. Not at all.
Integration is not about the white/privileged kids showing up in majority-minority schools – it’s about tying all of our children’s fates together. Integration is about being ‘in community’ in our most public of public institutions. It’s about building a society that cherishes and invests in all children. It is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to build such a world if we aren’t willing to truly live in it.
And to do this, we need to call on the people who have long worked to their own advantage. We wholeheartedly agree with NHJ’s unequivocal statement that it is “white people’s job to fix segregation.” We white folks created this system, it is our responsibility to right it. And that will involve giving up some educational opportunity hoarding.
And that cannot happen without truly being a part of a larger community of families of color and families across the socioeconomic spectrum. Again, the work is about learning to be ‘in community’ in real and humble (and yes, sometimes uncomfortable) ways. While it is our work to initiate, our work to opt in, it must ultimately be the work of partnership and deep listening. It must be based in the conviction that all children are equal to our own, deserving of the same respect and opportunities and care. It must also be grounded in the belief in the equality and value of all parents. It requires an openness – indeed, commitment – to challenging our implicit biases and decentering whiteness.
“Inequality happens,” NHJ says, “with every decision parents make.” From the decisions about where to send our kids to school to decisions made within a school community, there is much work to.
If you’d like another reason integration matters, listen at minute 42 of this interview when NHJ tells an incredibly moving story about her daughter (I don’t want to weaken the beauty of this with a summary). As I was weeping through its telling, I could only think about what the world could be if there were more acts like this.
There is so much in this interview that bears hearing. I hope you have the time to listen.