The Conservative Disinformation Campaign Against Nikole Hannah-JonesBreaking News
tags: University of North Carolina, academic freedom, tenure, 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones
Alice Marwick is a principal researcher at the University of North Carolina Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life and an associate professor in the Department of Communication.
Daniel Kreiss is a principal researcher at the University of North Carolina Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life and an associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
There was no reason to think Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure wouldn’t come through. Hannah-Jones, an acclaimed journalist, was recruited for a tenured Knight chair in race and investigative journalism in the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, a position designed to bring professionals to campus. With 20 years of newsroom experience, a Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur “genius” grant, Hannah-Jones’ case sailed through the lengthy and rigorous tenure process and was approved by the school, the university, and the provost. We both teach at UNC—Daniel at the Hussman school—and were thrilled to have Hannah-Jones on campus.
But then her tenure case reached the university’s conservative majority board of trustees, where it apparently lingered without action in a subcommittee. In the end, the board took the unprecedented step of refusing to hear the case at all. When the news became public, there was a large outcry. Hannah-Jones’ legal team gave the board of trustees until Friday to reconsider tenure. Why, despite all her qualifications, did the board of trustees refuse to grant Hannah-Jones tenure?
The answer seems to lie in conservative disinformation campaigns against Hannah-Jones, her influential 1619 Project, and the very idea of critical race theory. These disinformation campaigns muster false information, distorted stereotypes, and mischaracterizations as part of a long-term conservative battle against public higher education and the teaching of American racial history. Only by identifying these campaigns as disinformation can we counter them.
Debate and disagreement are at the heart of academia—but conservative disinformation campaigns are deliberately spread to advance particular political and ideological goals. In the Hannah-Jones case, the board was under tremendous pressure from local conservative groups and wealthy donors to intervene in the appointment. Hannah-Jones founded the New York Times’ 1619 Project, an effort to center the history and legacy of slavery and the experiences of Black Americans in U.S. history.
The 1619 Project is a pet target of right-wing media, who imagine it at the center of its latest liberal boogeyman, “critical race theory.” Critical race theory is a decades-old branch of scholarship that analyzes the role of race in American society. It tells us that racism is not simply a matter of individual prejudices or attitudes, but something structural and systemic, underpinned by institutions. Work that is informed by critical race theory, and the 1619 Project, asks us to hold broader systems accountable for the historical legacy of slavery in the United States, and understand how laws were created to maintain racial division and inequality.
In the past six months in particular, conservative think tanks, commentators, and news media have waged an all-out disinformation war on their version of critical race theory, which is a catch-all for diversity efforts, anti-racist education, “cancel culture,” and unconscious bias training—or any talk of racial inequality at all.
Conservatives have also cynically embraced widespread social concern over “polarization” and “declining trust” to cast Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project, and critical race theory as grave threats to American society. According to conservatives, critical race theory is a racist (aka anti-white) and “divisive” ideology that is so “dangerous” that it needs to be banned from K–12 classrooms. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stated in March that it is “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.” According to the Heritage Foundation, critical race theory undermines the United States by transforming it into “a nation riven by groups, each with specific claims on victimization,” which will weaken the “public and private bonds that create trust and allow for civic engagement.”
Unsurprisingly, these claims about critical race theory are wrong or exaggerated. They are often based on quotes taken out of context or from poorly conceived diversity training efforts—not the extensive body of serious scholarship about race and American history, institutions, and inequalities. Many of them build on long-standing antisemitic conspiracy theories about Marxism and the Frankfurt School (the group of German émigré intellectuals who were leading critical thinkers of mass culture, authoritarianism, and antisemitism during the WWII and postwar eras). And they tie into a much longer history of right-wing campaigns to undermine publicly funded higher education. In fact, one of the conservative organizations pressuring the UNC board of trustees about Hannah-Jones is devoted to scrutinizing North Carolina higher education for ideological bias, while promoting conservative free market ideology.
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