The Atlantic

Are Private Schools Immoral?

A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.
Source: Brendan Smialowski / Getty

Public schools in gentrifying neighborhoods seem on the cusp of becoming truly diverse, as historically underserved neighborhoods fill up with younger, whiter families. But the schools remain stubbornly segregated. Nikole Hannah-Jones has chronicled this phenomenon around the country, and seen it firsthand in her neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is white,” she says. “If their neighborhood school is black, they want choice.” Charter schools and magnet schools spring up in place of neighborhood schools, where white students can be in the majority.

“We have a system where white people control the outcomes, and the outcome that most white Americans want is segregation,” she says.

In a recent episode of The Atlantic Interview, Nikole Hannah-Jones and The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, discuss how integrated schools are good for white children and black children.

“If one were to believe that having people who are different from you makes you smarter, that you engage in a higher level of thinking, that you solve problems better, there are higher-level ways that integration is good for white folks,” Jones says.

For black children, the benefits of attending an integrated school are much more drastic. “It’s literally, will you receive a quality education or not? Will you be a full citizen in the country of your birth?”

In a hyper-competitive economy where test scores and college admissions and lifetimes earnings are all linked, Hannah-Jones has seen that the soft benefits of integration, like empathy or compassion, are low on a family’s priority list. “Most white people are willing to trade that,” she has found.

An edited transcript of their conversation is below.


Jeffrey Goldberg: You and I have both had these conversations with my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates about the arc of history and which way it bends. I’ve adopted the viewpoint of Barack Obama, that history is an arrow and the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. And Ta-Nehisi says that there really is no moral arc, but if there were it would just bend toward chaos. Are you in the camp of people who say that long-term optimism is premature?

I think it has not a lot of basis in historical fact. I would say the arc is actually

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