Nikole Hannah-Jones Discusses Busing and Desegregation

Walter Isaacson speaks to award-winning journalist for The New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah-Jones, about the complex history of desegregation busing and the benefits of integration in schools.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Recall the first debate when Senator Kamala Harris broke out with the conversation around bussing and school desegregation. Well, now we take a moment to delve into that complex history with Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning journalist for the “New York Times Magazine”. She has entered the nuances of racial injustice and efforts to counter it with our Walter Isaacson.

WALTER ISAACSON, CONTRIBUTOR: Nikole, thank you for being with us. Tell me, we’ve become more segregated in our public school system in America than we were 30 years ago. How did that happen?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: Well, a couple of different things happened. After Brown v. Board of Education, about 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the federal government got pretty serious, finally, about enforcing the mandate of Brown. And you saw a great deal of desegregation occurring in the south largely because federal courts were ordering the desegregation to happen. You didn’t see a great deal desegregation happening in the north. But what begins in about the 1980s is federal courts begin to close out those court orders in the south that were requiring districts to do things to integrate kids. And once those orders got closed out, school districts started to implement policies that have led to re-segregation.

ISAACSON: But one of the things I notice is that the north didn’t get under those orders then they started fighting the federal push to desegregate schools. And northerners joined with southern segregationists in fighting this, right?

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. So the north could pretend to be racially egalitarian as long as courts were not ordering northern communities to integrate. But as soon as courts started saying actually you have to integrate your schools, too, then you saw really the same type of resistance occurring in the north that you saw in the south. And white community fought these desegregation orders, school board fought the implementation of the desegregation orders and you saw a pretty large rebellion. And Richard Nixon, of course, runs on understanding the common cause between white people in the north and white people in the south was that they didn’t want to integrate their schools in neighborhoods. So he implements what is called the southern strategy. And he unites those voters, both north and south, around the issue of integration or opposition integration and he wins.

ISAACSON: One of the real battlegrounds, surprising to me, when I was growing up on desegregation and on bussing was Boston. What happened there?

HANNAH-JONES: What happened in Boston is a federal judge, Judge Garrity, after being presented with the evidence, determined that the segregation that black children were experiencing in Boston was also (INAUDIBLE), that it was a matter of public policy and official policy. And the order to bussing program and the resistance there is kind of stuck I think in the national fight. It was a place where desegregation was very violently resisted. Part of what people critique with that is that the bussing program was largely leaving affluent white communities intact and it was forcing really the more poor and working-class white communities to desegregate with the black communities. And so it was a lot of resistance because it was a sense that, you know, liberal, wealthy white people who weren’t going to have to deal with the issue of desegregation were forcing this upon the white communities that didn’t want it. Whether that’s fair or not, I’ll leave that to history. But I think when we ask why, the truth is, desegregation in Boston was very carefully and intentionally created. White Americans in Boston largely did not want to live in integrated neighborhoods or send their kids to integrated schools. And so when the law came and said that you had to, they resisted it.

ISAACSON: What are the two most segregated school systems in America today?

HANNAH-JONES: I mean all of the most segregated schools is almost in the north.

ISAACSON: New York and Chicago.

HANNAH-JONES: New York and Chicago, Detroit, and you can kind of go down the list. The two most segregated states, New York is the most segregated state for black children and California is the most segregated state for Latino children. So it really kinds of exposes that myth that race is a problem of the south when race is really a national issue.

ISAACSON: Bussing worked in say Charlotte, North Carolina and that was big bussing case. And that became a very integrated school district for a while.


ISAACSON: Right. And then what happens?

HANNAH-JONES: Judges in the south are ordering desegregation. And there’s a realization that because our neighborhoods are also so segregated, it becomes very difficult to implement integration unless you actually provide transportation to bus black kids into white neighborhoods and white kids into black neighborhoods. And lower court judge orders this in Charlotte. Actually, the county — it was a county-wide school district called Mecklenburg and it goes all the way to the Supreme Court. So the first time the Supreme Court takes up bussing as a tool of desegregation is in 1971 and the court upholds bussing as a way to integrate schools. Only three years later, the Supreme Court will strike down bussing in a northern case that comes out of Detroit where a judge tried to deal with the fact that northern cities have lost white population to white suburbs, orders bussing across school district lines from the City of Detroit to the suburbs. And the Supreme Court says that’s too far and it strikes it down. Of course, it’s a different Supreme Court by that time. Between ’71 and ’74, Richard Nixon appoints four conservative justices which is kind of a remarkable number. And those he justices decided to start turning back school desegregation.

ISAACSON: And does that knock out the bussing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg too?

HANNAH-JONES: No. So Charlotte’s bussing was within one school district. The way that the — the difference largely between how school districts are ordered in the north and the south, the south because it was much more agrarian, it tended to have one big county-wide school district. So any time a judge would order a desegregation order down south, it would kind of naturally would be a metropolitan order. Because it was a county district, it would touch the city, the suburbs, and the rural areas. In the north, you tended to have much more highly fractured school districts. So within a single county, you may have 10, 20 different school districts. And so that — the Detroit ruling only dealt with bussing across school district lines. But I think when the court struck down bussing across district lines, what it failed to acknowledge is that all of these suburbs, these white suburbs that were in Detroit had barred black people from moving into the suburbs and that is why they were white. And I think the court just failed to acknowledge that.

