There are a lot of reasons to be outraged by the recent preposterous decision of UNC-Chapel Hill leaders to deny academic tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and instead hire her as a contract employee.
First is the fact that Hannah-Jones, who was recently appointed to fill the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, is uniquely and supremely qualified for the job. As Policy Watch journalists Joe Killian and Kyle Ingram have reported in a series of stories, she is a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Foundation “genius award” recipient who has worked for a trio of great newspapers and written extensively about race in America. She’s even a UNC alum who’s spent much of her life in North Carolina. We’re told she wowed the committee that reviewed her candidacy.
Next is the fact that previous holders of the position at UNC, which dates to the early 1980s and is funded by the Florida-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation at more than 20 universities around the country, were all granted tenure. The notion floated by some Hannah-Jones detractors that she somehow lacks the requisite academic background simply doesn’t hold water; the position is specifically designed to be held by people like her who have extensive real world journalism experience.
As the other 22 Knight chairs from around the country said in a statement directed to the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and posted online last Thursday, trustees of “should be ashamed of their decision” and quickly reverse course.
And then, of course, there is the elephant in the room: race.
To pretend that the uniquely shabby treatment afforded to Hannah-Jones has nothing to do with the fact that she is a strong Black woman who frequently tells hard truths about race in America in innovative and sometimes provocative ways strains credulity. As Davidson College professor Isaac Bailey noted in an insightful op-ed last week, it has everything to do with that fact.
Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine that the current controversy would have ever arisen if the people driving it weren’t almost exclusively older, conservative, white men unaccustomed to having their assumptions about status and privilege – and how those things arose in this country – challenged.
But what might just be the most maddening aspect of this whole affair is the way the far right groups pushing against Hannah-Jones have been able to launder their noxious core message – namely, that America should not undertake a serious examination of its past and present plague of white supremacy.
Anyone who’s paid any attention to right-wing social media, talk radio or, for that matter, former President Trump, has heard this message. It’s the message delivered in claims that there were “very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville, that the Constitution’s infamous three-fifths clause was praiseworthy, and that 21st-century America is a fully “colorblind society.”
And more recently, this message is implicit in the coordinated right-wing effort to incite and mobilize gullible white voters with propaganda about the supposed grave threat to civilization (not to mention the tender psyches of white children) posed by “critical race theory” – a complex and deeply nuanced academic concept of which not 1-in-10 carping conservative critics has even the slightest genuine grasp.
But the people advancing this concocted controversy are savvy enough to know where and when it’s expedient to spout such propaganda. They know it will fly on Fox News and with select conservative audiences. But as the conversation edges closer to the academic world – a venue in which skilled experts can call B.S. on inaccurate claims – the messaging gets tempered.
That’s why no one on the UNC Board of Trustees is willing to come out publicly and say what’s really going on in the treatment of Hannah-Jones. The trustees – all of whom are appointed by the Board of Governors, which is in turn, appointed by the arch-conservative leadership of the General Assembly – are mostly loyal Republicans willing to do the bidding of their higher-ups.
But they know better than to publicly acknowledge the cynical political calculus underlying this particular episode. And so it is that the public is subjected to the eye roll-inducing claim about the Board of Trustees lacking sufficient time to fully vet Hannah Jones’s appointment, as well as chair Richard Stevens’s absurd attempt to shift the responsibility for the tenure denial decision onto campus administrators.
And, sadly, that’s also why chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz – a man clearly playing for time in hopes that the reactionary wave in UNC leadership will crest someday soon – has been such a frustratingly tight-lipped word parser throughout the affair.
The bottom line: As is the case with so many other aspects of the modern American right’s agenda – on issues like health care, voting rights and criminal justice – the opposition to Hannah-Jones is ultimately a function of two things: the political right’s perennial need to stoke and manipulate white fears about true racial equality and the weak-kneed complicity of powerful politicians and their appointed cronies in laundering and sanitizing this dark truth.