An Interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Staff Writer for The New York Times
Nikole Hannah-Jones is an investigative journalist covering civil rights as a staff reporter for The New York Times. She was named a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” fellow for her work on issues of American school segregation, integration, and resegregation. We spoke in March, before her lecture, “The Problem We All Live With,” at the Yale Law School. She’s assembled a list of her articles here.
The Politic: What do you think people understand the least about school segregation?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: What do I think they understand the least? I think that people largely ignore the extent to which schools are segregated. I think people want to believe it’s largely a matter of choice, or income, and that the segregation we see today is not harmful in the way that it was in 1953 because the law does not require it. And I think that people, particularly white, progressive people, will fail to understand the very large role they play in maintaining segregated schools.
The Politic: There was a part in your interview with Longform when you were talking about how, after your This American Life piece came out, all these white, wealthy Brooklyn parents came up to you and were like, “I heard your piece, it was amazing!” and you were like, “No, that’s you in there. You’re the issue.” What has it been like to confront white liberals with their role in maintaining segregation? What kind of reactions have you gotten?
I find that most progressive white people are not really defensive. What I hear from them is that my work has caused them to do a lot of self-reflection, not that that necessarily makes them do anything different. My work is very intentionally geared towards white progressives, and, more than the This American Life piece, the piece that I think they have reacted to the most is the piece I did on my daughter, which clearly is very directly about the choices that white progressive people make and the conflicts between your stated values and the actions you usually take. And I found that it just caused a lot of soul-searching and really held a mirror up to white progressive people. Overall, I haven’t seen a defensiveness but more, “You’ve forced me to think about myself and my actions and my values and the choices that I make.”
Did you notice an impact in your community when the New York Times article came out?
In my community? No. I mean, my daughter’s school is not in our neighborhood. My neighborhood is a very black, low-income neighborhood. You can’t even get the New York Times in my neighborhood. So I didn’t see a direct reaction in my neighborhood, but in Brooklyn writ large? Certainly. Among white Brooklynites, for sure, and I think white New Yorkers in general.
Where do you see it?
Just tons of conversations. I still receive emails about that piece. I get invited to events that have been held around the issue of segregation in schools. I will sit in meetings as a parent and my work will be brought up, so I definitely see the impact in that way. There was actually just a big town hall on school integration that was held by the public schools last night in Brooklyn, and they’re doing them in all the boroughs, and I can tell you, a year ago that wasn’t happening.
Do you think that’s in response to your work?
I think it’s in response partially to my work, and just communities – including students and parents – who have been pushing, and starting to much more aggressively push on this issue. I think my work has made it much more difficult to ignore segregation as an issue which is the way the school districts have largely operated for the past decades.
Why do you think that now there’s this big push to bring the issue to the fore?
I don’t know the exact answer to that. What I can say is that, five years ago, when I first started writing big pieces on school segregation, I set up a Google Alert for the search terms “segregation,” “school integration,” “school desegregation,” just to see what was being written about it, and I could go weeks, a month, without getting a single Google Alert on the issue. And now it’s every day, so reporters are writing about it again.
I think we had largely accepted that this is the way that it was, and we were just going to make separate schools equal and it was okay. Journalists were very much complicit in that, and I think that journalists now are writing about it and questioning it and exposing the continuing inequalities, and I think that that is the driving force. Clearly, if it’s in the news, people have to think about it, have to confront it, and I think that that’s driving a lot of it.
You’ve said that, for Black Americans to attain equal rights, it would require a fundamental reshaping of American society. How do you think your work plays into that?
I mean, just to be clear, I don’t think it’s going to happen. At all. Because fundamental restructurings of society almost never happen unless there’s a revolution–or, I should say, they never happen without a revolution. All I see my work as doing is forcing us to confront our hypocrisy, forcing us to confront the truth that we would rather ignore. The beauty of segregation is people don’t have to see it, so when you’re not in those schools, when your kids aren’t in those schools, when you’re not in those neighborhoods, then you don’t have to actually see how they function or don’t function. And then you can pretend that it’s really not that bad. You can pretend that we have a meritocracy and everyone has an equal shot. And you pretend that you’re on the right side of things because you say you believe in equality. My work is exposing that lie and forcing us to not only confront what is happening in those schools but that we’re making the choice for it to be that way.