ISAACSON: Was one of the unintended consequences or perhaps even —

HANNAH-JONES: Right, intended.

ISAACSON: — that bussing and desegregation when enforced that way encouraged whites to move out of the inner-cities and move to suburbs where they had separate school districts?

HANNAH-JONES: So I think that’s certainly the myth around bussing which you hear all the time, is that bussing caused white flight. But when you look at what was happening in urban areas with large black populations all across the country, they were all experiencing white flight before bussing was ever ordered. Now I certainly think that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Detroit case, which said you can maintain segregation as long as you just move across the invisible municipal line into a white community, that certainly accelerated white flight. Because it became very clear to white people that if you want to avoid integration, just move from Detroit to a gross point and you can maintain your all-white schools. So you did see an acceleration following that ruling. But it wasn’t — I mean I think we’ve gotten really caught up in blaming bussing but really it was desegregation. So bussing was just the tool but the orders were that schools had to integrate. And that’s really what white resistance was to, was to integrating schools.

ISAACSON: Were you bussed as a child?

HANNAH-JONES: I was. Though as a child, I didn’t realize I was being bussed. So I’m from the Midwest and I started being bussed in second grade. It was a voluntary bussing program where black families on the black side of town could opt-in to have their kids bussed for desegregation. So from 2nd grade to 12th grade, I rode the bus for about two hours every day, one hour each way to go to an all-white school.

ISAACSON: And that was in?

HANNAH-JONES: Waterloo, Iowa.

ISAACSON: And did it work, do you think?

HANNAH-JONES: Yes, I think it definitely worked for me. I got access to the best public schools that my town had to offer versus the segregated low performing schools that served my neighborhood. So I think that’s really when we think about what desegregation was attempting to do, it was trying to break up these cast schools where we were segregating black children and then depriving those kids of resources. It wasn’t easy. I don’t think most kids or most families if they have a choice, want to leave their neighborhoods and go to another neighborhood to attend school, ride a bus for a long time. But it certainly was better than the alternative, which was not getting an adequate education.

ISAACSON: So when you watch the debate between Kamala Harris and the Vice President Joe Biden —


SEN. KAMALA HARRIS, 2020 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It’s not only that but you also work with them to oppose bussing.


ISAACSON: — on bussing. And people say bussing didn’t work. What is your answer?

HANNAH-JONES: I think if you’re going to believe that bussing didn’t work, or desegregation, I think we use bussing to avoid talking about integration, you have to ignore the entire region itself. So the south in 1964 still almost complete apartheid when it comes to education, only two percent of black kids were attending desegregated schools 10 years after Brown v. Board. And once you started seeing the federal government get serious about enforcement and desegregation orders being enforced and bussing programs being implemented, the south within seven years went from the most segregated region of the country to the most integrated. And to this day, the south remains the most integrated region of the country because of bussing and because of court orders. So that certainly would be considered a success story to take a region from apartheid to the most integrated in a very short period of time. We say that the bussing failed outside of the south because we saw communities losing a lot of white population. Most northern cities never really underwent real integration. But that’s not a failure of bussing. That’s really a failure of us as Americans who resisted desegregation, who used every tool we could to ensure that desegregation would not reach most communities. And yes, outside of the south, desegregation hasn’t been successful mostly but because we never gave it a chance to be successful.

ISAACSON: Ever since Kenneth Clarke wrote about the need for immigration, he talked about how the outcomes for black students, if they got to be in school with whites, would be better. And likewise, in your life, you saw that. You went to a desegregated school and your outcome turned out to be better. You even talk about how you and your husband are able to enter into a room and have great conversation because you went to integrated schools. Give me specific examples about why the outcomes from integrated schools are better.

HANNAH-JONES: Sure. So we have a lot of data on this now. And school desegregation had two impacts. One, the only thing that ever worked to narrow the achievement gap on scale. So mostly our American viewers will have seen a host of school reforms. All of them that were supposed to close the achievement gap and none of them have. Desegregation actually worked the best but also desegregation changed kind of the trajectories of black students lives who got access to desegregated schools. It changed them in the ways that really mattered which aren’t test scores. No one cares at our age what your test scores were in third grade. But what it was able to do was those kids actually transformed their lives. They were able much less likely to live in poverty. They were more likely to go to college. They were less likely to go to jail. They were even healthier. They live longer. Almost across everything that you could measure, desegregation had the effect that Kenneth Clarke he said it would which was that it broke apart racial casts for those kids. It allowed them to transcend their circumstances. And the reason that that’s true is not that there’s something about white children that makes black kids smart if they get to sit next to them. But we’ve always intertwined race with resources in this country. So you can look at the data being collected by the Department of Education today and the whiter the school, the better quality teachers it has. The better quality instruction it has. It has more advanced classes. It’s more likely to offer Physics. It’s more likely to offer Algebra, better technology. Race still drives so much of the way that we a lot our educational resources. And what getting black and white kids in the classroom did was it, for the first time, allowed black kids to get the same resources that white children get.

