Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City
How one school became a battleground over which children benefit from a separate and unequal system.
By Nikole Hannah-Jones
June 9, 2016
n the spring of 2014, when our daughter, Najya, was turning 4, my husband and I found ourselves facing our toughest decision
since becoming parents. We live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a low-income, heavily black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of
brownstones in central Brooklyn. The nearby public schools are named after people intended to evoke black uplift, like Marcus
Garvey, a prominent black nationalist in the 1920s, and Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month, but the schools are a
disturbing reﬂection of New York City’s stark racial and socioeconomic divisions. In one of the most diverse cities in the world, the
children who attend these schools learn in classrooms where all of their classmates — and I mean, in most cases, every single one — are
black and Latino, and nearly every student is poor. Not surprisingly, the test scores of most of Bed-Stuy’s schools reﬂect the
marginalization of their students.
I didn’t know any of our middle-class neighbors, black or white, who sent their children to one of these schools. They had managed to
secure seats in the more diverse and economically advantaged magnet schools or gifted-and-talented programs outside our area, or opted
to pay hefty tuition to progressive but largely white private institutions. I knew this because from the moment we arrived in New York
with our 1-year-old, we had many conversations about where we would, should and deﬁnitely should not send our daughter to school
when the time came.
My husband, Faraji, and I wanted to send our daughter to public school. Faraji, the oldest child in a military family, went to public schools
that served Army bases both in America and abroad. As a result, he had a highly unusual experience for a black American child: He
never attended a segregated public school a day of his life. He can now walk into any room and instantly start a conversation with the
people there, whether they are young mothers gathered at a housing-project tenants’ meeting or executives eating from small plates at a
ritzy cocktail reception.
I grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, on the wrong side of the river that divided white from black, opportunity from struggle, and started my
education in a low-income school that my mother says was distressingly chaotic. I don’t recall it being bad, but I do remember just one
white child in my ﬁrst-grade class, though there may have been more. That summer, my mom and dad enrolled my older sister and me in
the school district’s 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. This was 1982, nearly three decades after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of
Education that separate schools for black and white children were unconstitutional, and near the height of desegregation in this country.
My parents chose one of the whitest, richest schools, thinking it would provide the best opportunities for us. Starting in second grade, I
rode the bus an hour each morning across town to the “best” public school my town had to offer, Kingsley Elementary, where I was
among the tiny number of working-class children and the even tinier number of black children. We did not walk to school or get dropped
off by our parents on their way to work. We showed up in a yellow bus, visitors in someone else’s neighborhood, and were whisked back
across the bridge each day as soon as the bell rang.
I remember those years as emotionally and socially fraught, but also as academically stimulating and world-expanding. Aside from the
rigorous classes and quality instruction I received, this was the ﬁrst time I’d shared dinners in the homes of kids whose parents were
doctors and lawyers and scientists. My mom was a probation ofﬁcer, and my dad drove a bus, and most of my family members on both
sides worked in factories or meatpacking plants or did other manual labor. I understood, even then, in a way both intuitive and defensive,
that my school friends’ parents weren’t better than my neighborhood friends’ parents, who worked hard every day at hourly jobs. But this
exposure helped me imagine possibilities, a course for myself that I had not considered before.
It’s hard to say where any one person would have ended up if a single circumstance were different; our life trajectories are shaped by so
many external and internal factors. But I have no doubt my parents’ decision to pull me out of my segregated neighborhood school made
the possibility of my getting from there to here — staff writer for The New York Times Magazine — more likely.
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.”
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.
The New York City public-school system is 41 percent Latino, 27 percent black and 16 percent Asian. Three-quarters of all students are
low-income. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, released a report showing that New York City
public schools are among the most segregated in the country. Black and Latino children here have become increasingly isolated, with 85
percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attending “intensely” segregated schools — schools that are less than 10
This is not just New York’s problem. I’ve spent much of my career as a reporter chronicling rampant school segregation in every region of
the country, and the ways that segregated schools harm black and Latino children. One study published in 2009 in The Journal of Policy
Analysis and Management showed that the academic achievement gap for black children increased as they spent time in segregated
schools. Schools with large numbers of black and Latino kids are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, instructional
materials and adequate facilities, according to the United States Department of Education’s Ofﬁce for Civil Rights. Most black and Latino
students today are segregated by both race and class, a combination that wreaks havoc on the learning environment. Research stretching
back 50 years shows that the socioeconomic makeup of a school can play a larger role in achievement than the poverty of an individual
student’s family. Getting Najya into one of the disproportionately white schools in the city felt like accepting the inevitability of this twotiered 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.
