Hidden Figures and Hidden Talent: Why We All Lose When Exclusion Reigns

“Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”

This is the slogan that proudly faces passersby on MDC’s front window on Main Street in Durham. I’ve seen pedestrians stop in front of MDC’s windows, visibly pondering the meaning of the above statement. This sentiment undergirds our work; despite tried and true examples of trickle-up gain resulting from initially targeted policies, the idea that “society benefits when everyone succeeds” can seem abstract at best and untrue at worst. A scarcity mentality tempts us to dismiss collective benefit and cling to the belief that for one group to succeed, to matter, and to be recognized means that another group loses something. So what does MDC’s mantra, the antithesis of scarcity, really mean, and how do we know it’s true?

This past Sunday night, a 98-year-old African-American woman appeared on stage at one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies our nation celebrates. She was greeted by a standing ovation as the crowd of stars gathered for the 89th Academy Awards cheered her legacy, the inspiration for one of the year’s highest grossing films. But Katherine Johnson’s achievements are far more profound than the narrative of a blockbuster. Looking out at a sea of glamor and elitism, Katherine Johnson proudly exemplified why success and opportunity are not a zero-sum game.

Her story, as many have come to know it, is portrayed in the recent film Hidden Figures, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s true account of four black women who played a key role in 1960s Space Race through their work at NASA. Though the film collapses the historical timeline and creates composite characters, the film has been acclaimed as an impressively accurate account of the struggles and triumphs of black female mathematicians relegated to backstage yet critical work at NASA. The film follows the work of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson) at the height of the nation’s anxiety over Russian advances in space—and the U.S.’s lagging pace. In a time of looming threat from a foreign power, U.S. residents across region and identity had a vested interest in putting all hands and minds on deck to maximize talent and progress. But Jim Crow laws in Virginia, where NASA was working to send the first American into orbit, stubbornly and systemically inhibited equal inclusion of all American talent. Though Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson had the skill, intellect, and passion needed to make a difference in America’s voyage to space, the narrative of white and male superiority is clear and biting: “We don’t need your talent. We can go farther without you.”

Except: yes, they do, and no, they can’t.

Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson, who start out in the film as human “computers” in the all-black West campus of NASA know the worth and necessity of their talent, and choose to persist against unjust obstacles to make their vital contributions. (Their stories are examples of personal heroism that, as we’ve discussed here on the State of the South blog, can come at a high cost and ought not to be placed on individuals to begin with.)

Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016

Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016

Mary Jackson notices a defect of the heat shield surrounding the capsule that will carry John Glenn into space. But without the credentials offered by the whites-only school in Hampton, V.A., Jackson is barred from contributing her talent. Engineering in Virginia, therefore, is structurally maintained as a white field, for white talent. The American people are eagerly awaiting Glenn’s journey to space; little do they know the progress of U.S. space advancement is tied to the progress of integrating their schools—a measure met with opposition from large segments of the Southern white population. Jackson petitions the city of Hampton to allow her entry to the all-white school and breaks the barrier that had been erected to keep people of color from accessing opportunity and actualizing their talent. What is seen by opponents of integration as an advantage for people of color and a loss for white students and families is, actually, a gain for the entire nation.

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html

Dorothy Vaughn similarly asserts herself in NASA’s work to accelerate progress in space travel. With the arrival of the IBM 7090, a machine that can rapidly compute calculations, Vaughn realizes that the new IBM could displace the black female computers she unofficially oversees. She throws herself into learning about the machine to ensure a place for her talent in the transition to using the IBM. But of course, the literature that would help her learn about the machine is in the whites-only section of the library. In the film, Vaughn’s character “bends” the rules by taking the book from the library, even though it is not approved reading for African Americans. From this book, she teaches not only herself, but also her all-black team of female mathematicians. By educating herself, which required covert studying and disobeying Jim Crow laws, Vaughn becomes the first person to successfully operate the IBM—something that made everyone’s work easier, more efficient, and ultimately made the U.S. more competitive.

Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, the first black female members of NASA’s Space Task Group Source: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/how-hidden-figures-got-1960s-kodachrome-look-963042

Finally, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson, who faces discouraging messages and procedures at every turn. She’s needed on the Space Task Group to calculate high-level equations to ensure Glenn’s safe orbit—the first black female to serve on the prestigious team—but she’s resented by her white counterparts. Her colleagues undermine her abilities and her contributions—everything from installing a “colored” coffee maker and excluding her from critical meetings. When Katherine spends critical work time walking miles to the “colored” bathroom, when she’s given partial information because she’s not deemed trustworthy, the nation falls further behind in the Space Race. But when segregation of facilities is no longer enforced and Katherine demands and is provided a seat at the table during top-secret meetings and knowledge-sharing, only then does the U.S. emerge victorious in sending the first American into orbit. Our whole nation benefited when Katherine succeeded, and she had the opportunity to fully contribute her talents only when intentionally exclusive, white-supremacist barriers came toppling down.

Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson’s stories teach us about the collective cost and unnecessary drain caused by Jim Crow policies in the South, as well as raise the question of why so many defended these policies in the first place. In hindsight, it seems obvious that structural and micro-level racial discriminations divided critical talent and held the whole country back. Stories like this always cause me to think: What kinds of harmful inequities will seem obvious to us fifty years from now? Instead of experiencing this history lesson and blockbuster film as a voyeuristic trip to the past, Americans can use the insights gained from Hidden Figures to sharpen our understanding of current barriers to opportunity—and consider what we all might be losing in defense of policies and structural practices that make it harder for those suppressed by disadvantage to maximize their full potential.

And surely there is much unsupported talent trapped in the lowest income quintile, particularly here in the American South, where a child born to parents with earnings at the bottom of the rung has only a 0-6.4 percent chance of entering a career with earnings in the top income quintile as an adult. The researchers who unearthed these alarming data found that this stalled mobility was associated with lower quality schools, high rates of racial residential segregation, lack of connection to social capital, lack of two-earner households, and high rates of income inequality. These factors exacerbate one another: income inequality combined with racial residential segregation creates inequitable quality of schools, negatively affecting students of color at a disproportionate rate, given local school funding formulas that often rely on property taxes. These economic mobility toxins plague the South at a higher rate than any other region in the U.S.—the same region, of course, that clung to racial segregation and Jim Crow legal discrimination for so many years. These exclusive policies were designed to bar people of color from accessing the same degree of opportunity and success as the white population, and the data show us that historical educational and economic suppression carry long-lasting symptoms that have intergenerational effects on families and entire communities.

Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data

Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data

But the stories shared in Hidden Figures tell us that when the walls of exclusion are lifted, when white superiority is debunked as talent across identities is valued, we all go farther together. Our nation houses an abundance of unique passion and talent. The choice is ours: Will we make room for our collective potential and insist on equity for all, from childhood to the workforce? Or will we pay the price of our own scarcity mentality? Like the film’s character Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) tells a white NASA worker, who is disgruntled by Katherine Johnson’s presence and recognition of talent, “We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” Or—as we like to say at MDC: “Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”

Poverty, Diversity, and the Preschool Classroom

We are at a critical moment in early education. According to A Better Start: Why Diversity in Preschool Classrooms Matters, the recent surge in early childhood initiatives and the increasing diversity within the population of young children have yet to translate to diversity within the classroom. In order for all children to succeed regardless of race and class, we must see these investments through into the future.

In North Carolina, 14 percent of non-Hispanic white children under 6 live in poverty, compared to 44 percent and 46 percent of black and Hispanic or Latino children (US Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey). Even the overall success of investments and efforts to improve early childhood education programming and access has not addressed participation rates and quality of services along the aforementioned lines of economic and racial segregation. More must be done to incorporate diversity and instill equity into learning environments.

Child Pov NC

Source: CLASP calculations of American Community Survey data

Children’s peers are increasingly diverse. As the Center for Public Education explains, “Trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that soon there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the United States—no one group that makes up more than fifty percent of the total population.” Economic and racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools misrepresents the world these children will grow up in and it begins in U. S. preschools; only 17 percent of children are currently learning in racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.

