Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer who is defining the landscape of education journalism, has written a landmark story at the New York Times magazine on school segregation in New York City.

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The subject of school choice—with its underlying and deeply uncomfortable fact that many people believe in educational equality theoretically but, in practice, increase inequality in the public school system in the interest of securing advantages for their own kids—is prickly, fraught, and essentially universal. We’re all a product of the schooling choices our parents made; our ideas about ethical education often diverge from those choices. (My immigrant parents sent me to private school, a decision that gave me social and educational advantages that effectively ensured that, by the time I have children, I will think of my position and their education in a very different way.)

This two-generation pattern—striving parents, who could only look upwards, removing their children from the segregated public education system; those children in turn acquiring the capital necessary to look at their own kids’ education not as a matter of urgent class-jumping but of choice—is at work in this story, too. Hannah-Jones started school in a low-income district in Waterloo, Iowa, and in 1982, her parents enrolled her in a voluntary desegregation program, “which allowed some black kids to leave their neighborhood schools for whiter, more well off ones on the west side of town.” Hannah-Jones’s husband attended army schools. She writes:

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Integration was transformative for my husband and me. Yet the idea of placing our daughter in one of the small number of integrated schools troubled me. These schools are disproportionately white and serve the middle and upper middle classes, with a smattering of poor black and Latino students to create “diversity.”

School segregation is Hannah-Jones’s beat; it’s everywhere. But it’s particularly striking in NYC, where “85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attend[] ‘intensely’ segregated schools — schools that are less than 10 percent white.”

In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes those schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many. This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children.

And so, as Hannah-Jones’s daughter reached school age, she began to feel that “getting Najya into one of the disproportionately white schools in the city felt like accepting the inevitability of this two-tiered system: one set of schools with excellent resources for white kids and some black and Latino middle-class kids, a second set of underresourced schools for the rest of the city’s black and Latino kids.” She told her husband she wanted to send her daughter to a segregated, low-income school. She writes:

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Saying my child deserved access to “good” public schools felt like implying that children in “bad” schools deserved the schools they got, too. I understood that so much of school segregation is structural — a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.

One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change. Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrate it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically. As a reporter, I’d witnessed how the presence of even a handful of middle-class families made it less likely that a school would be neglected. I also knew that we would be able to make up for Najya anything the school was lacking.

At first, she and her husband disagree. “There is nothing harder than navigating our nation’s racial legacy in this country, and the problem was that we each knew the other was right and wrong at the same time,” she writes. So they decide to visit neighborhood schools together—they live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn—as well as a school that’s further off, P.S. 307, which serves Vinegar Hill, the Farragut Houses, and Brooklyn Heights.

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The resulting journey accommodates a broad and clear treatment of the history of the desegregation (and resegregation) movement, the paralyzing history of housing discrimination behind it, as well as the particulars of the ongoing local conflict around P.S. 307—where Hannah-Jones’s daughter eventually enrolls—and its whiter neighbor, P.S. 8. It’s an expansive, personal, and remarkably open treatment of an issue that was once a priority at the highest levels of the government but has been shrunk and convoluted by both liberals and conservatives to seem now like a pipe dream. (It’s a problem being actively explored among older NYC school kids right now as well.) “Legally and culturally, we’ve come to accept segregation once again,” Hannah-Jones writes, specifically exploring the social shift from using the word “integration” to using the word “diversity.” And yet “segregation and integration, at their core, are about power and who gets access to it.”

You should certainly read the whole story here.


Image via AP.