Activist / Propagandist wrong for UNC post

Nikole Hannah-Jones

By Raheem Williams | News Commentary

Raheem Williams

Editor’s note: Raheem Williams is an economist, writer and policy analyst based in Carrboro – not far from the Chapel Hill campus of UNC.

CHAPEL HILL – The recent decision by the University of North Carolina  trustees to deny Nikole Hannah- Jones tenure for the position of the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism has caused a national uproar. However, Hannah-Jones is not deserving of a lifetime tenure appointment

Hannah-Jones is, in fact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist –  on paper. Anyone with functioning brain cells can see she’s an activist and propagandist. Her seminal work in the New York Times is 1619 Project, an essay series riddled with historical inaccuracies with the explicit purpose of redefining the founding of America as racist. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with arguing America has a racist past. America’s past is indeed rife with racial strife that overwhelmingly disadvantaged people of color. However, this isn’t the issue.

The shoddy methods of Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow, are an inexcusable mistake. Hannah-Jones, not a historian, ignored at least one of the historians hired to fact-check her work when objections were raised. Likewise, the New York Times engaged in dubious spin and covert edits to run cover as an onslaught of criticism came from American historians unaffiliated with the project. 

Now, at this point, it’s easy to dismiss this commentary as the ramblings of a partisan conservative, bitter over ideological disputes. However, it’s simply more than that. The outcry against 1619 was embraced and politicized by the political right but it did not originate from there. The history scholars who raised objections span the ideological spectrum from libertarian to openly socialist. 

The simple truth is Hannah-Jones and the editorial team at the New York Times purposely abandoned facts in favor of fringe conspiracy theories about American history. One of the most egregious conspiracies is the absurdly false idea that slavery played a pivotal role in the decision of the colonist merchant class to fight the American Revolutionary War. This is simply a lie. The Revolutionary War was not about keeping slavery. The New York Times defended the concept of slavery as a primary motivator for the Revolution by pointing to the fact that some colonial newspapers covered Somerset v Stewart (1772), a case in which the English High Court expressed disapproval of slavery in a narrow decision. Although this is true, it is grossly insufficient in supporting the core claim. The decision was narrow, meaning it only applied in that specific case. 

Furthermore, the UK did not end slavery until 50 years after the American Revolution. Hannah-Jones implies the slave-owning colonists had decades of foresight as if they were magical oracles. Likewise, the founders owned slaves. If it was about slavery, they would have just written that. The Declaration of Independence specifically referred to Native Americans as “Indian savages.” People were not exactly shy about their racist views back then. American history is littered with pseudo-intellectual defenses of slavery; it’s not hard for a decent scholar to find them.

The aforementioned is just one of the blatant examples of historical revisionism within Hanna-Jones’ 1619 Project. However, this isn’t about recalling her pseudo-scholarship, or even about Hannah-Jones herself. It’s about the UNC community and perhaps journalism as a whole. The hostile reaction to the board’s decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure is nothing short of terrifying. Faculty, students, and alumni are effectively protesting in favor of bringing a historical revisionist to campus to teach. The faculty of the Hussman School of Journalism overwhelmingly endorsed Hannah-Jones and by default her gross distortion of basic historical facts.

The real controversy isn’t the decision made by the board, but the reaction to it. We regularly reject the pseudo-scholarship of right-wing Civil War revisionists. We should do the same for radical racial revisionists. Hannah-Jones does not belong in a classroom, not because she’s Black, not because she cares to expose racism – there is nothing wrong with any of that. She does not belong in the classroom because she is a revisionist with no shame. To this effect, it is an embarrassment that UNC even recruited her.