Opportunities to succeed in corporate America are often not distributed equally, with marginalized populations facing many more barriers to being hired and promoted. While there is important work that companies can do to create more equitable systems, it is also important to recognize some of the root causes of this inequity.
Although legal school segregation ended in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education, and many school integration efforts have had varying levels of success since then, many schools still serve very different student populations in inequitable ways, due to the historical effects of housing and school segregation. This can have vast implications for students’ career opportunities.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is an award-winning New York Times investigative reporter and creator of the 1619 Project, and has done extensive research on school segregation. I had the honor of speaking with her about her research and perspectives on the intersection between segregation and career opportunities.
Rebekah Bastian: How does school segregation lead to an academic achievement gap, and how does that gap influence the career opportunities that people are set up to succeed in?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: There is a direct correlation between school segregation and the opportunity gap. Data shows that the more black kids there are in a school, the less likely schools are to offer high-quality instruction, Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors classes, and modern technology and facilities. These resources are disproportionately provided in white schools and not in black schools, and these are all the things that prepare students for college. Not surprisingly, students of color achieve different rates in standardized tests. And when they apply to colleges, they are competing against students who have a 4.3 on a 4.0 scale because of the weighted courses—such as AP and Honors—that they have had access to. If children are getting vastly different experiences, the entire notion of meritocracy is faulty.
Bastian: In your 2016 New York Times article examining school inequities in New York City, you mentioned that when you were growing up, you benefited from being surrounded by your friends’ families that held a wide range of jobs, as they helped open up your imagination to the many jobs you could pursue in your life. How do you think school segregation influences the “you can’t be what you can’t see” barrier that many people from marginalized identities encounter?
Hannah-Jones: What wealthy, privileged parents understand is that schools are not just about academic resources, but also intangible resources. In one school, there might be multiple families whose parents went to Ivy League schools, have worked a wide variety of jobs, and have extensive networks. In another school, most parents might have working-class jobs. Not only does that limit what those students see as being possible, but the parents in the less-privileged school will never be able to write college recommendations or internship recommendations to friends of theirs in order to help their children get access to those opportunities. Not only do less-privileged students get deprived of the best education, but also the intangible resources and connections. These intangible resources become even more important than academics the older you get.
Bastian: How does a segregated educational experience do damage in preparing children to work in corporate America?
Hannah-Jones: There are two forces working at same time. In terms of academics, black and brown students are at a disadvantage that is compounded by the schools they attend. In addition, professional people tend to hire within their networks. In a segregated society, the networks of white people largely consist of other white people. Because of this, black and brown students don’t become part of the networks of those that are making hiring decisions. Employers often say that they want diversity, but also that they’re just “hiring the best people”. Those are just the best people they know, and they’re not taking the steps to understand why the white candidate has had more opportunities. Segregation of schools leads to segregation of hiring.
Bastian: You’ve mentioned in your writing that the term “integration” has been traded in for “diversity” in conversations about school segregation, and that this new language can lead to a carefully curated integration of black and Latino children to enrich the educational experience of privileged children, while leaving the majority of those underserved children behind. Do you see an analogous trend in the diversity initiatives of corporate America?
Hannah-Jones: Most corporations say they value “diversity”, but diversity is a diluted term that can mean a lot of different things. Some might focus on diversity of thought, without actually dealing with the foundational inequality that is tied to race. You can meet diversity goals without really addressing that inequality. This kind of diversity tends to be about tokenism—it makes people in power feel comfortable, without truly reflecting the populations of our cities. By not being willing to share power in an equitable way, they end up with white-run institutions that have a handful of people of color who are adaptable to those spaces.
Bastian: As you discussed in your talk at the Bellwether Housing luncheon, bussing has been a tool to integrate schools. This need to bus to higher-opportunity schools is similar to the need for many lower-salaried employees (those that often reflect more diversity within a company) to commute further to work from more affordable regions. How does this longer commute time add to the inequities that people from marginalized communities might experience?
Hannah-Jones: People’s commute impacts what jobs they are able to take. Lower-income people, which are often communities of color, pay a tax in almost every way: earning less, traveling further and paying more for basic goods. Big corporations position themselves in locations with big tax breaks, and they don’t go into distressed areas. That coupled with poor infrastructure around public transit puts marginalized communities at a cumulative disadvantage.