Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on schools, segregation, and systemic racism

Photo by Sarah E. Freeman/Grady College

Five years ago, Nikole Hannah-Jones was thinking about quitting. “I only became a journalist because I wanted to write about racial inequality,” she told professor Keith Gessen in front of a gathering of journalism students, faculty, and fans at Columbia Journalism School’s first Delacorte Lecture of the 2016-17 season. Frustrated with constantly being steered away from the type of reporting that had called her to the profession, Hannah-Jones said, “I wasn’t doing what I got into journalism to do, so why was I doing this?”

Sitting on stage at Columbia, the recipient of the Peabody Award, George Polk Award, and the Journalist of the Year designation by the National Association of Black Journalists, with a staff writing position at The New York Times Magazine, Hannah-Jones expressed thanks that she hadn’t been able to think of a better option.

Instead of leaving the field, she was “rescued” by Steve Engelberg, then the managing editor of the nonprofit investigative journalism site ProPublica. In the years since, Hannah-Jones has become one of the best-known investigative journalists in the country, publishing impactful stories on segregation, educational inequality, and public policy.

Raised in Iowa (“There are black people in Iowa…We’re mostly related to each other,” she joked with the audience), Hannah-Jones, 40, attended a majority-white school through a voluntary busing program. After earning a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she began her career in journalism covering schools in Durham, and then spent five years in Portland working for The Oregonian. Her move to ProPublica allowed her to return to her roots in education reporting, and to explore in depth the intentional decisions that have resulted in an inequitable system.

“I wanted to understand why,” Hannah-Jones said at Columbia. “Why are neighborhoods still segregated 50 years after we passed the Fair Housing Act? Why are schools not only segregated, but when you look across every measure, [why are] black and Latino students getting the least-qualified teachers [and why are they] less likely to get access to academic courses that would get [them] into an institution like Columbia?”

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The inequality that exists in America’s education system is neither accidental nor incidental. “It was socially engineered, and so, therefore, we’re going to have to socially engineer our way out of it,” Hannah-Jones said. Her work at ProPublica, and now with the Times, has investigated how and why that social engineering happened, and what might be done to correct it.

Hannah-Jones first gained widespread attention for her answer to those questions with her 2014 story, “Segregation Now,” which she spent more than a year reporting, and which CJR called “a superlative investigative piece.”

A year later, she followed that work with an examination of the Normandy school district Michael Brown attended. The piece was also adapted for radio and ran on This American Life as “The Problem We All Live With.”

Hannah-Jones approaches her work with a perspective and a purpose. “I don’t believe in unbiased journalism; it doesn’t exist,” she told the Delacorte audience. “All reporters have a perspective on what they’re writing….I never pretend to be unbiased; what I do say is my work will be accurate and my work will be fair.”

Earlier this summer, Hannah-Jones’s personal life intersected with her professional passions, resulting in a New York Times Magazine cover story titled, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.”

Toward the end of the evening, Hannah-Jones was asked if, based on her research, reporting, and personal experience, she was hopeful about the future of equality in race relations. “I’m not an optimistic person; anybody who reads my work knows that,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of optimism about race. I think if you study history, you don’t have a lot of reason to have optimism, but what I do know is we cannot continue to go as we are.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.