I expect nothing more than that from my work. Fundamentally, if we don’t know about it, and we’re not forced to confront it, then we’re surely not going to do anything to change it. I think, even if you do know about it, we’re not going to do anything to change it. But we certainly won’t if we can pretend that it’s not happening and that we don’t play a role in that. So that’s all that I see my work as doing: it’s just forcing us to acknowledge that we’re making a choice in the hopes that some of us will maybe choose to make another choice.
But the role, to me, of the press, particularly the press that writes about vulnerable communities, is to afflict the comfortable, to make those who are comfortable, those who live on top of the racial hierarchy, those who seek every advantage of this country, to think about what that means for other people’s children.
So what would a fundamental restructuring of American society look like?
What would the revolution be?
You’d have to have financial reparations, clearly. It’s not enough to simply have political power if you don’t have economic power. You look at the wealth gap between Black and white people, it’s something like ten-to-one.
You would have to have a fundamental restructuring in how we offer education. The book that I’m writing is making the argument that our schools are not broken but operating as designed, and if you go back to the founding of common schools in this country, it was never intended that Black children would receive an education equal to white children. Black people were the only group of people in this country where it was illegal to teach us to read.
So I think all of this is embedded, and we’d have to offer schools that weren’t being funded by property tax, where you wouldn’t be able to tell what resources the school would get by the color of the kids in the school. You’d probably have to outlaw private schools and have every school be a public school. I mean, these fixes would not be easy. But, you know, fundamental restructuring rarely is. You would have to enforce the Fair Housing Act and actually get rid of the housing segregation that this country forcefully implemented.
I mean, it can’t be done, right? Racism and racial inequality is embedded in the DNA of our country– it is who we are, so how does one purge itself of its own DNA? I don’t know.
Can you talk more about outlawing private schools? I feel like everyone here has gone to a private school. [Note: 42% of Yale students graduated from a private or parochial school, compared to 10% of all American students]
Yeah, I’m not saying that. My work is not pushing for that, because I’m not crazy. But clearly, what has happened is, as Black people gained access to the public sphere, white people have withdrawn from the public sphere. So how can you have school equality and integration when, if you try to force white Americans to integrate in public schools, they simply withdraw to private schools, which is what you see all over the South, which is what you see all over the Northeast and the Midwest? So, if you were to really fundamentally restructure society for equality, you can’t have the ability for people who have always had the wealth and privilege to simply opt out of a public school system. I don’t think that that’s going to happen, though at one time, right around the period of Brown, it was considered.
Is there something analogous to that in housing?
Yeah, of course. All housing could be public housing and community housing. You could do that. I don’t think, again, that that’s going to happen, and I don’t know that I would argue for that, but you could do that.
Are there people arguing for that?
No. Not in housing, I don’t think. The thing about schools, and why I particularly focus on schools, is that nine of ten American children attend a public school. Most housing is privately owned, and it would take a great deal to take private ownership out of housing, but it wouldn’t take that much [in schools] because most kids do attend public schools. And school is one of the very few things in life that we are required to do. There are very few things as Americans that are compulsory, but attending school is compulsory. So there’s just a great deal you could do with schools that would be much more difficult in terms of civil rights and equality outside of schools. To get rid of ten percent of the schools versus ninety-something percent of the housing, it’s a big difference.
So do you think that because schools are something every American passes through, racial inequality there is more foundational, or pernicious, than in other spheres?
No, I think it’s foundational anywhere. Look at any institution and it’s there. I think the ability to address it is greater because these are government schools that most kids attend, so there are things that you could do. And I think that we understand, as Americans, that an education can change your life. Just that the way that we tend to divvy up educational resources now means that where you start out is probably where you’re going to [end up], whether you start off advantaged or you start off disadvantaged.
But the potential to change your life in schools absolutely exists. Schools alone can’t fix anything, clearly. If you are in a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood where there are high rates of joblessness, schools aren’t going to fix all of that. But they will help you to change your circumstance. It’s just that, because of segregation and inequality, schools usually only affirm your circumstance.
