It’s time once again to color outside the lines of our Eco-justice theme to address another “critical” matter that’s making local and national headlines. For as MLK Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Let’s begin by defining terms in the headline of this blog post:
Sham: bogus, false and deceitful
Slam: put down, impact and attack
CRT: an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy, and that emerged in the legal academy in the 1980’s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.
Dodge: evasion, scheme and contrivance
Truth: verity, fact and actuality
Reconciliation: equalization, cooperation and healing
Now, on to those local and national headlines of note. It’s not been a quiet few months on the campus of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, the Alma Mater of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Historically, when the oldest public university in the United States has made national headlines it was because of its prowess on the basketball court, as six NCAA men’s basketball championship banners hanging from the Dean Dome can attest. However, as of late that national attention has focused not upon athletic excellence on the basketball court, but rather on academic mischief on behalf of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees in the court of public opinion.
What should have been a slam dunk tenure process for acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones suddenly ‘went south’ (so to speak) when the Board of Trustees pulled out the old Dean Smith “Four Corners” (delay-the-game) tactic. Despite strong support from the chancellor, faculty and student body, the process was waylay-ed by the Board of Trustees following political pressure from influential conservatives who objected to her work on the 1619 Project for the New York Times magazine.
Long story short, the kerfuffle finally ended with a split decision from the Trustees to grant tenure. But by that point, the handwriting on the wall sent a clear message to Hannah-Jones. No longer did the motto of her once beloved Alma Mater ring true: Lux libertas (Light and liberty). The guiding light on the hill was growing dim and the freedom to speak truth to power waning. Better to go where one is “appreciated rather than tolerated,” she decided. In the end her own guiding light led her to the prominent black university with the motto “Veritas et Utilitas.” In the end “Truth and Service” won the day.
Go Howard Bisons!
As mentioned above, the burr under the Trustees’ saddle that led to the tenure turmoil was Hannah-Jones’ prominent role in writing the 1619 Project. 1619 was the year the first shipment of enslaved Africans landed at Port Comfort, in colonial Virginia. The project examines the role played by systemic racism in the formation of a new nation. (Learn more about the 1619 Project with this PBS News Hour interview of Nikole Hannah-Jones HERE.)
The project which won the Pulitzer Prize for The New York Times has been demonized by right wing media as of late and turned into ‘ground zero’ for the disinformation campaign over CRT. That dubious and devious crusade has spawned a fierce national backlash led by Republican state legislators that has spilled over into local school board meetings in North Carolina and across the nation. Over the past few months at least eight states have passed legislation banning the teaching of CRT in schools. Many more have similar plans to introduce them.
Here in North Carolina HB 324 mirrors the template for many similar bills promoted by Republican dominated legislatures across the land, bills that gin up false fear over a hyped up problem that honestly doesn’t exist. The reality is that the backlash against CRT is an attempt to preserve a whitewashed narrative of American history that avoids the whole truth that critical thinking lays bare. It also serves to stir up fear and resentment within a white base in advance of midterm elections. (For a deeper dive into this topic, check out the VOX article HERE and the Education Week article HERE.)
If knowledge is power, then lack of proper education and proliferation of disinformation and half truths leads to intellectual impotence. Throughout most of post Civil War southern history, events such as the 1898 massacre and coup of a legitimate Wilmington, NC reconstruction government voted in by black Americans were unknown to students being taught a sterilized version of American history.
And as Confederate statues/monuments are slowly removed from their reconstruction era pedestals, it is the generations-old whitewashed narrative of the “lost cause” that continues to spawn anger and defiance among many white southerners whose one-sided understanding of the reason for the placement of the monuments inhibits them from processing the whole truth. The whole truth is that most of these relics appeared long after the war was lost in response to progress made by black Americans during reconstruction. It is no mere coincidence that Confederate monuments and Jim Crow laws kept popping up like mushrooms in the same field. (Read the NPR story HERE.)
We began this blog with mention of the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure debacle at UNC-CH and the role the 1619 Project and CRT played in it. If any good is to come out of that, it will be because it has spurred not backlash but honest conversation that offers the hope of revealing whole truths that lead to reconciliation and cooperation. Let us end on that note of truth and reconciliation.
It was February 11, 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years behind bars, thus marking an end to South Africa’s four decade long apartheid government. It was then that a restorative justice body was established, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, to construct a healthful path forward. Closer to home in 2004 the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as an independent, democratically selected body seeking truth and healing transformation for Greensboro, NC, a city left divided and weakened by the events of Nov. 3, 1979.” (Read all about it HERE.)
Contentious current events and a divisive tribal mentality that pervades the nation unlike any time since the Civil War demand critical thinking about the truth of this nation’s history of systemic racial injustice. Without that we will never reach that aspirational goal of being “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We cannot experience the healing balm of reconciliation without first critically confronting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… so help us God.
So, help us, God! Amen