This summer journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones shocked Americans when she decided to decline tenure at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill in favor of an endowed chair at historically Black Howard University. The choice is unexpected because Ms Hannah-Jones, who identifies as Black, has spent her career arguing for school integration as an essential strategy to equalize educational opportunities for students of color.
Ms Hannah-Jones writes, “Since the second grade when I began being bused into white schools, I have been fighting against people who did not think a Black girl like me belonged, people who tried to control what I did, how I spoke how I looked, the work I produced.”
But now, after the Board of Trustees at UNC attempted to block her tenure appointment for political reasons, Ms Hannah-Jones has accepted a position at one of the nation’s leading historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Ms. Hannah-Jones explains, “For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.”
Many Americans wonder: is it hypocritical for a Black integrationist to leave a predominantly white university to work at an historically Black one?
An historical perspective helps shed light on this important question. I have traced debates within northern Black communities over the question of which would better serve the larger civil rights movement, racially integrated schools or separate, Black-controlled ones. These debates stretch back to the nation’s earliest, tax-supported schools in Boston in the 1840s and forward to the present day.
School integration seeks to break down the sinister effects of residential segregation created by decades of redlining, housing discrimination, white flight, gentrification, and discriminatory zoning by deliberately engineering diverse schools, typically by busing students out of their racially homogenous neighborhoods. Separation requires these very plans to be dismantled so that Black parents can have control over local, majority Black schools in their immediate neighborhoods. Although it is not impossible, it is challenging to pursue both strategies at the same time.
To date, neither has been entirely successful, yet both ideals—integration and separation—reappear with each new generation of students, parents, educators, and leaders who insist that quality public schools will improve Black students’ life chances, empower Black communities, and begin to redress larger racial inequalities in American society.
For this reason, historians are not surprised by Ms Hannah-Jones’ decision to abandon a majority white university for an historically Black one. The logic at the heart of this dilemma echoes back across the generations, including her frustration with high levels of racial discrimination at a predominantly white school and her powerful belief that a separate, Black-controlled one offers a more nurturing and supportive environment in which to succeed so that she can do more to advance the larger Black freedom struggle.
A meticulous historical analysis of school board records, court cases, the Black press, and civil rights organizations shows that either school integration or separation dominated the political discourse of northern Black educational activists in the US during particular historical eras. For example, school integration dominated between 1840 and 1900, but separation was more pronounced between 1900 and 1940, at which point school integration rose to prominence again alongside the wartime Black civil rights movement, before being subsumed by the Black Power movement in 1966. By 1975, African Americans remained committed to school integration as a strategy, but they modified this approach to include many of the features we associate with separate schools such as a critical mass of Black students, more Black teachers and administrators, and a curriculum and pedagogy that reflected Black students’ lived experiences.
During each historical era where either integration or separation dominated, a chorus of dissent, debate, and counter-narratives pushed Black communities to consider a fuller range of educational reform. This dynamic tension did not undermine Black educational activism, but made it smarter, more flexible, and more effective. The major improvements to racial equality in US public schools come from the important work of school integrationists and the vital work of those who advocated separate, Black-controlled schools.
In other words, the debate over school integration versus separation has a long and venerable tradition in African American communities, and because Americans have failed to equalize schools by 2021, this debate is still very much with us.
While the Black civil rights movement achieved so many righteous victories, it also suffered terrible defeats. The failure to equalize public education for Black students is among the most troubling of these losses. American public schools are becoming more segregated by race and socioeconomic class each year, which correlates directly with unequal educational opportunities and outcomes. Many of the nation’s most segregated schools today can be found not in the South, but in the supposedly progressive North.
Unlike public transportation, parks, restaurants, movie theaters, and even hospitals, which were successfully desegregated, schools are intended to offer a route out of poverty and serve as an equalizing mechanism in a deeply unequal social order. In the United States, access to a quality public school provides every child, no matter the status of his or her birth, with a shot at achieving the American Dream. Thus, equalizing access to public education represents one of the most pressing, unfinished agendas of the Black civil rights movement and a crucial site of analysis for historians.
School integration can help equalize educational opportunity and advance the civic function of public education in a democracy. But it is not a simple undertaking, and Black educational activists have long disagreed over whether integration is the best strategy to achieve a structural vision of educational equality and redistributive justice. Meaningful school integration requires a frank reckoning with how institutionalized racism has long discriminated against Black students and parents in ways that harm Black students and create vastly unequal educational opportunities.
Mixing Black and white students inside of formerly white schools is not a viable model for effective school integration. Generations of Black educational activists have supported separate schools as institutions that nurture the intellectual and emotional growth of Black youth while empowering Black communities. The argument for separate schools has always contained within it a vital critique of majority white schools as hegemonic institutions that fail to meet the needs of Black students and, consequently, fail to meet the larger purpose of public education in a democracy.
Ms Hannah-Jones’ decision to support school integration while working at an historically Black one is not hypocritical, but smart and reasonable given that she faced overt racial hostility and discrimination at the UNC. She used the opportunity to call for specific reforms that would make predominantly white universities like UNC truly welcoming places for scholars of color.
It’s not Ms Hannah-Jones’ responsibility to fix the systemic racism her very existence uncovered at the University of North Carolina. As she puts it, “The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.”
As she should. History shows us that for school integration to work well it must be more than not racist, it must be explicitly anti-racist.
If we want to make all schools welcoming places for people of color, we should take note of the features that work so well in separate, Black-controlled schools, including hiring and retaining more faculty and administrators of color, reforming hiring and promotion processes like tenure, affirming diverse Black histories and cultures, and treating Black faculty and students with dignity and respect. These are the very reforms Ms Hannah-Jones asks for at UNC. It remains to be seen whether predominantly white institutions like UNC will listen.
Featured image by Neonbrand via Unsplash