You said on Twitter, a few days ago, that you are an activist as all journalists are activists. What does that mean?
People ask me, in particular, if I’m an activist because of how I write about school segregation and my openness about my personal feelings on school segregation. My response to that is, I do think most forms of journalism are activism. We believe we exist to hold power accountable. That is not a neutral stance. If a journalist is working to expose wrongdoing, we clearly want something to change. We don’t just write about wrongdoing as a point of information. We write about wrongdoing because it’s wrong, and we feel like our government officials or people in power should behave in a way that’s responsible and that treats people with dignity. That’s activism. We’re not stenographers, we don’t simply go out and say, “This happened, and we’re just letting you know.”
So, I think, a lot of times, the lines can get blurred. I absolutely don’t think that a journalist should be out on the picket line or marching in a march, but I do think, when I write about school segregation, I’m very clear that the evidence shows that it’s harmful to children and I don’t think that we should be doing things that harm children. So, in that way, am I an activist? Yes, I’m an activist the same way that the journalists who exposed Watergate didn’t feel that our presidency should be corrupt. They did not write about Watergate because they wanted the corruption to continue, right? So, that’s all that I mean by that.
I think that we choose this profession for a reason, because we believe in justice, and we believe in fairness, and we report to try to bring a society where more of that happens.
Why do you think that, as a journalist, you shouldn’t be on the picket line? Does that push against the limits of objectivity?
I don’t believe in objectivity. At all. I think we pretend to be objective, but we’re clearly not. The only thing anyone is objective about are things we don’t know enough about to form an opinion on. I think our job is to be fair, and we definitely want to have credibility. So if you’re out — and I guess it depends on what you’re marching for — if I’m covering school segregation, I can’t be at an integration rally rallying. You want people to be able to trust that you can be a fair reporter. You don’t want people questioning if you are an activist in the traditional sense, because how, then, do I trust what it is that you’re reporting? How do I trust that you’re being fair? So, that’s where I draw the line.
I think our job as journalists is to be fair and to be accurate. It is not to be objective. When you think about the Civil Rights Movement, and the journalists covering the Civil Rights Movement, should you be objective about the fact that innocent people are being beaten down and killed for trying to exercise their constitutional rights in this country? I would say, probably not. Should you be fair in your reporting? Yes. Should your reporting be accurate? Absolutely. But should you be objective about that? I don’t think so.
After you wrote that article about your personal experiences with school integration, were you afraid that people would have that reaction?
Yeah, of course. I was very, very reluctant to pitch that story. And once I pitched that story, I tried to take it back, but it was too late. People could draw their conclusions about where I stood based on reading my reporting, but it’s one thing to allow people to draw conclusions and another thing for you to explicitly tell them. And I definitely worried about if that would make, for some people, my reporting less credible. And maybe it has.
Would you have a way of knowing if it did?
People would tell me, readers would tell me. I haven’t gotten that complaint, but I do think – and I don’t know if it’s because of that piece or just the bulk of my work – there are certain sources that won’t talk to me now, for sure, who are afraid to talk to me, certain organizations that think I won’t be fair to them. And I don’t know if it was that piece, or people just understand the lean of all my pieces on school segregation, or my Twitter account.
But, in that way, I’m less traditional of a journalist in the New York Times–Washington Post ilk, and more in the tradition of journalists of the Ida B. Wells ilk. When you are a Black person in this country, you, in some ways, can’t disentangle the fight for your own humanity and human rights and the rights of your community from the work that you do. So, I don’t recommend young journalists be as open as I am. I wasn’t as open about what I think about things when I was first starting out, and we also didn’t have the type of social media that we have now. I’m in a particular place, and a lot of journalists would never reveal as much as I reveal. I don’t recommend that most people do.
Is there a story behind your Twitter name? Ida Bae Wells?
Yeah, it’s just Ida B. Wells.
Just like a pun?
Speaking of Ida B. Wells, and your foundation, why is it important that there are more investigative journalists of color?