Children, particularly children of color, are aware of—and thus affected by—race as early as age four. At this developmental stage, they ask questions to inform their own behaviors and learn from their environment to understand the way the world works, according to Louise Derman-Sparks. As A Better Start notes, “Children with disparate skills may learn from each other in the daily interactions and play activities that typically characterize the preschool day.” This kind of interaction enriches language and vocabulary development and, according to A Better Start¸ even promotes cross-cultural learning.   That’s why preschool is a significant supplement to the home environment of all children: though incoming math and language skills correlate to socioeconomic status (SES), children from low SES consistently perform better in math and language in the company of higher SES peers. A Better Start explains how classroom diversity can benefit higher SES, white students by reducing the prejudices and social isolation of children by race.

Getting that kind of head start on academic and social learning is a key foundation in an infrastructure of opportunity that works for children from day one. No matter how family demographics, ideologies, and resources may differ, parents share common values for their children. Providing families of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds access to the same high-quality early childhood education gives those children, full of potential, the opportunity to learn from each other rather than internalizing the “way the world works” through misleading cues like segregation.

MDC recently began work with the Kate B. Charitable Trust as the “activating agency” for Great Expectations, a major community-wide initiative of the Trust that aims to ensure that all young children in Forsyth County—with a special focus on those living in financially-disadvantaged families—meet age-appropriate developmental milestones in their first five years, enter kindergarten ready for school, and leave kindergarten fully ready for learning and life success.

The approach to Great Expectations centers on systems change with a strong commitment to creating ways to elevate the voices of low-SES parents and caregivers and parents/caregivers of color in the conversation about how to improve outcomes for their children. An improved system could increase availability and accessibility of high-quality child care classrooms for all families, regardless of SES and race. As more low-SES children and children of color enroll into childcare, more parents/caregivers will have the opportunity to share their vision for their child’s early education. Everyday experiences like story time and reading assignments could be transformed to show children their potential through stories from and about children from varying lifestyles and cultural backgrounds.

Through interactive exposure to diversity in play and in academic settings, children can turn their natural curiosity and sense of community into tools to form conceptions of equity—as they contextualize their identity with race and class. Doing so at an early age encourages the social responsibility and intuition children need to succeed and value the shared success of their peers—and that is essential to maintaining a productive and equitable society.

Poor Indicators: Testing Our Achievement Assumptions

On this blog and around the office at MDC we talk a lot about economic mobility and the lack of opportunity for upward mobility for many low-income young people. In one of our recent meetings on this topic, I mentioned that it is easy to falsely conflate the low-income student population with the low-achieving student population. Just as there are high-achieving wealthy students, there are also high-achieving, low-income students. A recent longitudinal study from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that high-achieving low-income students are as likely as affluent students with below average test scores to complete a college degree.

This conversation reminded me a study I read years ago about gifted students living in poverty. The authors of the study followed a young, gifted student named Jermaine who lived in a poor county in Alabama. In the study community, “Pine Grove,” all students are African-American and 98 percent of them are eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Jermaine’s school had a leaky roof, no gym, and no art or music rooms. The school district was consistently on the list of schools to be taken over by the state’s department of education. The names of the people and places studied were changed to protect the participants’ identities, but this study could be talking about any number of communities across Alabama. Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the nation; one in four children there lives in poverty.

The authors followed Jermaine for the span of three years, his 3rd– to 5th grade years. They reviewed a portfolio of Jermaine’s work, observed Jermaine in and out of school, and corresponded with Jermaine and his teacher, Teresa Beardsley. When the study first began, Jermaine lived with his mother, older brother and sister, and an aunt. His family lived in a house, but in his community, homes were inferior to trailers that came with central heat and air conditioning, furnishings, and appliances. Jermaine knew his family was considered to be in the lowest rung of the social circle in Pine Grove: other students had expensive sneakers, while Jermaine’ mom gets his sneakers from Bargaintown. Jermaine got teased a lot.

