OPINION: Hannah-Jones tenure case shows white people overvalued in academia

by Koritha Mitchell | @ProfKori | The Ohio State University
Tuesday, 13 July 2021 16:06 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Students sit on the steps of Wilson Library on the campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S., September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

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The disregard for her extraordinary accomplishments sparked conversation beyond academia because people of color experience this disrespect in every arena

By Koritha Mitchell, Professor of English at Ohio State University and author of Living with Lynching and From Slave Cabins to the White House and editor of Iola Leroy. 

The University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Trustees treated Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones like no other candidate for the Knight Chair professorship. But that was not a compliment.

She eventually declined UNC’s offer and announced that she would create an endowed Knight Chair at Howard University. The disregard for Hannah-Jones’s extraordinary accomplishments sparked conversation beyond academia because people of color experience this disrespect in every arena.

For Black women like me, this story was shocking only in scale and intensity. Otherwise, it was utterly familiar.

And, as always, public conversation missed the point.

To focus on the despicable treatment of exceptional members of marginalized groups is to ignore the problem. Addressing injustice requires tackling not just the unfair (negative) treatment of a few, but rather, the unearned (positive) treatment of the majority.

Institutions are not overwhelmingly white because white people are the best the world has to offer, but because every positive trait is attached to individuals simply because they are straight and/or white and/or male.

UNC’s actions expose injustices that are not at all unique to UNC. Because the ugliness is so widespread, what sustains it must be explicitly identified. Namely, institutions operate in ways that encourage everyone to treat white mediocrity as if it is merit and look directly at white villainy and see innocence (or a lack of bad intentions).

In Hannah-Jones’s case, “leaders” stood idle amidst a conservative think tank’s smear campaign, which continued earlier attacks on The 1619 Project. Such aggression and ineffectual “allies” are not unusual.

As a Ford Foundation fellow, I have spent the past sixteen years mentoring scholars of color in countless academic disciplines. They are some of the most successful researchers in their fields, but most have heartbreaking stories, full of reasons to leave their professions altogether. I have such stories myself.

When institutions function as designed, highly qualified people of color are diminished, denigrated, and pushed out. I’ve seen it happen in big and small ways every single day. It is insulting to “prove” the “merit” of obviously accomplished people of color, and it is often an exercise in futility—and that’s no accident.

Obsessing over whether candidates of color deserve a spot prevents everyone from noticing that white people get and keep positions without needing to be impressive at all.

Pay attention to the most common words and deeds of a space, and you’ll understand what shapes its culture. Notice, for instance, how members of marginalized groups supposedly obtain positions “because of affirmative action”. This assumption sets the stage for claiming someone is “a diversity hire” so that no one even bothers to reference their impressive credentials.

To similar effect, institutions love to report that four people of color were hired but never mention that, in the same time period, 17 white folks were hired. Never scrutinize the white people; they simply belong.

Having spent my life in predominantly white institutions, I know how they work, and I’ve never been shy about telling the truth.

In short, white people can consider themselves “good” and “decent” and worthy of every possible benefit and accolade without reference to objective standards. Indeed, objective standards exist primarily as a bludgeon to be used against “others”.

Within organizations, the same thing happens on a smaller scale that happened on a national stage with birtherism. Namely, an exceptionally successful member of a marginalized group (Barack Obama) has their credentials questioned by a white person (Donald Trump) whose own credentials are not an issue because being white is the only qualification that matters.

As an English professor, I study literature as well as discourses and practices— the words and deeds that create cultures, whether it’s a national culture or the culture of a workplace. I understand how spaces facilitate injustice: defending the qualifications of marginalized groups never creates change because it ensures that we ignore how few credentials white people need to enjoy success.

Cultures are man-made, so we can change them. Let’s do what we never have: require white people to hold themselves and each other to actual standards. As those who identify with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s experiences can attest, standards of basic decency and fair play would be a good start.

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