Journalist Known for Reporting on School Segregation Is Among MacArthur Fellows

By Mark Walsh — October 12, 2017 3 min read
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Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist known for her deep dives exploring race and the resegregation of the nation’s public schools, has been named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, the so-called genius grants awarded in an anonymous process.

“I’ve known for about a month,” Hannah-Jones said Wednesday, one day after being named among 24 in the 2017 group announced by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “You basically get a call out of the blue, and then you can only tell one person. I told my husband.”

The foundation said Hannah-Jones’ work chronicles “the demise of racial integration efforts and persistence of segregation in American society, particularly in education.”

“She combines analyses of historical, academic, and policy research with moving personal narratives to bring into sharp relief a problem that many are unwilling to acknowledge still exists and its tragic consequences for African American individuals, families, and communities,” the foundation continued.

The MacArthur Fellows program’s selection process is somewaht shrouded in mystery, though the foundation says that among the criteria are “promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments” and “potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” Many recipients are artists, musicians, writers, community activists, teachers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The fellows will each receive grants of $625,000 over five years.

Hannah-Jones, 41, has worked for the Raleigh News and Observer, the Oregonian, the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica, and since 2015 as a writer for The New York Times, assigned to the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. She is currently on leave to write a book about racial segregation in education.

When I mentioned to her that one news account of the MacArthur grants had grouped her with several recipients focused on minorities and the less fortunate, Hannah-Jones bristled.

“I talk about and interview black Americans, but black Americans are not the ones who created segregation and are not the ones who can fix it,” she said. “I focus my work on white America and its failures to live up to its obligations under court rulings and the civil rights laws, and its failures to live up to its moral obligations.”

The MacArthur Foundation cited three works of Hannah-Jones. One was “Segregation Now,” a 2014 series of articles for ProPublica that told the story of segregation and resegregation in a number of school districts in the South. “The Problem We All Live With” was a 2015 report broadcast on the public radio program “This American Life” that examined a short-lived desegregation program in the Missouri school district where Michael Brown, the young African-American man killed by the police in Ferguson, Mo., had gone to high school.

And a 2016 story in the New York Times Magazine, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” told of the experience of Hannah-Jones and her husband, Faraji Hannah-Jones, to choose a New York City public school for their 4-year-old daughter and why they settled on a school near their Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood that had an all-minority enrollment and wasn’t highly favored by the city’s middle class.

“Integration was transformative for my husband and me,” Hannah-Jones wrote in that piece. “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 September, Hannah-Jones wrote in depth in the magazine about a court case involving the Gardendale School District near Birmingham, Ala., where one community is trying to take over several schools from a larger county system, and the potential resegregation that may result.

Hannah-Jones said she agreed that more news outlets had been reporting on resegregation of U.S. schools, but not enough has been written to focus on accountability for “the school boards and politicians” responsible for the decisions leading to those results.

Hannah-Jones said she had not given much thought about how she might spend her grant.

“When you come from where I come from, you don’t plan for what you don’t have,” said Hannah-Jones, who grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where her mother was a probation officer and her father was a bus driver.

She believes, though, that the award will bring more recognition to segregation in schools.

“I write about what I have seen in segregated schools,” she said. “I want us to do better, and this award gives this type of work more exposure.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.