Jermaine’s performance in school was considered “remarkable”; he was creative, had an advanced vocabulary, and very high achievement scores. However, his intelligence was not cultivated at school; he was bored and became a discipline problem. Administrators and teachers alike described him as “bad”; someone to “keep an eye on.” His teacher, Ms. Beardsley, found that she often had to serve as an advocate for Jermaine.

His mother did not play an active role in his schooling, but he had two uncles from Detroit who brought him toys and paid for his uniforms when he needed them. Jermaine was supported by friends’ families and the football coach who, recognizing the young boy’s intelligence, made Jermaine his starting quarterback. Jermaine gained friends by sharing the books he received from his uncles and, of course, the acclaim that comes with being the school’s quarterback. He dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but explained that he wanted to be a Hollywood film producer first. We never find out if he achieves this dream.

Even though Jermaine’s school offered opportunities for athletics, they did not offer access to gifted and talented programs or other programs that could have nurtured Jermaine’s creativity. Study authors detailed that rural, gifted students face without access to these types of activities:

…within rural school districts acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change made it difficult to initiate new programs for gifted students. Along with limited financial resources for programs perceived as benefiting a few students, rural schools were unable to provide adequate specialized teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and curriculum specialists to assist in providing appropriate services for high-ability youngsters. (p. 202)

Inadequate funding for poor, rural school districts perpetuates the acceptance of the status quo. In July 2015, EdBuild released a map of student poverty rates for 13,000 school districts. They found in many cases, “school districts of dramatically different income levels are next-door neighbors, or even sit, island-like, within one another.” And in many Southern school districts, there is significant variation in student poverty rates between schools. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.

I’m glad that Jermaine’s story has remained with me all these years. It puts a face to all those data points. Jermaine is a creative, caring young man who wants to thrive despite his circumstances. As we try to figure out solutions to improve educational opportunity for low-income students, it’s important that we don’t forget there are thousands of other students like Jermaine. Poor students can be smart, too, but our educational system is still failing too many of them.

Same as It Ever Was: Why Desegregation Still Matters in the South

It’s no secret: the quality of a child’s education is one of the most important factors in her future success. It’s also no secret that educational quality varies widely between schools and between districts, and that inequitable residential segregation and school funding formulas often concentrate students from low-wealth families in lower quality schools. The rate of poverty for public school students, like the overall poverty rate, differs across regions, states, and school districts, but it is generally higher in the South. EdBuild recently mapped the poverty rates in school districts nationally. In the map below, those areas in light blue are the ones where the student poverty rate is less than 10 percent and dark blue areas are more than 40 percent:

South school poverty

Source: EdBuild

School poverty varies widely district to district, and in many areas districts with high levels of poverty are located right next to ones with lower levels. In places where countywide school districts were never formed, like Birmingham, Ala., you see that intense contrast:

Birmingham school poverty

Source: EdBuild

The EdBuild map doesn’t tell us about the concentration of poverty at schools within districts, but other research does. In the South especially, school quality follows patterns of residential segregation by economic status and race. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools. In Durham County, N.C., where 61 percent of students are from low-income families, 36 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, while only 6 percent of white students do. In Jefferson County, Ala., where Birmingham is located, 65 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, while only 2 percent of white students do.

While the South was less segregated than the rest of the nation during the 1980s and early 1990s, by 2009, Southern levels of segregation had risen quickly enough to catch up with the nation:

Segregation chart

Source: Southern Slippage report from UCLA

The problem is not really about the concentration of low-wealth students—it’s the concentration of wealth. In a new episode of This American Life that you absolutely need to listen to, Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that school desegregation cut the national achievement gap between black and white students in half in less than two decades (it has widened again since 1988, when segregation began to increase). She explains:

It’s important to point out that it is not that something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids. It’s not that suddenly a switch turns on and they get intelligence or wanting, you know, the desire to learn when they’re with white kids. What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids, and therefore, it gets them access to the same things that white kids get: quality teachers and quality instruction.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the importance of where a person lives to educational and economic success, but that point requires context: where you live is often not about choice. Intentional policies and practices actively created residential segregation by race. Sean Reardon of the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that middle-class black families tend to live in lower-wealth neighborhoods than low-income white families:

