How to shame a mob of racists

Nikole Hannah-Jones has one answer: be so damned good at your job that you can humiliate them by walking away. Read her statement on the chaos caused by the racists who tried to undermine her career at UNC.

“Being asked to return to teach at Carolina had felt like a homecoming; it felt like another way to give back to the institution that had given so much to me. And now I was being told that the Board of Trustees would not vote on my tenure and that the only way for me to come teach in the fall would be for me to sign a five-year contract under which I could be considered for tenure at a later, unspecified date. By that time, I had invested months in the process. I had secured an apartment in North Carolina so that I would be ready to teach that January. My editors at The New York Times had already supplied quotes for the press release of the big announcement. I did not want to face the humiliation of letting everyone know that I would be the first Knight Chair at the university to be denied tenure. I did not want to wage a fight with my alma mater or bring to the school and to my future colleagues the political firestorm that has dogged me since The 1619 Project published. So, crushed, I signed the five-year contract in February, and I did not say a word about it publicly.

“But some of those who had lobbied against me were not satisfied to simply ensure I did not receive tenure. When the announcement of my hire as the Knight Chair came out at the end of April, writers from a North Carolina conservative think tank called the James G. Martin Center railed against the university for subverting the board’s tenure denial and hiring me anyway. The think tank had formerly been named after Art Pope, an influential conservative activist who now serves on the UNC Board of Governors, who had helped birth the center. The article questioned how I had been hired without the Board of Trustees approval, and its writer argued that, because the university hired me anyway after the board stymied my tenure, the Board of Governors “should amend system policies to require every faculty hire to be vetted by each school’s board of trustees.” And yet, when that article was published, it had not been made public that I had been hired without the board approving my tenure or my hire. Even faculty at the journalism school were not aware that I had not been considered for tenure and would not learn this until some days later.

“Nine days after the James G. Martin Center published this piece, reporter Joe Killian at N.C. Policy Watch broke the story that, because of political interference and pressure by conservatives, I had been denied consideration for tenure and instead offered a five-year contract. The story about the denial of consideration went viral, and I was dragged into the very thing that I had tried to avoid as the actions of the Board of Trustees became a national scandal.

I did not know that ironic detail. She’d been willing to quietly accept a compromise until the conservatives themselves balked, and they triggered the whole colossal scandal.

“To this day, no one has ever explained to me why my vote did not occur in November or January, and no one has requested the additional information that a member of the Board of Trustees claimed he was seeking when they refused to take up my tenure. The university’s leadership continues to be dishonest about what happened and patently refuses to acknowledge the truth, to offer any explanation, to own what they did and what they tried to do. Once again, when leadership had the opportunity to stand up, it did not.

“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.

“I fought this battle because I know that all across this country Black faculty, and faculty from other marginalized groups, are having their opportunities stifled, and that if political appointees could successfully stop my tenure, then they would only be emboldened to do it to others who do not have my platform. I had to stand up. And, I won the battle for tenure.

“But I also get to decide what battles I continue to fight. And I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were. For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.

“I will be taking a position as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University, founded in 1867 to serve the formerly enslaved and their descendants. There, I will be creating a new initiative aimed at training aspiring journalists to cover the crisis of our democracy and bolstering journalism programs at historically Black colleges and universities across the country. I have already helped secure $15 million for this effort, called the Center for Journalism and Democracy, with the generous grants from the Ford, Knight, and MacArthur foundations, and have set a goal of raising $25 million. In the storied tradition of the Black press, the Center for Journalism and Democracy will help produce journalists capable of accurately and urgently covering the perilous challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor, and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.

I suppose it’s too much to hope that another outcome will be that UNC will repudiated the influence of wealthy bigots like Walter Hussman, everyone at the James G. Martin Center, and certain old rich racists on the UNC Board of Governors. North Carolina has resisted supporting black students and faculty and made life difficult for Hannah-Jones in every step of her career, and she still loves the place despite the actions of the rich and powerful, who have managed to do great harm to the reputation of their school.


  1. snarkrates says

    And now let’s talk about reparations. Robert Johnson has suggested a figure of 14 trillion dollars. That sounds like a lot, but it comes out to about $280000 per black man, woman and child in the US. The average white family has a net worth of over $180000, while the average black family has a net worth of about $24000–and you can show that policies of federal, state and local governments since the passage of the 14th amendment are responsible for that. If black Americans sued on that basis, they would have a quite strong case for recouping over $8 trillion right there. And that does not even touch what is owed for the crime against humanity represented by the slave trade. Looked at in this context, $14 trillion doesn’t look so unreasonable.

    White Americans have already demonstrated that they are incapable of rectifying racism through reform. Any sort of affirmative action to remedy past wrongs generates howls from the racists. So, I say, make the bastards pay a lump sum and then let Black America tell the rest of the country to fuck off.

  2. Jack Krebs says

    I highlighted these two paragraphs on my FB post about her reply:

    “These key paragraphs are powerful:
    ““Many people, all with the best of intentions, have said that if I walk away from UNC, I will have let those who opposed me win. But I do not want to win someone else’s game. It is not my job to heal this university [The University of North Carolina], to force the reforms necessary to ensure the Board of Trustees reflects the actual population of the school and the state, or to ensure that the university leadership lives up to the promises it made to reckon with its legacy of racism and injustice.
    “For too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole. The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.”

