Conservative Backlash against the 1619 Project
On Monday I wrote of the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission Report. The 1776 Commission was hastily assembled by a worried Trump administration in opposition to the 1619 Project. The 1776 Report seems meant to prevent ideas about race and slavery that the Report’s authors considered dangerous. The story of this conflict doesn’t end with the 1776 Report. According to some powerful, monied folk, people who write history like the 1619 Project and gain national prominence with it must be brought to heel. They must not be afforded a secure platform from which to teach, especially not in a university in the southern United States.
Nikole Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work as prime mover and lead author behind the 1619 Project. She is the recipient of fourteen other awards and fellowships, including a MacArthur Foundations Fellowship. Earlier this year Hannah-Jones was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
For years conservatives have been denigrating “experts” and “elites” at our universities while claiming that a university education is a dangerous indoctrination (excepting, of course, Christian conservative institutions like Hillsdale College and Liberty University). Rarely, though, do these claims spill out into open cultural warfare, they way they have over the 1619 Project.
According to NC Policy Watch, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a strong candidate for a tenured professorship as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina, was backed by the university’s dean, chancellor, and faculty.
After the publication of the 1619 Project and the alarm it stirred among powerful conservatives, offering a tenured position to an uppity Black women at a university in the south, no matter how well-recommended, qualified, and supported, warranted drastic action—even if the news of that action might spill out. Adam Serwer at The Atlantic writes:
…in an extraordinary move, the board of trustees declined to act on that recommendation. Hannah-Jones was instead offered a five-year, nontenured appointment following public and private pressure from conservatives. Notably, other Knight Chairs at the journalism school have been tenured on its professional track, which acknowledges “significant professional experience” rather than traditional academic scholarship. Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer and MacArthur genius grant surely qualify.
The denial of tenure is significant. For an academic, nontenure is a short leash, especially for a position for which tenure is customarily granted. That leash declares, “You will censor your ideas, won’t you…” Mr. Serwer goes on:
If you’ve taken recent debates about free speech and censorship at face value, you might find Hannah-Jones’s denial of tenure deeply confusing. For the past five years, conservatives have been howling about the alleged censoriousness of the American left, in particular on college campuses. But the denial of tenure to Hannah-Jones shows that the real conflict is over how American society understands its present inequalities.
The prime value of 1619 Project is that it jump started a valuable and needed conversation about our history—a conversation that conservatives want to control by diminishing the author, denigrating the scholarship, and re-stating their own mythological version of our history.
For an extended discussion of the higher level controversy among historians around the 1619 Project I highly recommend Adam Serwer’s Atlantic article, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts.” It strikes me that the conversation the 1619 Project has sparked might lead to a very healthy re-evaluation of our past and present—a re-evaluation that many conservatives, happy with the old narrative, don’t want to have.
Keep to the high ground,