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Nikole Hannah-Jones keynotes inaugural ‘Color of Education’ summit

Tuesday night, hundreds of educators, policymakers, students, and philanthropists gathered at Duke University for the inaugural Color of Education summit — “An evening with Nikole Hannah-Jones.” 

Using the lens of history, anecdotes from her own reporting, and a discussion of her decision to send her own child to a majority-minority school, Hannah-Jones made the case for school integration as the only way to close the racial achievement gap and provide equal opportunity to students of color. Between candid remarks and periods of silence, Hannah-Jones allowed the audience to feel the full weight of her message: We should be ashamed, but we have the power to do something about it.

Color of Education, cosponsored by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, Duke Policy Bridge, and the Cook Center on Social Equity, is a statewide convening on race and education in North Carolina that will evolve into a day-long summit of workshops and conversations in 2019 and beyond.

Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum, opened the event by explaining that the idea for the Color of Education summit was born after the Forum completed a study on the barriers that North Carolina students face in receiving a quality and equitable education.

“Our work with the study group marked the first time when our organization drilled in on the issue of race and bias and how black and brown students in North Carolina are treated differently, and how their educational experiences are different, yielding — not surprisingly — different outcomes from their peers,” said Poston. 

“My personal experience is … when your eyes have been opened, you can’t unsee it,” said Poston. And when Hannah-Jones took to the stage to deliver her keynote address, titled “The Problem We All Live With,” her visuals — timelines documenting slavery to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, historic photographs of violent white protests against desegregation, and school resegregation statistics — showed the audience an account of how racism is “in the fiber of our country.”

Keith Poston addresses the audience at the inaugural Color of Education event held at Duke University. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

“From the beginning, we’ve always had two systems of education – one for democracy, which we have largely reserved for white children, and one of oppression, which we have largely reserved for children of color,” said Hannah-Jones.

“If you study history, you will understand our schools are not broken – our schools are operating exactly as they were designed. From the founding of common schools in this country, it was never intended for black children to get the same education as white children. It requires an undoing of the entire way we structure education and equality.”

She discussed the landmark case in 1954 where the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment and therefore unconstitutional. Hannah-Jones described it as a radical ruling that caused widespread insurgence among southern states. Because, she said, this ruling meant that “the southern white way of life can’t stand. If segregation was unconstitutional in schools, it would also be in every other aspect of American life.”

Hannah-Jones wove timelines about America’s history into her address, beginning with the first Europeans to colonize Jamestown. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Hannah-Jones also explained how the ruling was strongly resisted. She shared a picture of Ruby Bridges, the first black student to desegregate an all-white school in Louisiana, surrounded by guards for her protection. In other cases, she said, the National Guard was called to escort black children safely to schools. Another slide showed a photo of a young white girl holding a sign that read: “We want to keep our school white.” 

“I think we forget how violently school integration was resisted,” Hannah-Jones said, providing the example of how whites in Tennessee bombed Clinton High School in protest of desegregation in 1958.

This resistance meant that a decade later, just one percent of students of black children in the south attended an integrated school. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act promoted the first serious enforcement of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, leading schools to actually integrate.

Using graphics of the academic achievement gap based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores over the last few decades, Hannah-Jones demonstrated that the smallest gap between white and black students occurred at the height of school integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

She pointed at school integration as the one thing that “works” on scale to close the racial achievement gap, but noted that it is always “off the table.” According to Hannah-Jones, schools were resegregated by 1988 and have become even more so, especially in recent years. She pointed to Charlotte as an example of one of the most rapidly resegregating cities, which is significant because the South has been the most integrated part of the country for the past 45 years.

“If we lose the South, we lose the country,” said Hannah-Jones, who is no stranger to the South. She received her Master’s in Mass Communications from UNC-Chapel Hill and and began her reporting career covering Durham Public Schools for the News & Observer. 

According to Hannah-Jones, just 80 percent of students in North Carolina attend a public school, whereas nationally that number is 90 percent. “If you truly believe in the idea of public school, then the idea is that we are all in this together,” she said, explaining how the issue of education has moved from a mindset of a public good to an individual good — one where many parents only consider, “What is my child going to get?” and therefore allowing those who have been advantaged for generations to continue receiving the most resources.

“What do you give up so that those who have not had access to those things get access to those things? Equality means those who have had unearned advantage have to give some of that up,” said Hannah-Jones.

“If they’re not good enough for our own kids, whose children are they good enough for?” said Hannah-Jones, discussing her own decision to send her daughter to a majority-minority school in New York City. “Inequality is structural, but it is also upheld by our individual choices about what we do about our own kids.”

To illustrate her message through an anecdote, Hannah-Jones shared the story of D’Leisha Dent, a student at a 99 percent black high school in Tuscaloosa. Despite being a high-achieving student at her school, when it came time to take the ACT, D’Leisha couldn’t score above a 16. Her dream to attend the University of Alabama, located just a few blocks away, was crushed.

“She learned you can do everything this country tells you to do, everything right, and people who don’t believe that black children deserve the same education will deprive you of the ability to change your life,” said Hannah-Jones.

Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Ending with a call to action, she asked: How long are we going to be talking about this? When will we actually decide that all of our children are worthy of the things we demand for our own children?

“One thing that I appreciate about Nikole is that she’s willing to confront hard truths and put very uncomfortable questions out there for people to grapple with. The audience has to do the work from there,” said Gina Chirichigno, an attendee from the National Coalition on School Diversity — an organization that has been doing policy and advocacy work related to school integration since 2009. 

Another attendee, Loneke Blackman Carr of the Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, said what stuck with her the most from the keynote is that often when discussing issues of equity that affect communities of color, the onus is placed on those communities to do the work.

“I think what resonated here is that the onus is on all of us, but specifically talking about white people who live here in America and enjoy the benefits of a system that is inequitable but mostly advantageous to them,” Blackman Carr said. “Those who are benefiting the most need to be a strong part of the change.”

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.