  3. lakitha tolbert says

    #2 snarkrates
    If given the opportunity to do so, I’m willing to bet there’s a fairly large contingent of Black Americans who would just leave. They actually would “go back to Africa”, and to America’s detriment, especially considering the African countries that have opened their arms wide, and made it clear that they are specifically welcoming African Americans to emigrate there, and why.!

  4. says

    Robert Johnson has suggested a figure of 14 trillion dollars. That sounds like a lot, but it comes out to about $280000 per black man, woman and child in the US.

    Why not just say “no Black American ever pays federal taxes or state taxes unless they make over $1mn/yr”? For, say 400 years

  5. brightmoon says

    It’s hard to shame racists . It’s others who feel embarrassed enough to put a stop to that crap

  6. says

    @7: A difficulty with all such ideas is that you have to define “Black.” Many people are classified as Black who are not descendants of people enslaved in the U.S. Some are descended from people who immigrated from Africa or the Caribbean after 1865. (Some have ancestors who were enslaved in other countries but the responsibility of the U.S. for that is debatable.) Of course they were subject to many of the disabilities of racism, but to highly varying degrees. On the other hand, many people who do not consider themselves black or are perceived as black do have enslaved ancestors, probably nearly all whose ancestors were here in the early 19th Century. Once you start creating legal racial classifications you are asking for no end of trouble. Just try the thought experiment. Reparation and restoration has to happen at the community level, and it has to be more broadly conceived. It’s impossible to strictly focus the benefits, and it would only stir up resentment and backlash to try, justifiably so because such targeting could not help but be unjust. It’s important to think about this more systemically and creatively.

  7. lakitha tolbert says

    #9 cervantes
    Agreed. You have a lot of cultural mixing as well. The idea of reparations at the individual level probably wouldn’t work. It would have to be a community wide issue, (although I do like the idea of not paying some taxes!)

  8. says

    Of course it’s difficult.
    Endless difficulties are a great way of avoiding doing anything at all until it’s way too late and “it’s way too late” becomes the excuse.

  9. passngrin says

    I looked up what a Knight Chair is. Did she actually take an endowment away from UNC and gave it to Howard? XD

    On the other hand, I’m afraid of what conservatives will do to deflect from UNC’s failings and their hand in it

  10. says

    “The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.”

    Feels like a modern-day “J’accuse!”

  11. snarkrates says

    cervantes, lakitha–this is a class action lawsuit–different members of the class have experienced torts to a different extent. Not all blacks in the US are descendents of slaves. However, almost every black person in the US has been victimized by redlining. Black farmers still receive less aid from USDA than their white counterparts.

    And fuck this idea that it can’t be done at the individual level. The US has proven time and again that it will not keep its commitments over time. I wouldn’t trust gummint programs until after the check they write for the full amount clears.

    And I am speaking as a someone whose skin tone is somewhere between wonder bread and mayo. Black Americans are owed a helluva lot more than 50 acres and gumming mule.

  12. James Fehlinger says

    Donors should have nothing to do with. . .

    In some branches of the multiverse, I gather, “Golden Rule”
    doesn’t mean “the guy with the gold makes the rule”.

    I don’t think we’re actually living in any of those
    branches, though.

    Or as Iain M. Banks put it, via Patient 8262 in Transition :

    I was a traveller, a fixer for the Concern. . . Across
    the many worlds I roamed, surfing that blast-front of ever-changing,
    ever-branching existence, dancing through the spectra of
    plausible/implausible, hermetic/connected, banal/bizarre,
    kind/cruel and so on; all the ways that we’d worked out a world
    or deck of worlds could be judged, evaluated and ranked.
    (This world, here, is plausible, hermetic, banal, kind.
    Yours is the same except closer to the cruel end of the
    relevant spectrum. Quite a lot closer. You had the misfortune
    to have a singular ancestral Eve and I guess she just wasn’t
    a very nice person. Blame volcanoes or something.)


  13. chrislawson says

    Marcus Ranum@7–

    ‘Why not just say “no Black American ever pays federal taxes or state taxes unless they make over $1mn/yr”? For, say 400 years’

    Tax relief overwhelmingly benefits people in higher tax brackets and won’t lift anyone out of poverty. I know you were making a point about the long history of American racial oppression rather than proposing a fully-fleshed out reparation scheme, but still…

  14. chrislawson says


    No doubt any reparation will be incredibly complex and prone to abuse by freeloaders. But it still needs to be done. And on the plus side, imagine all those neo-Confederates getting DNA tests to see if they can milk a payment from the government…

  15. KG says

    Many people are classified as Black who are not descendants of people enslaved in the U.S. Some are descended from people who immigrated from Africa or the Caribbean after 1865. (Some have ancestors who were enslaved in other countries but the responsibility of the U.S. for that is debatable.) – cervantes@9

    Both the North American colonies pre-independence, and the USA, profited enormously from the whole slavery+imperialism system that saw Europe – and especially Britain – rise to global dominance. See Padraic X. Scanlan Slave Empire, the eponymous empire being the British. Specifically, New England exported huge amounts of food, timber, and other goods (and re-exported Black slaves) to the Caribbean, in return for sugar, molasses (to make into rum) and cash, almost every square meter of the islands’ cultivable land having been turned over to sugar plantations. The “Revolutionary War” scarcely caused a hiccup, both sides agreeing immediately the independence of the USA was recognised that the trade should continue and indeed, expand.