This American Life | Podcast Review | September 11, 2015 | By

This American Life: “The Problem We All Live With”

This American Life tackles School Integration.


In 1988, Elizabeth Anderson, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, moved from Ann Arbor to Detroit. When she was looking for housing, landlords told her she shouldn’t worry about renting in the metro area. They were “holding the line against blacks at 10 Mile Road.”

Soon after, a landlord showed her a home with a pile of cockroaches in the kitchen. The message was clear. Some renters would rather have cockroaches as housemates than black people as neighbors.

The title of Anderson’s recent book The Imperative of Integration (2010) modifies that of another famous study of racial friction, Orlando Patterson’s The Ordeal of Integration (1997). These two titles—one normative, one descriptive—provide a suggestive backdrop to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s July 31 This American Life report on school integration. Hannah-Jones’s report is an achievement precisely because it recognizes integration as both an imperative and an ordeal.

The episode mounts a persuasive case that we must integrate our schools if we wish to reduce educational disparities between black and white children. But the report also glances unsparingly at the messiness integration can provoke. We hear how the public ordeal of integration reverberates in a series of private conflicts. A 14-year-old girl is made to leave her friends and volleyball team to return to a school that failed her. A seventh grader, called a “nigger” and a “black bitch” by a classmate, doesn’t know how to fight back without proving to her enemies that she’s “ghetto” after all. (“Was that the first time you’d been called that word by a white person?” Hannah-Jones, who is black, asks. A poignant question, with its hint that future instances await.)

Hannah-Jones takes us to Normandy school district, which borders Ferguson, Missouri. (Michael Brown graduated from Normandy High School eight days before he died.) The district—almost entirely black—lost its state accreditation in 2013 after 15 years on probation. Normandy students were then able to transfer to Francis Howell, a majority-white district with comparatively stellar test scores. Hannah-Jones follows Nedra Martin, a Normandy parent elated by the chance to pull her daughter, Mah’ria, out of a failing school.

The episode features gripping audio (starting around 24:00) from a meeting where Francis Howell parents protest the influx of students from the poorer, academically dismal Normandy district. “I want to know where the metal detectors are going to be,” one mother says, prompting cheers. “And I want to know where your drug-sniffing dogs are going to be.”

I learned about Ruby Bridges and Brown v. Board in a public school classroom in North Carolina. Most of my classmates were, like me, white. The story I heard was triumphal and ended in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Integration had happened; thus, we were now—despite the evidence I could gather by looking up from my desk—integrated. Integration was not an unfolding process but a discrete event.

Many people around my age (23) who grew up in the South have little knowledge of integration’s unwinding. By the time we were in school, integration had already unwound. In 1972, when federal oversight of school integration was robust, only one in four black students in the South attended schools in which 90 percent or more of students were racial minorities. Between 1990 and 2011, courts released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from desegregation orders. Today, 53 percent of black students in those districts attend schools where 90 percent or more of students are racial minorities, according to a recent ProPublica report.

When I entered elementary school in the late 1990s, most courts had stopped trying to enforce Brown v. Board. Protests against court-ordered bussing were a thing of the past—not because everyone had gotten on board with integration, but because judges had given up on it.

Integration, despite its simplicity as a concept, is conspicuously absent from most public conversations about race. Non-integrationist solutions to racial inequality proliferate across the American political spectrum. Liberals often endorse multicultural education and government investment in ailing neighborhoods and school districts as methods for remedying racial ills. Conservatives tend to opt for philanthropic aid to the poor (sometimes without considering race as a factor), or they say that minority communities must work to change behaviors that allegedly contribute to a “culture of poverty.”

At the root of the school-segregation issue is an interlocking problem that goes largely unmentioned in Hannah-Jones’s report—possibly because the problem is so fundamental that she doesn’t need to spell it out. The problem is the extent to which blacks and whites live in different areas. A segregated city makes for segregated schools. Normandy’s students were black and poor because the families who lived in the district were black and poor.

Hannah-Jones is wise to direct our attention not to housing segregation but to one of its most insidious effects: school segregation. She allows us to see the effects our economic and residential arrangements have on our children, black and white alike. School segregation follows from housing segregation and from (perhaps more importantly) profound economic inequality between blacks and whites. But school segregation robs the most vulnerable children of a chance to flourish through access to high-quality instruction.

We encourage you to listen to “The Problem We All Live With,” especially if you missed it in July. (There’s also a part two.) If you’ve already heard the podcast, you’re still in luck. Hannah-Jones continues to report on segregation’s persistence in American life. Her most recent piece for The New York Times unearths the telling detail that just 515 black men entered medical school last year.

About the Author

Charlie Tyson is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he covers This American LifeYou can find him on twitter @charlietyson1, or by email at charlie@audiologue.xyz.

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  • Hollz says:

    This was definitely one of my favorite’s from This American Life– told compelling stories (agh the audio of the protesting parents) and is unfortunately not something that had substantially crossed my mind before. However when I talked about this with one of my African American peers, they came to the conclusion that they don’t actually support putting more effort into integration, but rather want to see the Black Community empowered enough from within to strengthen their own schools. So that’s just a thought- I’d be interested to know the prevalence of that mindset and the role (if any) it plays in the lack of integration thus far.

    • Charlie’s comment got stuck in WordPress limbo, but here is his reply:

      “Hey Holly,

      Great comment. The idea that the black community should strengthen “its own schools” (without government aid?) has strong roots in the tradition of black separatism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_separatism).

      I can see why someone would feel this way. Why put faith in the government, or other political actors, to make things better for black people given such a strong legacy of prior failures?
      But I think the view faces some important objections.

      First, public schools in majority-black areas are still government-funded and government-run. The responsibility lies with the district to ensure the schools meet their students’ needs. The idea of the black community’s “own” schools would make more sense in the context of black-owned private schools. The idea that the black community should fix its “own” public schools has, I believe, insidious (albeit unintentional) parallels with the conservative position that black people should “fix” their own communities (with reduced government funds).

      Second, and more importantly, school integration has other benefits apart from enabling black, under-resourced students to access high-quality instruction and facilities. These benefits extend to blacks and whites both. Integration can reduce racial stigmatization and remedy imbalances in cultural capital between groups.

      To answer your question about how that mindset has affected debates about integration: I don’t think the black separatist view has played a significant role in integration’s failures. Possibly, in some cases, this way of thinking has stymied political will within black communities to argue for integration. But most mainstream black advocacy groups, e.g. the NAACP, support integration. Integration’s failures have a lot more to do with political resistance from whites, white flight, and courts suspending desegregation orders.”