When the New York City Public Schools catalog arrived in the mail one day that spring, with information about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new
universal prekindergarten program, I told Faraji that I wanted to enroll Najya in a segregated, low-income school. Faraji’s eyes widened
as I explained that if we removed Najya, whose name we chose because it means “liberated” and “free” in Swahili, from the experience of
most black and Latino children, we would be part of the problem. 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.
As I told Faraji my plan, he slowly shook his head no. He wanted to look into parochial schools, or one of the “good” public schools, or even
private schools. So we argued, pleading our cases from the living room, up the steps to our ofﬁce lined with books on slavery and civil
rights, and back down, before we came to an impasse and retreated to our respective corners. 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. Faraji
couldn’t believe that I was asking him to expose our child to the type of education that the two of us had managed to avoid. He worried
that we would be hurting Najya if we put her in a high-poverty, all-black school. “Are we experimenting with our child based on our
idealism about public schools?” he asked. “Are we putting her at a disadvantage?”
At the heart of Faraji’s concern was a fear that grips black families like ours. We each came from working-class roots, fought our way into
the middle class and had no family wealth or safety net to fall back on. Faraji believed that our gains were too tenuous to risk putting our
child in anything but a top-notch school. And he was right to be worried. In 2014, the Brookings Institution found that black children are
particularly vulnerable to downward mobility — nearly seven of 10 black children born into middle-income families don’t maintain that
income level as adults. There was no margin for error, and we had to use our relative status to ﬁght to give Najya every advantage. Hadn’t
we worked hard, he asked, frustration building in his voice, precisely so that she would not have to go to the types of schools that trapped
so many black children?
Eventually I persuaded him to visit a few schools with me. Before work, we peered into the classrooms of three neighborhood schools,
and a fourth, Public School 307, located in the Vinegar Hill section of Brooklyn, near the East River waterfront and a few miles from our
home. P.S. 307’s attendance zone was drawn snugly around ﬁve of the 10 buildings that make up the Farragut Houses, a public-housing
project with 3,200 residents across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The school’s population was 91 percent black and Latino. Nine of 10
students met federal poverty standards. But what went on inside the school was unlike what goes on in most schools serving the city’s
poorest children. This was in large part because of the efforts of a remarkable principal, Roberta Davenport. She grew up in Farragut, and
her younger siblings attended P.S. 307. She became principal ﬁve decades later in 2003, to a low-performing school. Davenport commuted
from Connecticut, but her car was usually the ﬁrst one in the parking lot each morning, often because she worked so late into the night
that, exhausted, she would sleep at a friend’s nearby instead of making the long drive home. Soft of voice but steely in character, she
rejected the spare educational orthodoxy often reserved for poor black and brown children that strips away everything that makes school
joyous in order to focus solely on improving test scores. These children from the projects learned Mandarin, took violin lessons and
played chess. Thanks to her hard work, the school had recently received money from a federal magnet grant, which funded a science,
engineering and technology program aimed at drawing middle-class children from outside its attendance zone.
Faraji and I walked the bright halls of P.S. 307, taking in the reptiles in the science room and the students learning piano during music
class. The walls were papered with the precocious musings of elementary children. While touring the schools, Faraji later told me, he
started feeling guilty about his instinct to keep Najya out of them. Were these children, he asked himself, worthy of any less than his own
child? “These are kids who look like you,” he told me. “Kids like the ones you grew up with. I was being very selﬁsh about it, thinking: I
am going to get mine for my child, and that’s it. And I am ashamed of that.”
P.S. 307 (left) and luxury apartments, with the Farragut Houses in the background. Tobias Hutzler for The New York Times
When it was time to submit our school choices to the city, we put down all four of the schools we visited. In May 2014, we learned Najya
had gotten into our ﬁrst choice, P.S. 307. We were excited but also nervous. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel pulled in the way other parents
with options feel pulled. I had moments when I couldn’t ignore the nagging fear that in my quest for fairness, I was being unfair to my
own daughter. I worried — I worry still — about whether I made the right decision for our little girl. But I knew I made the just one.
