UNC Threw Shade on Nikole-Hannah Jones’ ‘1619 Project,’ Denying Her Tenure

Academia holds Black women to an arbitrary standard

Nikole Hannah-Jones poses for “Vanity Fair.” Photo: Levi Walton

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, MacArthur fellow, legal scholar, and activist. She published the “1619 Project” in the New York Times in 2019, which provided a candid view of American history, starting with the forced arrival of enslaved Africans to Jamestown. Hannah-Jones’ interactive project demonstrates with clarity that slavery was an essential component of America’s founding. That part right there has conservatives throwing shade. To the opposition, Hannah-Jones gave a clear message:

I see my work as forcing us to confront our hypocrisy, forcing us to confront the truth that we would rather ignore.

As a trailblazer searching for truth, Hannah-Jones embodies the highest principles of journalistic integrity. White people who oppose the project are just feeling salty. They do not want the nation to discuss slavery because it makes them feel uncomfortable. However, as free Black people, our lives and academic pursuits should no longer be limited by the shackles of Whiteness.

Pearl-clutching cannot change American history into something it is not. Watered-down history does a disservice to those reading it. It’s past time for our nation to take a straight shot of truth with no chaser. And Hannah-Jones delivered. Like many Black women, she wants America to move past denials and hypocrisies to move onto something remarkable.

A nation that claims to be a beacon for liberty, justice, and democracy has never lived up to its end of the bargain for Black people, starting with the chattel slavery system. Open attempts to bury history only serve to make a stronger case for why America’s schoolchildren need the “1619 Project” in their lives. And for those who think these topics are too heavy, consider that German schoolchildren learn about the Holocaust. This curriculum is part of Germany’s efforts to ensure nothing that horrific happens again. Information is phased in based on age range. However, over time, children learn about Germany’s darkest days.

Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project — which includes audio, essays, poems, graphics and visual art pieces — reframes the history of the U.S. through the legacy of slavery and its ultimate influence on the country’s democracy. (Padilla, 2021).

Despite Hannah-Jones’ numerous accolades and support from faculty and the tenure committee, the University of North Carolina (UNC) board of trustees denied her tenure, buckling under pressure from conservatives. When faculty consider granting tenure, they spend hours evaluating the qualifications of a candidate. In this case, they found Hannah-Jones qualified. The board of trustees disagreed. Now, the community is demanding answers.

Protesters consisting of students, faculty, and activists chanted, “We shall overcome,” standing behind the board of trustees. They were outraged at the seemingly arbitrary nature of their decision. An academic institution should always follow the facts. But, this time, UNC punished Hannah-Jones’ research, not because of theoretical flaws but simply because it doesn’t fit the conservative agenda.

Considered by some as one of the most impactful journalists of our time, Hannah-Jones will be the first Knight Chair professor denied tenure. This inaction on UNC’s part is unfortunate yet par for the course. This White, academic rejection of Hannah-Jones is a reminder that Black women are held to an inconsistent and arbitrary standard compared with their peers.

According to the American Association of University Professors, “the purpose of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education.” While universities make the final call on who receives tenure, denying Hannah-Jones’ because of the controversial nature of her research cuts at the fabric of scholarly decorum. Journalist Brittney Cooper called UNC Board of Trustees’ decision “racist and despicable.”

Tweet credit: @ProfessorCrunk

Hannah-Jones’s 20-plus year distinguished record in the field of journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position. (Padilla, 2021).

Only 5.2% of tenured faculty in higher education are Black. In America, Black women have to work twice, sometimes three times as hard to reach professional and academic goals. And no, that’s not hyperbole. According to a 2014 study, Black women enrolled and obtained college degrees at higher rates than any other racial group. They are some of the most qualified candidates available. Yet, companies pay Black women 38% less than White men and 21% less than White women.

Image: Leanin.org

Hannah-Jones was more experienced than other candidates approved for tenure. And while no one on the board of trustees would admit discrimination played a role, statistics speak louder than words. How else could you explain less qualified White women holding positions of tenure over more qualified Black women as anything else other than racism?

Tenured positions are sought after because they are prestigious, career-long positions that provide academic freedom. People with controversial research topics receive tenure all the time. But, when it comes to Black women, there is always an excuse why we don’t deserve the same freedom to research topics that redefine societal perspectives.

The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill. — Hussman faculty

The decision to deny tenure to Hannah-Jones fits into the never-ending culture war waged by conservatives. While Ben Shapiro often says, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” research demonstrates conservatives value feelings more. White pundits are laser-focused on trying to discredit Hannah-Jones’ efforts because slavery makes them feel uneasy. There’s nothing scholarly about UNC buckling to pressure from groups with only feelings to contest her years of research and journalism.

The New York Times “1619 Project” presented historically accurate information. According to their reporting, the information is not due to “framing.” Data presented in the “1619 Project” comes from verifiable facts and the NYT pushed back on critiques on more than one occasion. In a seemingly desperate attempt to hold onto White-washed history, conservatives put an amazingly talented Black scholar on their most wanted list.

Denying tenure to an award-winning journalist sends a powerful message to Black academia. Conservatives will use their political might and influence to thwart those plans if you decide to research, study, or teach the “1619 Project” or critical race theory. Simply put, conservatives want to de-incentivize studies in this area. That’s a problem for anyone who cares about the truth.

Studying slavery and the demonstrable policies that followed can help to put America into perspective. That’s essential if we want to lead as a nation or have credibility on the world stage. Conservatives aren’t fooling anyone. Denying that atrocities happen doesn’t mean they did not occur. And obscuring the truth, simply because it is unpleasant, is the antithesis of scholarly investigations. In the aftermath of the Donald Trump presidency, fighting for facts remains an uphill battle — even in academic settings.

Tweet credit: @MaraGay

Arbitrary standards of tenure positions diminish equity in academic leadership and research. No matter how hard Black women work, it seems they keep moving the goal post. Not only did society expect Hannah-Jones to meet the standards White academics did, but she would have to pursue the truth in a way others found appealing. The truth is not always attractive, which is why tenure recipients benefit from academic freedom. It protects our pursuit of the truth. But for Black women, they stop us at the front door, robbing us of the liberties others enjoy. They expected Hannah-Jones to pursue truth in a way that would not offend their White fragility.

UNC exposed the political undercurrent within academia. They offered her a five-year teaching post but stripped the position of tenure typically paired with the opportunity. Board members dismissed her accolades because Hannah-Jones is a Black woman who will not comply with the whims of White conservatives. Conservatives do not oppose Hannah-Jones on the merits of her research. If so, they would articulate a clear rebuttal. Instead, they want to knee-cap her efforts. However, given her track record, none of their tactics will make a dent. Her Teflon journalism will stand the test of time, and their opposition to the raw facts of this country’s origin will collapse.

Essayist, Poet, Activist, and Scholar, EIC of CULTURED, Founder of #WEOC, with bylines at Momentum & ZORA ♥︎ www.allisonthedailywriter.com

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