ISAACSON: You grew up and you went to an integrated school as an African- American. Your husband also, I think, partly because it was military schools African-American but went to integrated schools. What are you doing with your daughter now that you live in Brooklyn?

HANNAH-JONES: So I’ve been writing about school segregation for a very long time. I’ve spent a lot of time in segregated schools and I’ve also spent a lot of time around people who advocate on behalf of black children in segregated schools but who would never send their own kids to schools like that. So when my husband and I moved to New York City, one of the first things I was thinking about is what am I going to do with my own child when she becomes school age in one of the most segregated and unequal school districts in the country? And ultimately, my husband and I decided that we were going to enroll her in one of those segregated high poverty schools that I write about. That morally one cannot say that those children deserve the same education as your child, but then you seek to remove your child from those children. So we made a conscious decision that we were going to not be another one of those families that abandoned those children but that we were going to put our child in that school and invest in that school.

ISAACSON: So the school that your daughter went to and is going to was predominantly African-American?

HANNAH-JONES: Yes. So the school is more than 90 percent black and Latino. And more than 90 percent free and reduced lunch which is an indicator of poverty.

ISAACSON: It’s a very difficult, it would seem, personal thing to say, on the one hand, I want what is best for my child. And on the other hand, I’m committed to social justice and don’t want to leave other people behind.


ISAACSON: How is that — I mean that must be a tough wrestling you have to do?

HANNAH-JONES: I think, you know, that’s why this issue is so hard for so many parents. Because they have their state of value but you also don’t want to feel like you’re doing wrong by your child. I think that’s why the issue of school desegregation, in particular, is so challenging. I think what I’m trying to get parents to do is rethink about what we think is best for our child. And to think of our children as part of a larger community and not just feeling that we are to fight for our own kids’ advantage because you can’t say you want equality and advantage at the same time. So when I think of my daughter, I don’t feel like the role of her public education is just so she can get really good grades, go to Harvard, and make a lot of money one day. I think the role of public education is to teach my daughter to be a good citizen in this country and to think about other people in the things that she does. And in that way, I know that she’s getting a great education in our schools. She’s also not ever going to have to give up the academic parts because I can pay for tutoring. I can do whatever it is that she needs. But I think the argument that I’m really trying to make is understanding that if we want all kids to have access to the same things, we have to tie our fates together. This is what desegregation understood. This is Brown v. Board understood. As long as I don’t have to worry about what is happening over in that school, then I don’t. But if my child is in that school, then I’m going to be certain that certain things happen. And I can tell you, having a “New York Times” reporter in a school changes what happens in that school. I bring a certain power to that school that the parents who live in (INAUDIBLE) housing project across the street never can. That’s really what integration is about, it’s sharing that power and not just hoarding all those resources for ourselves. And by the way, those who are hoarding the resources already have an ordinary amount of them. They already can provide every single thing for their child. I think it is immoral to then try to take the best public schools, as well.

ISAACSON: How would you make the argument to a white family to say your kid will benefit more if it’s in a fully integrated school?

HANNAH-JONES: I mean there’s a couple of things. One, not all the research shows that white children do not suffer academically for being inintegrated schools. That’s the most common excuse that white parents give about why they can’t do it, is they think it would be bad for the children academically. There’s no evidence whatsoever that says that. The evidence says the opposite. But the other thing is we live in a country that is rapidly changing, that is getting more brown and more black. And in order for you to be able to go out into the world and deal with your fellow citizens, you can’t live in an isolated bubble. That is not reflective of the real world. What the research shows is that white kids in those integrated schools, they become better thinkers. They — you can imagine having in a news meeting, right, when everyone is sitting around, telling — coming up with story ideas, when you have people from different backgrounds, you get different story ideas. You have to sharpen your thinking because you just don’t have everyone who is confirming what you think because their experience is the same as yours. So it actually helps those students to become better students and better thinkers. But also what the research shows is they’re less prejudice themselves, that they’re more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods themselves. Because while integrated schools break down racial cast for black children, they also break down the sense of superiority and isolation that white children have. And they really start to be able — to see people who are different than them as not being so different after all. And I think in a country like this, that’s a very positive thing.

ISAACSON: Nikole, thank you for being with us.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you so much.

ISAACSON: I appreciate it. Good to see you.

HANNAH-JONES: I appreciate it. Thank you.


About This Episode EXPAND

Robert Blecker and Ruth Friedman join Christiane Amanpour to outline both sides of the death penalty debate. Gideon Raff and Daniel (identity masked) join the program to discuss the film “The Red Sea Diving Resort.” Walter Isaacson speaks to award-winning journalist for The New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah-Jones, about busing and desegregation.