UNC mega-donor objected to Hannah-Jones essay on reparations for slavery

In the Policy Watch interview with Walter Hussman Jr. published Thursday, the Arkansas-based media magnate and UNC-Chapel Hill mega-donor details his opposition to the hiring of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones as the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

Walter Hussman Jr.

As Policy Watch has reported extensively, vocal conservative opposition to Hannah-Jones and The 1619 Project led to the current crisis over the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ failure to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. Previous Knight Chair professors were tenured upon their appointment. Hussman’s behind-the-scenes conversations with top university officials were first reported by digital magazine The Assembly on Sunday.

This week, Hussman talked with Policy Watch about the objections to her work that he says drove his reservations about Hannah-Jones teaching at the school that bears his name. Among them are now familiar criticisms of the historical accuracy of The 1619 Project and Hussman’s belief that Hannah-Jones regularly takes sides on issues of public controversy — something Hussman believes is against the core principles of good journalism.

But Hussman also zeroed in on something less theoretical: his political and philosophical objections to Hannah-Jones’ writing on reparations to Black Americans for slavery.

Hussman specifically pointed to Hannah-Jones’s New York Times Magazine cover story from June 30 of last year, headlined “What is Owed.”

“When I read it, I had to read it a couple of times,” Hussman said. “Because I was kind of…well, I just had to read it a couple of times.”

Hussman said he devoted one of his five emails to UNC officials to the essay and his questions about it. Policy Watch has not seen that email, but Hussman described it in the interview.

“She was saying we need to use some of the funds to build Black communities and have schools that are largely Black,” Hussman said. “And I thought, ‘Wait a minute… what happened about the Civil Rights movement? What about Martin Luther King?’ I don’t know exactly… there may be some nuance to what she was saying there but I thought, ‘Holy Cow.’ I know there are people who advocate Black separatism, you know, in America. I don’t know if she’s one of them but I said, ‘Here are her words. What do they mean?'”

But the text of Hannah-Jones’s piece does not appear to argue for building largely Black schools, exclusive Black communities or any sort of racial separatism. In fact, the piece argues any form of reparations should include enforcement of existing civil rights laws that prohibit housing, employment and educational discrimination that enable segregation in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and industries.

From the essay itself:

“Reparations would go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery. Reparations should include a commitment to vigorously enforcing existing civil rights prohibitions against housing, educational and employment discrimination, as well as targeted investments in government-constructed segregated black communities and the segregated schools that serve a disproportionate number of black children. But critically, reparations must include individual cash payments to descendants of the enslaved in order to close the wealth gap.

The technical details, frankly, are the easier part. The real obstacle, the obstacle that we have never overcome, is garnering the political will — convincing enough Americans that the centuries-long forced economic disadvantage of black Americans should be remedied, that restitution is owed to people who have never had an equal chance to take advantage of the bounty they played such a significant part in creating.

This country can be remarkably generous. Each year Congress allocates money — this year $5 million — to help support Holocaust survivors living in America. In backing the funding measure, Representative Richard E. Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in 2018 that this country has a “responsibility to support the surviving men and women of the Holocaust and their families.” And he is right. It is the moral thing to do. And yet Congress has refused for three decades to pass H.R. 40, a bill to simply study the issue of reparations. Its drafter, Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat and descendant of enslaved Americans, died in 2019 — during the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans enslaved in Virginia — without the bill ever making it out of committee.

There are living victims of racial apartheid and terrorism born in this country, including civil rights activists who lost their homes and jobs fighting to make this country a democracy, who have never received any sort of restitution for what they endured. Soon, like their enslaved ancestors, they will all be dead, too, and then we’ll hear the worn excuse that this country owes no reparations because none of the victims are still alive. Darity and Mullen call this the ‘delay until death’ tactic. Procrastination, they say, does not erase what is owed.”

Much of Hannah-Jones’s most celebrated journalism — including work that won her a MacArthur “Genius” grant, the George Polk and George Foster Peabody awards and multiple National Magazine Awards — is about the necessity of school integration, not separatism.

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