For many white Americans, millions of black and Latino children attending segregated schools may seem like a throwback to another era,
a problem we solved long ago. And legally, we did. In 1954, the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling,
striking down laws that forced black and white children to attend separate schools. But while Brown v. Board targeted segregation by
state law, we have proved largely unwilling to address segregation that is maintained by other means, resulting from the nation’s long and
In the Supreme Court’s decision, the justices responded unanimously to a group of ﬁve cases, including that of Linda Brown, a black 8year-old who was not allowed to go to her white neighborhood school in Topeka, Kan., but was made to ride a bus to a black school much
farther away. The court determined that separate schools, even if they had similar resources, were “inherently” — by their nature —
unequal, causing profound damage to the children who attended them and hobbling their ability to live as full citizens of their country.
The court’s decision hinged on sociological research, including a key study by the psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark,
a husband-and-wife team who gave black children in segregated schools in the North and the South black and white dolls and asked
questions about how they perceived them. Most students described the white dolls as good and smart and the black dolls as bad and
stupid. (The Clarks also found that segregation hurt white children’s development.) Chief Justice Earl Warren felt so passionate about the
issue that he read the court’s opinion aloud: “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the
physical facilities and other ʻtangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?
We believe that it does.” The ruling made clear that because this nation was founded on a racial caste system, black children would never
become equals as long as they were separated from white children.
In New York City, home to the largest black population in the country, the decision was celebrated by many liberals as the ﬁnal strike
against school segregation in the “backward” South. But Kenneth Clark, the ﬁrst black person to earn a doctorate in psychology at
Columbia University and to hold a permanent professorship at City College of New York, was quick to dismiss Northern righteousness on
race matters. At a meeting of the Urban League around the time of the decision, he charged that though New York had no law requiring
segregation, it intentionally separated its students by assigning them to schools based on their race or building schools deep in
segregated neighborhoods. In many cases, Clark said, black children were attending schools that were worse than those attended by their
black counterparts in the South.
Clark’s words shamed proudly progressive white New Yorkers and embarrassed those overseeing the nation’s largest school system. The
New York City Board of Education released a forceful statement promising to integrate its schools: “Segregated, racially homogeneous
schools damage the personality of minority-group children. These schools decrease their motivation and thus impair their ability to learn.
White children are also damaged. Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of
the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” The head of the Board of Education undertook an
investigation in 1955 that conﬁrmed the widespread separation of black and Puerto Rican children in dilapidated buildings with the leastexperienced and least-qualiﬁed teachers. Their schools were so overcrowded that some black children went to school for only part of the
day to give others a turn.
The Board of Education appointed a commission to develop a citywide integration plan. But when school ofﬁcials took some token steps,
they faced a wave of white opposition. “It was most intense in the white neighborhoods closest to African-American neighborhoods,
because they were the ones most likely to be affected by desegregation plans,” says Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University
and the author of “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.” By the mid-’60s, there were few signs of
integration in New York’s schools. In fact, the number of segregated junior-high schools in the city had quadrupled by 1964. That
February, civil rights leaders called for a major one-day boycott of the New York City schools. Some 460,000 black and Puerto Rican
students stayed home to protest their segregation. It was the largest demonstration for civil rights in the nation’s history. But the boycott
upset many white liberals, who thought it was too aggressive, and as thousands of white families ﬂed to the suburbs, the integration
Even as New York City was ending its only signiﬁcant effort to desegregate, the Supreme Court was expanding the Brown ruling.
Beginning in the mid-’60s, the court handed down a series of decisions that determined that not only did Brown v. Board allow the use of
race to remedy the effects of long-segregated schools, it also required it. Assigning black students to white schools and vice versa was
necessary to destroy a system built on racism — even if white families didn’t like it. “All things being equal, with no history of
discrimination, it might well be desirable to assign pupils to schools nearest their homes,” the court wrote in its 1971 ruling in Swann v.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which upheld busing to ...
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