Nikole Hannah-Jones and the value in trading spaces

“I spent my entire life proving that I belonged in elite white spaces that were not built for Black people. I got a lot of clarity through what happened with the University of North Carolina. I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

This is how investigative journalist, Pulitizer Prize winner, former MacArthur Fellow, and would-be college professor Nikole Hannah-Jones let the world know she had options.

Hannah-Jones announced today on “CBS This Morning” that she had decided not to take the position offered to her by her alma mater, the University of North Carolina, after her qualifications for tenure were called into question by a conservative board member. While trustees ultimately voted to offer her a tenured position, the gesture was too little too late. “To be denied it (tenure) to only have that vote occur on the last possible day, at the last possible moment, after threat of legal action, after weeks of protest, after it became a national scandal, it’s just not something that I want anymore,” she said.

The controversy around her appointment was immediate, and triggered a national outcry and sparked wrenching conversations about the treatment of Black students and faculty at UNC and at college campuses across the U.S. 

So, Hannah-Jones opted out. Instead, she will be accepting the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at Howard University, joining the faculty along with fellow award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Both appointments are underwritten by a roughly $20 million donation from the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and an anonymous donor. 

So, she leaves the flagship university of the North Carolina public university system to do the work without her. The question that hangs in the air: Is what form will that work take? (Her never-to-be colleagues give us a snapshot in this searing open letter.)

It is a question now facing a wide variety of institutions from high schools (see news item below on the never-ending tortilla incident) to major employers.

Here’s just one slow-moving train wreck that hit the feeds over the weekend.

ESPN on-air talent Rachel Nichols, who is white, was forced to issue an on-air apology after audio leaked of her suggesting that fellow star Maria Taylor had gotten her job on the prominent show “NBA Countdown” because she is Black. Specifically, that she saw Taylor’s advancement as a personal takeaway from herself. “I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said a year ago. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”

The story is a mess, and hits amid long-standing complaints that ESPN leadership has done a poor job nurturing talent of color and handling allegations of undermining and racist behaviors. 

As they say in the television game, stay tuned. 

If we agree that we are fully in the thick of reckoning work, then we should expect more stories of organizations large and small struggling to transform their cultures. The current twist is how will they deal with the resistance of majority culture stakeholders who, like trustees at UNC and Nichols at ESPN, have yet to realize that when they say the quiet parts out loud, lots of people outside of their circles are listening — and weighing in.

From that perspective, Hannah-Jones’s “I didn’t want to do that anymore” statement offers an important guidepost going forward. While Black folks throwing up their hands and opting out is not a new phenomenon, the fact that it may now be a pressure point is. It’s an affirming, if exhausting development, and I hope a necessary lesson for early-stage allies who may only now begin to understand just how nascent their commitment truly is.

Ellen McGirt

On point

What is freedom if we’re not free? Errin Haines, editor at large at the 19th News, is one of the hardest working journalists in the profession, an early entrant into race beat coverage, and a role model for me. This piece, published in her capacity as contributing editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer, takes her back to her roots… and ours. Haines took the occasion of the Independence Day holiday to announce a new, reported series that acknowledges Philadelphia’s role in establishing the foundations of a fledgling nation, but also its role in ongoing harm. “But if our city has pioneered democracy, we must also acknowledge that it has also pioneered inequality,” she writes. Haines says that the year-long project will examine the foundational democratic institutions and specifically where their promise fails some Philadelphians. “[A]s a Black woman, there are other parts of our history that I think about as a Philadelphian, particularly questions over who gets to participate in our democracy and who gets to be an American.” The project will kick-off this fall. Click to get in the loop.
Philadelphia Enquirer

White supremacists attempted to take to the streets in Philadelphia on July 4 weekend The group of about 150-200 Patriot Front members self-deported from Texas, police reported, and marched in Philadelphia over the weekend, “clashing” with pedestrians and shouting slogans about reclaiming the country and the stolen presidential election. The group were dressed in tan shirts, black pants and face coverings, and waving flags. According to local police, the marchers were intimidated by Philadelphia residents, “who were none too happy about what they were saying. These males felt threatened, and, at one point, somebody in their crowd threw a type of smoke bomb to cover their retreat, and they literally ran away from the people of Philadelphia." This is the kind of jawn we need right now. Keep up the good work, Philly.
NBC Philadelphia

The high school sanctioned after basketball fans threw tortillas at the opposing team are fighting about race  We reported on this incident before the holiday. Turns out, the Coronado Unified School District has been struggling to find a workable course to teach and reflect racial justice amid a small but determined group of community members who don’t want staff to talk about race in school. Some have gone so far to say that the tortilla tossing was not racist, but designed to be a “celebration.” “The only racists I’ve encountered in my life are those that see everything through the filter of race,” wrote one parent on a public comment board. “Is that how you want to teach our children to think?” Others think that a small minority are overshadowing the wishes of the majority - last summer, more than 4,700 people signed a petition calling for Coronado schools to create a plan to address systematic racism.
San Diego Union-Tribune

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla

On background

Are you thinking of quitting your job? You’re not alone. According to a recent survey from Microsoft, some 41% of workers around the world are looking out the window dreaming of a different work pasture, and a record-setting 4 million people in the U.S. quit their jobs in April. We’re facing a “Great Resignation” say experts. Part of it is the angst of the pandemic, which has compelled people to re-think how they live and work. But some experts say it’s just a favorable job market. Either way, good luck with your diversity efforts if you force people back into the office.
Morning Brew

A delightful stereotype takes off Honestly, this isn’t much about anything, except it is an unexpected tribute to a different kind of sports legend. Gareth Southgate, the manager of England’s men’s national football team, is being credited with the strategy that helped the team, known as the Three Lions, into the semi-finals of Euro 2020. (Basically, doing his job.) While plenty of fans tweeted the praises of the players, quite a few jumped into a Twitter thread praising Southgate as their new, and utterly charming, “middle-aged crush.” What follows is a wishlist of supportive male partner behaviors that would be the envy of any established couple. “Gareth Southgate is the ultimate middle-aged crush. I just want him to drive me to a colonoscopy appointment then sit outside eating a scotch egg in dignified silence,” wrote comedy writer Madeleine Brettingham who kicked off the romantic thread. So dreamy.




Today's mood board

RaceAhead-Philadelphia BLM protest
Black Lives Matter protestors marched on after President Donald Trump's visit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the words of founding father and fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Franklin, “Pardoning the Bad, is injuring the Good.”(Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Tayfun Coskun—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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