Nikole Hannah-Jones has been called the “Beyoncé of Journalism,” but the New York Times reporter’s work is anything but pop culture.
Hannah-Jones is a co-founder of the Ida B Wells Society, which trains reporters of color in investigative journalism. In 2017, she was named a MacArthur fellow, winning a so-called “genius award” for her reporting on the segregation of Black children in American schools, and she is on leave from the Times working on a book—The Problem We All Live With—which traces school inequality for Black children from slavery to now.
Ms. talked to Hannah-Jones about power, her Twitter bonafides and why we can’t go back to brunch after we march.
Talk to me about your Twitter handle: Ida Bae Wells.
Ida B. Wells is my spiritual grandmother. This is a woman who was born into slavery who went on to found newspapers, who was run out of town for writing about lynching, who would go into communities after they had violently lynched another Black person and investigate the truth behind those lynchings.
She refused to be married for years. She had lots of suitors but didn’t want to be tied down until she found a husband who was equally as feminist as she was. She postponed her own wedding three times because she was too busy working, then when she had a child, her first and others, she would take the child out on the trail with as she worked. She was a suffragist even though suffragists were only willing to expand rights for white women. At one suffragist march in DC when they tried to segregate her and other Black women at the back of the march, she stood on the sidelines and waited until the march started and pushed her way to the front. She was a cofounder of the NAACP but faced a great deal of sexism and was basically erased from that history.
Your Twitter page also says you’re the “Beyoncé of Journalism.”
It’s meant to be ironic. I clearly don’t think I’m the Beyoncé of anything. A couple of years ago at the National Association of Black Journalists, two young Black women journalists called me the Beyoncé of journalism and I thought it was very funny.
What is the Ida B Wells Society?
It’s very hard for Black journalists to become investigative reporters. We don’t get the assignments. We don’t get put on projects teams. A couple years ago the men who became my cofounders, we were sitting at a data/computer-assisted reporting convention, and we’re sitting in the lobby of the hotel, we’re in Atlanta, and we’re like, “we’re literally 98 percent of the Black people at this conference.”
We had been hearing the same things from organizations and newsrooms for years that they were going to work on it, and diversity was important, but nothing was ever changing. So we decided that we would start an organization to try and change it ourselves. If you don’t have journalists of color in those positions, you are just missing way too many stories about the most vulnerable people.
What was it like meeting Ida B. Wells’ granddaughter?
It was amazing. She was born after Ida B. Wells was dead so she didn’t actually know her grandmother. It was important to me that the family be okay with what we were doing and using her name. We want to say there is a long tradition of Black investigative reporting even though that tradition gets erased. Her granddaughter was very happy because she also feels like her grandmother’s legacy has largely been lost.
How has winning the $650,000 that comes with a MacArthur award changed your life?
I’m one of the few very blessed people who was already doing what I wanted to do. It just provides a level of financial breathing space that me and my husband have never had. We both come from working-class families. I still have student loans.
Why do you think it’s important for people to understand segregated schools in the U.S.?
I think morally we should be opposed to segregated schools because we know that they harm children. We know that the same children who historically have been deprived of an equal and quality education continue to be so.
For a long time we largely did two things. We pretended schools weren’t really segregated, or we pretended that somehow because desegregation was no longer mandated by law, it wasn’t harmful and didn’t matter anymore. We had stopped writing about it and questioning it, meanwhile the achievement gap remained despite all of the various reform measures. The preparation-for-college gap remained and the lifelong effects of segregation remain, but we just were choosing to ignore it.
I read that you don’t think it’s possible for Black children to get an equal education in the U.S. Is that true?
Possible? It’s possible. Will they? No.
Doesn’t that break your heart a little to say that? Or believe that?
My heart was broken a long time ago.
When I say it, it’s not based on emotion. It’s just a very pragmatic view. There’s no reason to think that we would one day, after 400 years, decide to get this shit right. I sound very matter of fact now, [but] it’s not that I don’t feel a lot of emotion about it. You can ask my husband, there are many times where I come home from reporting in a school where everyone knows that these kids are not going to get an education. Everyone knows it and the kids know it too. I come home and cry.
To me, hope—I won’t say it’s useless because if people didn’t have hope we would have never had the civil rights movement. I wouldn’t have all the legal rights that I have now and other Black people have. Some people need to have hope. I just don’t have a lot.
So where do we from here?
People can make a difference. What I’m saying is that we will not choose to do it. We will not choose to do what needs to be done because what people really want—white people really want—is the easy fix, that won’t cost that much, that won’t require them to give anything up, won’t fundamentally change anything in their lives, and that fix does not exist because all of the segregation and inequality that we are now dealing with took a tremendous amount of resources. We were fine committing those resources because it was benefiting white people. We’re not fine committing those resources to something that will not benefit them.
People want some easy answer. There’s not an easy answer. That’s why in my Twitter handle I say I write about race from 1619, because I want us to understand before we were America, we started to implement this. For instance, in New York City, the answer is you’re gonna have to re-zone a bunch of kids. You’re going to have to have schools where white kids will be in the minority. You’re not going to do it.
Is there anything regular people can do to make an impact on school segregation?
What individuals can do is advocate for integration. Don’t fight re-zonings and other tactics that are based on trying to make schools more equitable and fair. We need to stop embracing the privatization of public schools and thinking that the answer is creating escape hatches for a few kids. We need to really ask ourselves do we believe in the public of public schools, which is that all of us can mix in these buildings and we’re not trying to sort kids out and within a public system ensuring that our kids get everything, while a mile away kids get nothing.
If there was a groundswell of support from white parents for integration, we would have integration.
How do you relieve stress?
I don’t do a good job with it.
But you seem happy.
I am for the most part because I feel like I have purpose.
Even though I don’t feel like America is ever gonna do right by Black children, I have definitely worked where I didn’t feel like I had purpose and had to do reporting that I didn’t feel was meaningful. If you talked to my husband he would tell you that I can be very snappy. Moody. I drink too much bourbon. I eat too many things that I’m not supposed to eat.
I try to spend as much time as I can with my daughter. While I don’t have hope on the macro level, I can look at my child and see how far my child is from the sharecropping farm my father was born on and feel very hopeful about the life I have been able to give her.
Except then I think about all the other kids and then I get sad again.
Is protesting enough to affect change?
I talk about this with my mom a lot, because she was already very left politically but the election definitely radicalized her and she believes she is part of the resistance. I think protest has a role. Is it enough? No. But I think it is necessary to keep things in front of our faces, to not let people forget that there are issues that need to be solved and certainly to not let politicians think that if they just wait Americans out, everything will be fine. I think protest plays a role, but I don’t think protest alone is what changes anything.
I saw this picture from the women’s marches and it was this white woman holding a sign that said, “If Hillary had won, we’d be at brunch right now.” And I was like, that’s the problem. The things I write about, the issues I’m dealing with, I wrote about for eight years under President Obama. And I will be writing about them after Trump is gone, if there’s a Democrat in the office or not. I’m writing about school segregation in one of the most liberal cities in the country where the mayor, who’s married to a Black woman, with Black children, won’t deal with this issue.
My fear is that these protests are not addressing a lot of the fundamental long-lasting inequalities—and as soon as there’s someone else in the White House, are white women going back to brunch?