Memphis is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about school segregation, a nationally renowned journalist said while visiting the city this week.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about race and school segregation for the New York Times Magazine, was in Memphis as part of a speaker series sponsored by Center for Southern Literary Arts, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and MLK50: Justice in Journalism.
Her award-winning piece, the “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” was a deeply reported article on how racially motivated school district secessions are contributing to school segregation in Alabama.
In her talk, Hannah-Jones compared what happened in her article with what happened in Memphis in 2014, when six mostly white municipal districts broke away from the large, predominantly black Shelby County Schools.
Listen to part of Hannah-Jones’s story:
“The resegregation in Jefferson County is exactly what’s happened here,” Hannah-Jones said.
“It’s white communities breaking off from school districts,” she said. “They can wipe their hands of it and say it’s not about race, we just want districts to represent my community. It is about race.”
Hannah-Jones said resegregation is a trend recently documented by national researchers — both in the relatively new trend of district secessions and in white Americans moving into communities of color but refusing to send their children to neighborhood schools.
Schools were segregated in Tennessee during the first part of the 20th century. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, school districts in Tennessee slowly began to integrate and then stalled. Now, researchers and journalists say segregation is getting worse.
“As the south resegregates, we’re losing the only gains we’ve made,” Hannah-Jones said. “We want to pretend that our decisions aren’t impacting other kids, but they are … You cannot say you believe in equality and seek to advantage your child every step of the way. ”
Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016 about choosing a school in New York City for her own daughter. She eventually settled on a neighborhood school — one that is majority black and poor. She challenged Memphians, in particular white, middle-class Memphians, to think more equitably about where they send their own children to school.
“White children aren’t hurt at all by going to these schools — their test scores don’t go down,” she said, a statement backed by research. “But look in Detroit, inner-city Memphis, Chicago. No one is coming.”
“The piece I did about my daughter, the reason it had such an impact is that I was honest. It wasn’t an easy choice when I had my own child. Morals and values in abstract are great, but reality is more difficult.”
She began the Tuesday night event with a story about a student she grew close to — and whose story embodies some of the issues of segregation — before participating in a panel with MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas and Tami Sawyer, a Teach for America director and local activist.
Hannah-Jones said she’s now working on a book about Detroit — specifically looking at how poverty makes educating children “impossible.” (To learn more about schools in Detroit, go here.)