Nikole Hannah-Jones Challenges Moderate White Liberals in Her First Monday Speech

“We always had two philosophies of education in this country: one for democracy reserved for white children, and one for oppression reserved for black, Latinx and indigenous children.” Those are the words of the First Monday speaker, Nikole Hannah-Jones, 2017 MacArthur Genius Fellowship winner. Jones is an investigative reporter for The New York Times, specializing in reporting about racial injustices, especially school segregation. Colorado College invited Jones to speak as part of Martin Luther King Day to celebrate his legacy.

Jones started off her presentation by reminding the audience of the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King that is not often talked about or even celebrated. She said that we often focus on the “I Have A Dream” speech that “makes us feel hopeful, feel good, feel that we would have been on the right side if we were alive back in Dr. King’s day.” However, Jones highlighted that we only perceive Dr. King as a figurehead; we do not actually know who he was or for what he stood.

Jones said that she came to CC to talk about the radical, realist Dr. King, not the dreamer; she came to talk about the man who was assassinated for his politics. In the same “I Have A Dream” speech, Dr. King harshly criticized the American system that claims that all citizens will have the same rights, regardless of race and gender. The American system failed to deliver such a promise to African Americans. America gave black people “a bad check”: a check that was marked “insufficient funds.”

Jones regards the “I Have A Dream” speech not as an uplifting memoir, but as a forceful reminder of the reality that this country was founded on the backs of African slaves who arrived 12 years after the first arrival of the Englishmen in 1607, more than 150 years before America became a country.

Jones asserts that her speech, and ultimately her work, targeted towards the moderate, white liberals, not extremist, racist folk or even Trump supporters. So, she was speaking to the majority of CC students, to the moderate white liberals who prefer peace over protest. They are on the side of order instead of justice. She said that it is not enough to have black friends or to love black people. Drawing from Dr. King’s words, Jones said that the black people not only need love, they need justice too.

Jones criticized the narrative that says that we are beyond racism or that things are much better than before. As a 41-year-old woman, it was only eight years prior to her birth that she could be legally denied to live in a house of her personal choosing. 10 years before she was born, it was legal to deny her the right to vote, to check out a book from public libraries, to park in a place reserved for white people, or to eat in a restaurant of her choosing. Jones highlighted that this is not ancient history; it only happened 50 years ago. She is the first generation of black people to have birth and legal rights in the country that her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were denied.

Jones continued to talk about segregation as the new way of slavery, specifically school segregation, on which she primarily focuses her work. Jones emphasized the importance of education as it is one of the only things that American citizens are required to do by law. However, black Americans were often excluded from schools. The exclusion of African Americans from schools started from slavery up until 1954. Today, schools are more segregated than they have ever been at any point in history.

Jones gave the example of Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to go to a white school in the South. She had to be escorted by U.S. marshals every day to school. In her first semester, she had to sit in class all by herself because white parents withdrew their children from the school. A mob waited for her every day after school, carrying a coffin with a brown doll to show her what her fate was going to be. This situation continues as schools are still segregated in many parts of the U.S.

Jones insisted that segregation cannot be solved by having separate schools for white and black children with “equal” resources, because “separation does not mean equal.” School segregation is part of a systematic racism. Integration is a necessity. According to test scores, integration closes the achievement gap between white and black children. The only narrow point in the achievement gap is in the cases of desegregated schools.

There is nothing magical that happens when black kids are in the same class with white kids. The mere fact that black children are getting the same service and treatment as white children is what really makes the difference. They are more likely to graduate, go to college, live longer, and they are less likely to go to jail.

School segregation is the choice of white people. It is easy to fix segregation in the public sphere, to be okay with black people in the same restaurants, shops, and streets, but when it comes to more intimate areas like housing and education, it becomes harder to change.

“Segregation is about power, about consolidating it for some, and depriving it of others. The only way we can liberate it is for black and white people to live together and go to the same schools,” Jones said. Equality is the solution.

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