Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2019 by Penn State.
Right-wing critics of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which repositions slavery as central to American history, have claimed their biggest prize yet.
On Wednesday, NC Policy Watch broke the news that Nikole Hannah-Jones, who directed the project and wrote the lead essay, had been denied tenure by the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees. Instead, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract after which her tenure case would be considered. The trustees’ action came after Hannah-Jones had easily cleared every hurdle on the academic side, leading any reasonable person to conclude that the trustees’ motives were political.
The faculty at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media issued a statement that reads in part:
Failure to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones in her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process and breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school. This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university. Hannah-Jones’s distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.
Jeff Jarvis of CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School started a petition calling the decision “an act of blatant partisanship and racism in the academy” and demanding “immediate reconsideration.” As of this writing, about 170 journalism professors had signed, including me and seven of my colleagues at Northeastern University.
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Hannah-Jones has been under relentless attack from the right since the moment that the 1619 Project was published in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of slavery in what later became the United States. She won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant, but critics have claimed that her work is deeply flawed.
As Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute observes, Hannah-Jones’ appointment provoked outrage on the right when it was announced recently. Here’s a characteristic lead from National Review, written by George Leaf:
To land a professorship in American colleges and universities, you have to either have a superb record of academic achievement or espouse radical leftist ideas. The former still prevails in hard sciences (although standards there are beginning to erode), but in many other academic fields, “wokeness” is now the main consideration.
Leaf, in turn, quotes Jay Shalin, who writes for an organization called the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal:
For instance, she claimed that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as British anti-slavery sentiment grew. There is almost no hint of that in factual history.
And that’s where I want to pause for moment. Because that was perhaps the most substantive observation offered by Hannah-Jones’ critics, provoking a response from a number of historians, not all of them conservatives, who claimed that it just wasn’t so. Let me note the response of Hannah-Jones’ editor at The New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein, who observed that there was, in fact, considerable anti-slavery agitation taking place on the British side:
The culmination of this [anti-slavery rhetoric] was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.
It is notable that Lepore was not among the historians who wrote to the Times. Strangely, the idea that Hannah-Jones was simply wrong in claiming that slavery was an important cause of the revolution has become an article of faith, even though Lepore’s research makes it clear that Hannah-Jones got it right.
Hannah-Jones so far has remained silent:
But some of the coverage makes it sound like she’s already agreed to the five-year contract. I hope she hasn’t. The whole point of tenure is that it provides you with the freedom of speak out. In effect, the trustees are saying that they want to make sure Hannah-Jones will behave herself before granting her a lifetime contract.
The trustees are meeting later today. They have a chance to undo this outrageous act against a great journalist. Let’s see what happens.