Because what’s more important in this field than investigative reporting? This is the work that really can change people’s lives, that really holds power accountable, that vindicates the vulnerable. And if you don’t have journalists of color who are doing that work, you’re just missing too many stories. There are stories that you simply don’t tell, stories that you don’t tell right, access to communities that you don’t get.
A prime example to me has been the reporting on police violence. Clearly, any Black person in the country knows that police often don’t treat Black people respectfully. We all know that police don’t always tell the truth, that police have been killing unarmed Black citizens, for a very long time. But it wasn’t news. These stories were not being covered, and often you would see what you saw four or five years ago, where an unarmed Black person would be killed and the police would give their account of the story, and white media would simply take that account as truth, which we don’t do with other public officials. It takes social media and people bypassing the press and posting videos of these killings online directly for white media to say, “Oh, wait, something is actually happening here.” This is not news to Black reporters, or brown reporters, and these are the types of stories that would get covered if you had journalists of color in those positions.
The other thing is, it’s just important to me in terms of the racial hierarchy. Clearly, investigative reporting is the most prestigious reporting in any newsroom, it’s the most expensive, you get to spend the most time on it, it has the biggest impact, and it is the whitest. So, just for equity, it’s important that we have these opportunities, and we are just almost always overlooked. We’re not groomed to be in these most powerful reporting positions, and I think that that’s why we founded that organization because, for all four of us founders, no one ever groomed us to be this way. We know the particular struggles to even get into the position to do project work, and the risks and the pressures, so we felt we are uniquely in a position to help other journalists.
Are there Black and brown investigative journalists who you want to recommend to the readers?
Yes. Talia Buford, who covers environmental justice at ProPublica. Ginger Thompson, who is this completely kick-ass Black woman who covers Mexican drug cartels. Topher Sanders, there’s folks at Reveal, I mean, we exist, there’s just not a lot of us, is the problem. Ron Nixon, who’s also one of my founders, he covers national security. The problem is, all the people that I would name are the same people that everyone would name, because it is very hard for us to get in these positions. Our origin story, literally, is we were sitting at an investigative reporters’ conference and the four of us were ninety-nine percent of the Black people at that conference. And we were like, “We’re just tired of this shit. We know that we are as capable, so what is happening that’s preventing us from being in these positions?”
And I think that you can look at the things that I have written about: housing segregation, the forty-year failure to enforce the Fair Housing Act, school segregation. All stories that are easily visible to any reporter. But when you are on the beneficiary’s side of these issues, you don’t write about them. You don’t even see them. You don’t question how they come to be.
A few years ago, I won the grand prize in education reporting from the Education Writers Association, and, in my acceptance speech, I said at that time to a room full of education reporters, “If you’re not writing about school segregation, you’re not doing your job. Every one of us sees the test score data, every one of us sees how Black segregated schools are closed down, how they’re considered ‘failing,’ how they’re in distress, and none of us question why we keep sustaining a system that is producing those results.” We’d all accepted that, and that’s because most education reporters are white women, who largely make the decisions about where their kids are going to school, and do white women really have an investment in exposing how segregation is unequal if that’s going to lead their kids to not have the advantage?
So this is why when we have this false notion of objectivity, it’s bullshit. None of us do. The stories we choose to tell or not to tell, the beats we choose to cover or not to cover, if this story goes in the front of the book or the back of the book or the cover or not the cover, these are all subjective decisions about what someone who has the power thinks is important. And if those someones are always white, fairly-privileged people, then what they think is important is always going to be very different from the reality for many, many Americans. If you have people who look like me and come from where I come from, then there are different stories that are being told.
The last thing I’ll say on this is that, right after the election when newsrooms were doing all this soul-searching about the “working class,” but what they really meant is the “white working class,” and [saying], Maybe we should hire more working-class people, well, 1) once you hire someone and give them a good salary they’re not working-class anymore, hopefully, but, 2) almost every Black or Latino person in your newsroom comes from the working-class, but we didn’t count. So that’s the problem, and that’s why newsroom diversity is not just about some feel-good shit, but it’s really about how you’re just missing a lot of stories and you’re not accurately covering your country if your newsroom doesn’t look like your country.
I think you have to get to the law school.