NYT neighborhood inc

Source: NYT

While the economic resources of families matter tremendously to educational success (there’s a linear relationship between income and who goes to college: with each increase in the family income distribution, the rate of college attendance increases the same amount), low-wealth young people in some areas are much more successful than low-wealth young people in others. The place a young person lives in and the resources available there determine the type of opportunities and the quality of the person’s preparation for them. That’s why, as Peter Edelman points out (h/t Dylan Matthews), reforms to improve and equalize school quality are a necessary complement to antipoverty efforts:

There is a bogus debate going on that pits school reform against antipoverty advocates. School reformers, wanting to squelch teachers and others who have said over the years that they cannot teach children who come to school with multiple problems that stem from poverty, say (correctly) that there are no valid excuses for failing to teach low-income children. They point (as they could not until quite recently) to multiple examples of schools that excel in teaching low-income children. But to the extent they say or imply that reducing poverty now is somehow less important than school reform, they overstate their point. Antipoverty advocates, for their part, in some instances downplay the independent efficacy of school reform.

 

The real answer, quite obviously, is that both school reform and serious antipoverty policies are vital. Better schools in inner cities, both charters and traditional public schools, are crucial to children’s possibilities of having a better life. But far more inner-city children will succeed in school if their parents have better jobs and higher incomes and if the communities in which they are growing up are healthy. There is no either-or here. Good schools are a must for inner-city children, but they cannot achieve maximum effect unless the schools strategy is part of a larger antipoverty approach.

It may seem like an obvious point that both are important, but in an era of scarce public investment, we often overlook it. Poverty is not an intractable problem, and students from low-wealth families are not doomed, but we talk as though they are. School desegregation both narrowed the achievement gap and dramatically improved the intergenerational mobility of black students in the South. We know that mobility is higher in places with quality schools and lower levels of residential segregation. In those places, both low-wealth and affluent students have better outcomes. Despite all this, there is very little acknowledgement of the importance of desegregating schools. “We have this thing that we know works, that the data shows works, that we know is best for kids, and we won’t talk about it,” says Nikole Hannah-Jones. “It’s not even on the table.”

Picture This: The Geography of Immobility

Residential segregation is a huge barrier to an equitable infrastructure of opportunity in the US, because where you live has a major impact on your access to a quality education and good jobs. In the South, the typical metro resident can only access 26 percent of that metro’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit—lower than any other region. For suburban residents in the South, it’s less than 20 percent. And jobs near high-poverty neighborhoods have declined substantially since 2000 in most US and Southern metros, especially for many high-poverty suburban Southern neighborhoods.

We talked last week about the importance of reducing housing discrimination as one step toward reducing economic and racial segregation in neighborhoods. Thanks to a new interactive map from the Urban Institute (via CityLab), we can examine patterns of affluence across the US. The map shows where the Census tracts with the highest and lowest socio-economic status are located, with socio-economic status determined by income, educational attainment, homeownership, and housing value. Take a look below at the eight Southern metros that have some of the lowest levels of economic mobility in the US. Census tracts in the top ten percent of socio-economic status are blue, while those in the lowest ten percent are gray.

These Southern metros show clear divisions or clusters of affluence, which implies that resources and opportunity are concentrated in certain areas. That concentration makes it much more difficult for those living outside affluent areas to access affordable housing, jobs, and social networks that are key factors in economic mobility. We can see the picture much more clearly now—what will we do to change it?

Memphis, TN:

Memphis

Source: Urban Institute

 

Charlotte, NC:

Charlotte

Source: Urban Institute

 

Columbia, SC:

Columbia

Source: Urban Institute

 

Atlanta, GA:

Atlanta

Source: Urban Institute

 

Greensboro, NC:

Greensboro

Source: Urban Institute

 

Raleigh, NC (and neighboring Durham):

Raleigh

Source: Urban Institute

 

Greenville, SC (and neighboring Spartanburg):

Greenville

Source: Urban Institute

 

Jacksonville, FL:

Jacksonville

Source: Urban Institute